The Case of Barefoot Running
By Benita Kropman
The whole concept of barefoot running has become increasingly popular over the last year and I receive numerous emails from athletes asking how to progress from normal running shoes to barefoot or barefoot-shoes.
It is important to first understand that the foot and lower leg were designed to move, and not to be stuck in stabilizing- or motion control-shoes. The foot consists of many little bones and joints, all eager to perform specific movements, including a lot of rotation.
Most ordinary shoes on the market as well as running shoes are rigid, allowing hardly any normal movement, causing malfunction of the foot, which again cause malfunction of all the joints and muscles higher up in the body.
When running barefoot, the foot lands on the front part of the foot. The ankle is in plantar flexion (pointing downwards), and the knee in slight flexion, which means that the Plantar Fascia, calf and Achilles are all in a shortened position (the strongest position), and are able to supply the body with the necessary shock absorption to protect the joints.
When running in a normal running shoe, with a heel of around 24mm, the foot lands on the heel. The ankle is in dorsiflexion and the knee in full extension. This puts the Plantar Fascia, calf and Achilles in a lengthened and therefore weakened position, robbing the body from its natural shock absorption.
Prior to the ‘evolution’ of the running shoe around 35 years ago, runners were using completely flat shoes. They were landing on the front foot, had great shock-absorption and not many injuries. When Nike developed the ‘new advanced running shoe’, now adding a heel to the shoe, they soon realized that they had to add a lot of shock absorption to their shoes to try fend of the ever increasing shin splints, stress fractures, knee issues etc. Soon more injuries arrived and shoes were made more rigid to stabilize the foot. As the runner’s feet became weaker and the body was less able to interpret information from the foot, athletes started to over-pronate and ante-pronation shoes appeared on the market. By splinting the foot even more, the whole leg became weaker, which called podiatrists into the runner’s market and athletes were advised to support their ever increasing weaknesses even more by using orthotics.
Most athletes are aware of the typical injuries they come across when moving from ordinary running shoes to spikes on the track or to racers. No-one realized that they have been doing all their base training in normal running shoes, weakening their calves and then as soon as they start their speed training, they move into a flat shoe which forces them onto the front foot, but without any calf strength. This is the ONLY reason why spikes and racers ’cause’ injuries.
You cannot base train on a heel strike shoe and then expect to do quality training in the non-conditioned front-foot-strike position!
So how do you repair the damage caused by running in orthotics and rigid over-structured shoes?
1) First strengthen and mobilize your feet by walking barefoot or in barefoot-shoes like the Vibramfivefingers.
2) At the same time, buy a flexible midfoot-strike shoe with a medium heel (around 15mm) to start strengthening the Plantar Fascia, calf and Hamstrings.
There are quite a few flexible neutral shoes on the market of which I will name a few:
Inov8 Arrow 2
Nike Run Free
Start by running every 3rd day in your flexible shoes, allowing the muscles in the foot and calf to recover in between. You will know that you can progress to every 2nd day when your calf and foot starts to loose their stiffness after a day. Eventually you will do all your runs in the flexible shoes. This period of preparing the foot and calf should take at least 12 weeks.
Notice no quality training!
3) You are now ready to advance to the natural front foot strike. Again follow the same routine, first every 3rd day, then every 2nd day and eventually your body will be strong enough to supply its own shock absorption.
Barefoot-shoes include racers, Vibramfivefingers, and all running shoes with no heel and a totally flexible sole.
Do keep in mind that barefoot runners DO NOT STRETCH THEIR CALF MUSCLES because they know that their calf is their strength and a lengthened calf looses its function. Runners in heel-strike shoes normally have lengthened and weak calf muscles. The weaker the calf, the more it will cramp and the more they stretch it…. a vicious circle.
Running barefoot will not only reduce your risk of injuries but will also make you a lot faster. You cannot run fast without strong calf muscles.