There is a lot of talk about so-called ‘barefoot running’ in fitness circles these days. What is behind the trend?
What is barefoot running?
Among runners there is a certain amount of debate about what qualifies as barefoot running. Depending on who you ask there are a number of different answers. Obviously one of those answers is running without any kind of footwear – however this is an extreme position even among barefoot running enthusiasts.
As far as ‘barefoot’ footwear goes, the key is minimalism. Here again opinion is divided on what counts – simple sandals for some, ‘foot-gloves’ for others, or even light weight, flat-soled running shoes.
Why do it?
The ‘biomechanics’ of running are at the heart of why barefoot running is evangelised by some. Put simply, it is claimed that by running barefoot or barefoot style in minimal shoes you are at less risk of adopting a running style that can contribute to common running injuries.
No discussion of barefoot running can avoid the mention of ‘Born to Run’. This book by Christopher McDougall (it is a great read if you have never read it by the way) mentions a very surprising correlation – a link between expensive running shoes and running injuries.
Heavily padded running shoes are a great money-spinner for footwear companies, but they may not be the best for running. This is for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being that they enable a style of running known as ‘heel striking’, where the heel is the first part of the foot to make contact with the ground, rather than the front/middle portion of the foot. Heel striking is thought to increase the incidence of knee and other problems.
Barefoot proponents claim that another detrimental aspect of padded running shoes is arch support. The natural strength of the arches of the feet is undermined, so they say, by having support underneath it.
Whatever side of the barefoot debate you ultimately come down on, there are a couple of salient facts that can’t be disputed. These are that humans have been running for tens of thousands of years – and that for most of that time they did not have expensive padded running shoes to do it in.
How to start
As with all running it is important to avoid the so-called ‘terrible toos’. These are where you go too far, too fast, too soon or too often – and then find your training set back by injury. Even if you are an experienced runner it is important to transition to barefoot or minimalist running gradually and to be cautious of running injuries.
Different surfaces are easier to run on without shoes. Grass is the easiest, and gravel probably the hardest. If you are running fully barefoot it will take time to toughen up the callouses on the bottom of your feet to the point where you can long distances across a variety of surfaces.
As well as building callouses a person transitioning to barefoot running will need to strengthen muscles in their feet and ankles. Doing barefoot laps of local playing fields is one way to do this.
Many runners who are happy to run in shoes otherwise will include an element of barefoot running in their weekly schedule. Running barefoot on grass once a week can be a good way to build strength in the feet and ankles in order to supplement other training.
Despite the challenges there are two things that mean taking up barefoot running that little bit easier. The first is that it requires even less equipment than regular running (though of course you can spend as much as you like on minimalist footwear if you are so inclined), the second is that you will automatically adopt a sound running style, because doing it wrong will hurt quickly!
Simon Grant credits jogging with getting him into better shape and stopping smoking. He is not very fast.