Baby, you were born to run, barefoot?

Lately there has been a lot of interest in barefoot running, or running with minimalist footwear on. I think it would be really great to provide some quality general information about this for those considering the idea of running either barefoot or in something minimalist like Vibram Five Fingers.

In general I am a big fan of the concept that getting “back to the basics” is usually the healthy thing to do. I prefer my food unprocessed and whole. I like my exercise to be simple and functional. The idea of running barefoot has a certain appeal to it – after all, our ancestors managed to flee from man-eating predators without the benefit of $100 running shoes. But, does running without shoes on (or with minimal footwear) actually do us any good, or is it a dangerous fad that leads to injuries?

Before I delve into the topic at hand – running without traditional running shoes – I will quickly discuss the options available. You can either drop the footwear entirely and go barefoot, or you can go with a minimalist option like Vibram footwear. The minimalist choice will provide some protection to the soles of your feet, but will rob your body of the biggest form of feedback as you run – the feedback from the soles of your feet. Being barefoot will give your body and nervous system more input and more control, which is great for mastering something new like ditching the running shoes. So there is a trade-off you must make between the protection that minimalist footwear provides and the neural feedback and increased neuromuscular control that being barefoot provides. Also, being barefoot allows your feet to breathe and sweat more freely, and develop more strength and control in the small intrinsic muscles of your feet.

Some proponents of barefoot running claim that running barefoot as our ancestors did is healthier for our feet. One reason is that when running without shoes the outside front of the foot takes a lot of the impact, while running with shoes on leads to high-impact heel strikes, with the person placing all their weight on the heel and then pushing off from the forefoot. Without shoes on the runner will not land on their heel with such force, as this would be painful to do without shoes, and will instead use the front of the foot to provide most of the immediate shock absorbing and ground contact.

One way in which the foot is marvelously designed is the ability of it to absorb impact from running with minimal force being transferred to the knees, hips, or low back. This process of shock absorption built into our bodies was built in when we were evolving and when there was no such thing as modern footwear with thick cushioning. Now that we tightly encase our feet and provide padding underneath, we are able to land on our heels and run like we do currently. Unfortunately, this heel-striking that shod running promotes bypasses the natural shock-absorbing that occurs between the toes and heel, and transfers increased force up the legs to our knees. Being barefoot involves the entire foot to a greater degree than wearing shoes does, and allows our feet to work as designed and dissipate forces right there at the level of the foot. Put simply, being barefoot allows the body to function as designed with regard to shock-absorption.

Now, while words are great they are certainly no substitute for real world experience. So, if you are interested in the topic of barefoot running then you should stand up and go outside and run a hundred feet or so with shoes on. Really focus on how your feet are meeting the ground. You will notice that your heel is what hits the ground first, and then you push off with the front of your foot. Now, take your shoes off and find somewhere without too many rocks (or any dog poo or broken glass) and run a hundred feet barefoot. You might notice that landing on your heel hurts when you’re barefoot, and your feet might be more comfortable with you landing on the front of your foot and not even having your heel touch the ground at all.

This is a completely different biomechanical situation. Running with shoes means your heel strikes and then your foot flattens briefly as you transition weight onto the forefoot, and then you push off the front. Without shoes the heel strike shouldn’t occur to such a degree, and the force with which your foot strikes the ground will feel less forceful. It will seem a bit like “tip-toeing” as you run.

When your foot hits the ground, heel first, this causes all the muscles, bones, and joints in your leg and hips to react in a specific fashion to maintain stability and provide speed and strength. Running without shoes changes that biomechanical process so that there are different forces and stresses on your entire body, from your toes all the way to the top of your spine. As in any change in life, it is important to take it slowly and safely.

This is an important concept to focus on for a moment. Think of the force that is transmitted up your legs and into your spine as you run with a high-impact heel strike, and then think of the force transmitted up your body with the lower-impact forefoot strike that running barefoot promotes. Decreased mechanical forces putting load on our spines is a good thing. The benefit of diminished force being places on our skeleton and our joints is something that, as a runner, you will need to weigh carefully against the ability of your body to adapt to running without shoes and the different biomechanical forces that your feet and legs will be exposed to. If you can run without shoes on and gradually decrease shoe-usage in order to prevent injury, then it is certainly a good possibility that ditching the shoes and letting the feet breathe will be good for your body.

You don’t need to go from shoes to no shoes, though. There is a middle ground. Different shoe companies are all introducing minimalist footwear. One major brand is the Vibram Five Fingers. They provide barely anything in the way of support for your ankle and foot, but they do have a decent amount of padding on the bottom to protect you from sharp rocks or glass without providing so much padding that it’s like wearing shoes.

If you are going to try out barefoot running, or running with minimal footwear, then it is important that you do it correctly to avoid injury. Some tips include:

  • It might be a good idea to just go barefoot at home, or as you do your day-to-day activities, to accustom your body to the lack of protection and support.
  • Start slowly – if you normally go 3 miles each time you run, do only the last ½ mile barefoot.
  • Slowly (and I do mean slowly) add distance or time to your routine, so that you do not shock the body and cause an injury. Taking a month or more to transition to barefoot is a minimum, in my opinion.
  • Stop at the first sign of pain!
  • When running barefoot pay special attention to lifting your feet off the ground as opposed to throwing your feet into the ground in front of you. Run “lightly” without plodding or slamming the foot down.
  • You might notice yourself taking shorter strides – this is normal.
  • Be aware of how your entire body feels after running barefoot – that mans the soles of your feet, your ankles, your knees, your hips and low back, and anything else that feels different.

If you don’t get into barefoot running slowly, you may very well get sidelined by an injury that will make running – with or without shoes – painful and difficult. Some possible injuries include:

  • Pain in the calf or Achilles tendon – because shoes raise the heel off the ground a bit this chronically shortens the calf muscles, and when running barefoot this can overstretch this muscle before it learns to become more stretched naturally. Achilles and calf problems can then lead to…
  • Plantar fasciitis – pain at the sole of the foot that is worse when stretched, or worse n the morning when you first step out of bed.
  • Soreness on the topside of the foot – likely from shifting conditions of muscles, bones and joints in the feet as you get used to running without shoes.
  • Bruising or other injuries from pebbles or other things you may step on.
  • Sprained ankles – keeping your ankles surrounded by padding is good for preventing sprains, but is bad for developing neuromuscular control of the ankle, so transitioning too quickly to non-traditional footwear may lead to sprains if you aren’t careful.
  • Stress fractures – some people have reported getting stress fractures in their foot bones from jumping into barefoot running without proper preparation.

So, to summarize, running barefoot can be a great way to strengthen your feet and legs and to develop the small muscles of your feet. This can benefit your entire body by providing a more stable base and by decreasing wear and tear on your knees and other joints. It also carries risk, though, because you must ease into this new style of running slowly and deliberately, being mindful of pain and always listening to your body as it adapts to the world of barefoot running.

At Park Bench Chiropractic we adjust the spine first and foremost, but we also pay attention to the joints of your arms and legs – including ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Before you transition to less footwear, or throughout that transition, we encourage you to come in and have either Dr. Matt or Dr. Rob evaluate your lower extremity for joint imbalances that could make it more difficult for you to make the change, or to see if the change is even something that is right for you.

Feel free to call or stop by Park Bench Chiropractic if you want to talk about this with one of the doctors.

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