Barefootin’: Let Feet Go Naked and Natural
May 31, 2011 08:07AM
● By Jason Robillard
Many folks, like me, started barefoot running on a whim. In 2005, I was just an aspiring runner searching for some method to escape chronic injuries involving plantar fasciitis, shin splints and back pain. I never expected to fall in love with this revolutionary approach to recreational running.
Today, according to the AdWords keyword tool the term “barefoot running” is searched on Google some 90,000 times a month by those seeking more information, including from websites like guru Ken Bob Saxton’s TheRunningBarefoot.com and my own BarefootRunningUniversity.com. Even the sports footwear industry has taken notice, with most manufacturers adding “minimalist shoes” to their lines that allow individuals to run in a more natural manner.
This paradigm shift in the running world has created a new wave of research, focused on the principles of barefoot running. Dr. Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has published one of the most influential studies on the topic. In 2010, he and his colleagues discovered that there is no need for the overly cushioned running shoes that have dominated the market for a quarter century. Rather, he concluded, the naked human foot is more than capable of dissipating the forces generated by running.
A study published last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by researchers at the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre, at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, questioned the entire shoe-fitting process. While monitoring women that were training for a half marathon, the authors found that common motion-control shoes caused more pain than neutral shoes that do not control natural foot movement. They concluded that, “Our current approach of prescribing in-shoe pronation [the inward rolling of the foot] control systems on the basis of foot type is overly simplistic and potentially injurious.”
Feet that are mostly confined inside restrictive, padded shoes tend to grow weak and deformed, according to Dr. William Rossi. We can save our children from this fate by purchasing proper shoes that allow freedom of movement. The American Podiatric Medical Association recommends “... lightweight, flexible footwear made of natural materials.” The goal is to wear shoes that do not interfere with natural foot function.
Thus, the latest thinking is that wearing a modern, cushioned, motion-control running shoe is not necessarily the best solution for everyone. Trusting our own body may be a better answer. That’s the mantra of the grandfather of the movement, Ken Bob Saxton, a veteran of 77 barefoot marathons. His stance is clear: “Our own feet are our best running coaches.”
Ted MacDonald, another mentor to many advocates via Barefootted.com, agrees, saying, “Barefoot running is about tuning in to your own body’s highly sophisticated set of integrated awareness systems, which communicate through feelings and senses that are being collected in real-time as you move.”
Critics of barefoot running point out that no conclusive clinical study has yet been done that contrasts injury rates between barefoot and shod runners. While researchers investigate this dynamic, anecdotal evidence from barefoot runners continues to support the beneficial nature of the practice.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph Froncioni offers a helpful analogy. He likens the use of the modern running shoe to our reliance on baby formula in the mid-20th century. Through clever marketing and the endorsement of the medical community, baby formula manufacturers convinced the American public that their formula was superior to a mother’s natural breast milk. A few decades later, research totally disproved the claim.
Modern barefoot runners are encouraged by the example of Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, who routinely run up to a hundred miles at a time, wearing thin, flat sandals they make out of used tires and leather straps.
Of course, there are some conditions under which running shoes can be highly advantageous, such as on rough trails or in extreme temperatures. In these cases, a minimalist shoe that allows the body to run in the most natural manner can work well. That generally means flat-soled shoes without a raised heel, but with a wide toe box that allows toes to spread out; these are typically made of lightweight, flexible materials.
For anyone interested in barefoot running, learning about it may be as simple as kicking off your shoes. Most people can successfully make the transition by reacting to the tactile feedback they receive from the ground or other amenable surface. Everyone will benefit from these few basic tips from the experts:
- Keep an upright posture
- Take very short, light, quick steps
- Land on the ball of the foot, and then gently allow the heel to touch the surface
- Keep knees bent and arms and legs relaxed
- Be patient; start with a quarter-mile and then slowly increase distance
Barefoot running allows individuals to push their limits and reach new running goals. So, try taking your shoes off and have some fun!
Jason Robillard is a barefoot running instructor, founder of Barefoot Running University, co-founder of the Barefoot Runners Society and author of The Barefoot Running Book. He also consults for the shoe industry. Watch for news of his family’s cross-county tour this summer at BarefootRunningUniversity.com and their blog, RobillardAdventures.com.