September 2011, Xtend-Life Expert
Running barefoot is the most natural form of running you can do. You see it all starts with the human foot. It's an amazing work of art, structurally sophisticated and yet perfectly suited to support the body while moving. It's hardly surprising that the foot contains so many bones, muscles and tendons.
I recently wrote an entry about barefoot running. It received a few comments and some people asked me to discuss my progression from running shoes to the barefoot technique.
Well, being a fan of running I first heard about the movement towards barefoot running a few years ago. Initially I was shocked, the impact alone on the feet and joints must be incredibly painful.
"I wouldn't last 100 yards let alone the miles and miles covered by barefoot runners every day," I thought.
However, I soon found out why running barefoot is the most natural form of running you can do...
You see it all starts with the human foot. It's an amazing work of art...structurally sophisticated and yet perfectly suited to support the body while moving. It's hardly surprising that the foot contains so many bones, muscles and tendons.
Now consider our natural running stride...it involves landing on the ball of each foot or at least the middle of each foot, instead of the heel. This 'heel-strike' is experienced by as many as 75 percent of all Americans who regularly run as part of their fitness regime.
Like most people I'm used to wearing shoes...especially when running. It's obvious that modern running shoes have been designed to make heel-striking easy and more comfortable. The padded heel cushions the force of the impact, making heel-striking less punishing.
It's almost as if we've been pre-conditioned into thinking that running barefoot is something unnatural and only done by those who have an interest in self-inflicted pain.
However, barefoot running is as natural as your 'birthday suit'...it's what makes you human. In barefoot running, you land on the balls of your feet - almost as if you're running on your toes - an area of the foot better suited for arching, flexing and extending than the heel.
In fact, the hardest part about barefoot running is trying to erase the inefficiencies of your lower leg muscles and re-training your body to run how it did many centuries before sports shoes and high heels were invented.
Moving from running shoes to barefoot wasn't easy for me but it wasn't difficult either. I knew that in order to run on the balls of my feet, I would need to mentally focus on my running gait and avoid a heel-strike at all costs. I also knew that this would mean my lower legs would be using their muscles, ligaments and tendons in a totally different manner.
The workload and strain may be placed on those components that were meant to carry the load from birth, but I grew up in the 80s and sports shoes were taking the market by storm...the result is that those physiological components in my legs and feet were always there, but they weren't conditioned at all.
If I was going to run barefoot, I would have to take it slow and steady in the beginning and build up the strength and endurance in those muscles and tendons to ensure my energy was being spent on my cardiovascular system...not on my brain worrying about the aches in my legs and feet.
The first day I ran barefoot was awkward. It was on the open fairways of my local golf course (sports fields and other grass covered surfaces are just as good) before the golfers started playing. I can't remember much of the run because the only thing going through my head at the time was trying avoid heel-striking, keeping a slow steady pace and trying to maintain my normal breathing.
The next morning my calves and shins were a bit stiff but my feet felt fine. I warmed up and stretched and continued like I did the day before at the same pace and rhythm. My lower leg muscles still ached a bit and although I stretched them pretty good after each run, I knew the next day would probably be a little worse.
It was...but not unbearable and I never felt as if anything was going pull or tear so I carried on. After two weeks my legs felt normal so I gradually increased my pace and distance each week for about 6 weeks in total. By that stage I was already improving on my 5 and 10km times...barefoot.
Now when I say barefoot, I do indeed run without anything on my feet. I'm fortunate to live in a city that has a park or field in virtually every suburb with the nearby beach in close walking distance.
However, I understand that many people live in cities where the ground is less forgiving in terms of hot concrete, not to mention broken glass, cigarette stubs, syringe needles and many other potential hazards lying around.
With this in mind, it's important to wear footwear that simulates the barefoot feel but provides protection to the soles of your feet. There are a few brands on the market which you could use if you don't live near a park or beach.
The key to barefoot running is to start off slow and steady and avoid the temptation of running at your usual pace and distance. Run short distances before gradually increasing them and always ensure that you warm up and cool down after each session. Give your muscles the recovery they need and don't overexert them.
Barefoot running may not be for everyone but it's definitely worth a try...you've got nothing to lose and everything to gain in terms of fitness, running efficiency and overall health.