Barefoot running & walking

July 28, 2010

I’ve long been a fan of walking barefoot for the health benefits. The stimulation the feet receive in barefoot walking is enough reason alone, in my book.

But barefoot running? When I first heard of it, I thought it would be a passing fad. But the testimonies of some close friends and also Hellerwork colleague David Murphy made me think again and take a closer look.

Most of us land heel first, both walking and running. Barefoot running theory believes shoes have made our feet “dumb”…all that thick padding encourages heel striking, especially in the heels of typical running shoes. Without shoes, most people will naturally avoid landing on the heel. It’s simply too painful to land on the heel when running barefoot.

NPR ran an excellent article about barefoot running that eased the part of me that thought this would be an over-hyped fad.

While reading this article, I had an “aha!” moment. Suddenly, I saw a big part of the ingenious design of the foot I had been missing. Landing on the heel does not absorb much shock…the shock gets sent up the leg into the knee, hip and spine. Landing on the forefoot allows the 33 joints in the foot to flex, absorb the shock into ligaments and then release the energy stored in those ligaments as usable energy up into the leg. Over 100 muscles mobilize those 33 joints and when we land on our heels, those muscles don’t get used in a way they were designed to work.

In fact, I’ve been experimenting while walking, trying to land forefoot first whenever I have shoes on. It’s really hard to do! I mean it just doesn’t feel as natural to do as without anything on my feet. I think a large part of this is due to habit because as I continue practicing, it is becoming easier to do.

If you decide to give barefoot running a try, a bit of advice:

  • Don’t run more than 5 minutes your first time, unless you want to be miserable the next day. You will be using your feet and legs in ways they are not used to and it will take some time to adjust.
  • Go fully barefoot for a while before rushing out to purchase the Vibram Five Fingers or other minimalist shoes. This will give you valuable feedback from your feet and help you develop your barefoot running strength slowly. You want to land on the forefoot first, finishing gently on your heel. You also want none to little scuffing, twisting or other unnecessary foot movements. The reason is blisters, and if you get them, you’re out of running commission until they heal. Running in any sort of shoes will limit your sensations of how you are using your feet and therefore you may be prone to overdo it too easily.
  • Pain: Some muscle soreness the next day (especially when you first start) is normal. But pain that “doesn’t feel right” is a sign to respect. The pain may be due to your form, if so, seek some qualified instruction. The pain may be also coming from doing more than your body can handle right now. When I started, I found 5 minutes was too much and that 2-3 minutes was ideal. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones in your feet are being used very differently during barefoot running. It will take some time. Think in terms of months, not days or weeks.

Since we spend most of our time walking,I highly recommend watching David’s video giving a lesson on how to walk with greater ease without landing heel first.

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