The barefoot running trend has become very popular these days, and many people have had serious injuries because of it. What is going on?
We must first understand some basic physics. Have you ever looked at an archway such as a bridge? I am sure you have. When you look at it you will notice that there are not support beams in the archway itself; that would weaken the structure. As gravity pulls down, the structure actually becomes stronger.
Or have you seen leaf-springs in truck suspension before? They compress and de-compress based on the load and terrain. You do not find coil springs on a leaf-sprung truck, that would be counter intuitive (ok, some will do front coil, rear leafs, etc.)
With running, the foot arch is like a bridge and a leaf spring. It becomes stronger as more weight is applied and it compresses and de-compresses based on the load for a smooth ride. Like a bridge, if you were to put in a support beam in the middle of the arch, the arch would actually lose strength. And like a truck’s leaf springs, if you put coil springs on top of the leafs, it would not function properly. We don’t do this on bridges and trucks, why do we do this to our feet every day?
Arch support in a shoe is like putting arch support on a bridge. It weakens the structure. Modern shoes have very stiff arches which do not allow the leaf spring of the foot to actually work. Thus, with a non-movable leaf spring, they have now added “coils” to the shoes, or the hundreds of different types of springy foam which lose their spring after 300-500 miles.
Why is it a bad idea to switch to barefoot running today? Because your feet are weak! You have had arch support in your shoes for your entire life, your foot muscles have atrophied. How do you strengthen your feet? Some suggest using minimalist shoes on rare occasion to work the muscles. I suggest doing what my Pilates instructor taught me: toes curls. Put something around your toe that you can hold onto with your hands (a towel works). Then try to press against the pressure of the towel one toe at a time. Also, stand on a ball and use it like you would use a foam roller on your legs. Do this every day and I guarantee that you will have stronger feet.
I used Vibram 5 Fingers to run in for over a year until I had any problems. I ended up upsetting Tom, Dick, and Harry (nicknames for tendons in the heal, not the Achilles). I decided I needed to try a different shoe. So I did, I ended up trying out the Brooks Pure line and the New Balance Minimus line (both trail and road).
Try spreading your toes. Really, try it. Do you feel the muscles in your foot and calf working overtime? Well, this is exactly what is constantly happening when you run with Vibram 5 Fingers. When you ran as a child with no shoes; did little gnomes run around following you trying to spread your toes open? No, that would be ridiculous. As I said: Tom, Dick, and Harry ended up getting irritated, so I listened to my body and only use the Vibrams during gym workouts now. I tried the Brooks Pure but discovered that there was still too much arch support. My arches compress and de-compress a lot when I run, and my arches were getting nasty blisters from the Pure because the arch was too stiff. Over time, my foot would have adapted and become weaker to compensate for the shoe. I didn’t like that idea. I went back to the running store and looked at the shoes again. As I looked at them, I decided to try folding the shoes in half, if you can easily fold the shoe in half it means your foot arches can work properly – only 2 shoes in the store (aside from Vibram) were able to fold so easily: New Balance Minimus Zero Road and Mizuno Wave Universe. They did not have the Mizuno in my size, so I bought the Minimus Zero Road. There is zero drop from heal to toe, 12mm between my foot and the road, and they weigh 7 oz. In comparison, the Vibrams have zero drop, 4mm between foot and road, and they weigh 7 oz. When I run with the Minimus Zero, I actually feel like it is more of a barefoot running feeling than with the Vibrams. And as a kicker, these shoes are so incredibly comfortable, I have never felt such a smooth upper on a shoe in my life.
A little on running technique:
- You need strong feet – doing toe curls is a great place to start.
- Strengthen your core – strong abs help your body move fluidly.
- Bend your knees – I am 5’11” but look 5’7” when I run
- Don’t bob up and down! If your core is strong and your knees are bent, you prevent this “jogging” up and down
- Have a quick turnover – if you hit the ground 180 times per minute you are doing great. Fast turnover does not necessarily mean fast pace. Don’t worry about having a fast pace. Whether my pace is slow or fast, I try to have a fast turnover cadence of 180.
- Fall forward. Keep your body strait (strong core) but not upright. You want to have a slant forward the entire run.
- Pay attention to your feet, there will be 3 parts of your foot hitting the ground on each stride: Mid-foot, Heal, Toes. It might seem ridiculous, but this is what is happening if your knees are bent, you core is tight, and your body is falling forward.
- Love it.
- Repeat a mantra on the difficult sections; I repeat a simple prayer over and over again, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”