If you want to improve your running technique so that you are lighter on your feet (your ankles, shins, knees and hips will be very grateful), there is no better way than taking off those shoes and feeling the ground beneath you. This might be all you do barefoot – some training drills, some sprints, maybe a bit of interval training. Every extra bit of core activation, increased proprioception and improvement you make in your technique will add value to your running, no matter what footwear you choose to wear. As physiotherapists its important to us that you make any changes safely and comfortably. While there will always be some muscle stiffness when you are pushing your boundaries – there has to be in order to get stronger, hurting is not part of the plan.
Now barefoot running is not new – but because it is not the current western social convention it is not without controversy. Keeping your developing child out of shoes for as much and as long as possible is widely researched and recommended by the medical fraternity, so what’s so scary about adults running barefoot, or in minimalist footwear from a biomechanics point of view?
From a biomechanics point of view, our anatomy is perfect. It took tens of thousands of generations to get that way making our species the most efficient endurance athletes on the planet. It may just be that we have forgotten what we have. It’s time to learn how to run again.
There are actually a few reasons worth looking at why some people struggle to transition into minimalist / barefoot running and why some get injured. They can be summarised into 3 categories – overuse (too much too soon), baggage (what condition you are in to start with), and technique (pounding the pavement).
Overuse injuries are not new to running, and generally involve our heads not listening to our bodies. If it hurts, don’t run through it! Do some cross training such as Pilates, cycling, swimming or aqua-jogging or have a rest day. If you are concerned get some professional advice. The general rule in increasing your speed and distance safely while running is 10% per week. So 10% faster or 10% further is calculated as the safest way to progress. Everybody is different, but it is valuable to keep that in mind. If you are new to running, get a program and don’t do more than the program recommends. A great option is the Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robbilard (free PDF version).
When we are used to holding a certain alignment / position for example having your heel raised by 4 cm such as in regular trainers, your Achilles tendons (TA’s) have effectively shortened their range of motion by this amount. If you run, walk around and go to work in similarly raised heels, this effect is compounded even more. And it doesn’t just stop at the TA’s – your whole body has compensated to hold this posture for however many years you have been moving around in this position.
When changing this fundamental standing and running posture, your entire body has to adapt to the change. This will take time, and it may take a lot of time. A range of 6 weeks if you are very dedicated, on the younger side of middle aged and relatively fit and up to 2 years if you have many changes that need to be made.
It’s worth doing it properly; joining a coaching session to have a look at proper technique, reading a book, practicing some training drills and getting a stronger core, it will go a long way in increasing your enjoyment and comfort at whichever level you run.
If you want to get faster than your program allows – cross train, cycling, and especially swimming will increase your fitness levels quickly and safely. Try aqua-jogging too. An unbelievably great strengthening tool (not limited to the older generation, but also used by elite athletes in many sporting disciplines). Having respect for your body – taking your time, doing your homework and improving your style will allow you to safely include elements of barefoot running into your program or if you love the freedom as much as we do – fully embrace it!