Barefoot Running Workshop 1: Myths, Sensations, Foot-strike

Thanks to the awesome crew who attended my first Barefoot Running Workshop, lessons were learned and loads of barefoot fun was had! We dispelled myths, explored the pleasantness of soft pine needles and the not-so-pleasantness of hot, rough pavement, and most importantly, left with happy, dirty feet.

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As a recap for attendees or those interested in future workshops, below is an overview of the highlights from our first session. In this introductory meeting, we covered: 1) the facts and fiction of barefoot running, 2) the importance of sensory feedback and awareness, and 3) mechanics of the foot (don’t fret … we’re not foot-centric and will address mechanics above the foot in the next workshop).

BAREFOOT RUNNING: FACT & FICTION

MYTH 1. Barefoot running will cure my injuries.

Fact: Injuries are often the result of training errors, such as overtraining or incorrect form. Taking off your shoes can’t compensate for these mistakes, but the increased awareness and sensations from being barefoot can help you better listen to your body and train smarter.

MYTH 2: Barefoot running causes foot fractures, Achilles tears and calf strains.

Fact: Running carries a risk of injury, regardless of what is or is not on your feet. There are certainly reports of sustaining such injuries when running barefoot, but these are almost always due to transitioning too aggressively, or doing too much too soon (see also here and here). A gradual, conservative transition while respecting your body’s warning signs will let you run safely and injury-free.

MYTH 3: Barefoot running is just another fad and a gimmick.

Fact: Barefoot running is as old as man, and was how humans first began running. Conventional running shoes are only a very recent invention (introduced only in the 1970’s with the advent of recreational jogging). Despite misleading marketing, the cushioned soles and raised heels of typical running shoes have never been shown to improve running or prevent injury (See Pete Larson’s great book for more on the science of running shoes).

MYTH 4: I will cut my feet on glass, step on rocks or catch a disease.

Fact: Sure, these are possibilities, but the ground is much less dangerous than the fear-mongerers will have you believe! Most of the earth is not, in fact, littered with broken glass and dirty needles. You will quickly learn to automatically pay attention to your surroundings to easily avoid such dangers. Your feet will also become more resilient against lesser dangers like stones, twigs or gravel.

MYTH 5: I need to build up calluses to toughen up my feet for barefoot running.

Fact: Calluses results from excess friction and are a sign of poor form. If you develop calluses or blisters, you are likely shearing, shuffling or pounding excessively. Over time your skin will become thicker and more resilient, but should not be rough or callused.

MYTH 6: Barefoot running will make me a faster or more efficient runner.

Fact: While barefoot running will change how you run and is unlikely to impair it, there is conflicting evidence as to whether it will improve or not affect your running economy. When first learning to run barefoot, the body will naturally demand a slower pace and reduced mileage. But as the body adapts over time, runners will gradually return to their earlier performance level. One’s response to going bare depends on many factors, including training history, running conditions and distance.

MYTH 7: You cannot run competitively or quickly barefoot.

Fact: There have many exceptional competitive barefoot runners throughout history, including Abebe Bikala (winner of the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome) and the 1980’s Olympian Zola Budd.

MYTH 8: It’s best to run barefoot on the grass or sand.

Fact: If you’re looking for a bit of fun, go ahead and frolic barefoot through a grassy park or along the beach. But if your aim is to learn proper running form, stick to firm ground. Soft surfaces – just like cushioned shoes – can encourage lazy technique, particularly heel striking and heavy landing, and may even be more stressful to the body. Firm, even surfaces will provide the best feedback and sensations to train your neuromuscular system to run well.

MYTH 9: I can get the same benefits from minimalist shoes, without the risks of going barefoot.

Fact: Running in footwear – yes, even the most minimal shoe – will change how your run. Zero drop and thin-soled shoes carry certain advantages over conventional shoes, but a key benefit of being barefoot is the rich sensory feedback from your skin. You cannot experience these benefits with rubber between your foot and the earth.

MYTH 10: I can’t run barefoot because I’m flat-footed, overweight, too old, etc …

Fact: Anyone can run barefoot, regardless of age, shape or size. Running barefoot naturally encourages you to run lighter, easing the impact on your joints and tissues. Weak feet result from disuse, and will quickly become stronger with foot exercises and barefoot activities.

SENSATIONS

Enhanced sensory input lies at the heart of the many benefits of barefoot running. To maximally reap these benefits, we must become aware of our body’s response to the environment. What do you feel when running on concrete, pavement, gravel, dirt or grass? How about on hot, cold or wet surfaces? How do your sensory experience and gait change on various terrains? Note any sensitivity on the skin of your feet, your sense of stability and your proprioception. Do you run more lightly, quickly or fluidly on any particular surface?

AWARENESS

Along with intensifying sensory experiences, running barefoot also heightens awareness of your internal and external environments. Running requires constant feedback to the body from its surroundings, and listening to these messages is key to safe, healthy and strong running. Take advantage of all your senses – especially your vision, hearing and touch – to maintain contact with your external environment. With a bit of practice you will begin to automatically scan for hazards (rocks, thorns, traffic, cyclists or playing children!) and for the optimal placement of your next step. At the same time, your internal awareness will naturally increase. Acknowledging your body’s responses to the environment will help refine your form, correct mechanical errors and prevent injury. If something feels off, play with your stride until you regain fluidity. But if you feel you’re pushing too far, listen to your body’s call for rest.

BIOMECHANICS I: THE FOOT

Foot-strike. What part of the foot touches first (forefoot, heel, midfoot)? Barefoot running encourages a mid- to forefoot strike, which research suggests may beneficially redistribute impact forces compared to heel-striking. However, there’s still no clear consensus over the “right” foot strike, or whether it even matters for injury prevention or performance.

Do you land more on the outside or inside of the foot? A natural strike will involve both pronation and supination, beginning with a slight inward roll followed by an outward roll at push-off. As these motions should come naturally, it is best not to force them, but to focus on landing with the whole foot at once. A helpful tool is visualizing the foot as a tripod; it is most stable when all three corners – the base of the big toe, base of the little toe and the heel – all contact the ground together.

Relax. Are the feet tense or relaxed? The feet may clench as a defense mechanism, especially on rough terrain. This can be dangerous and lead to excessive foot slapping, heavy impact and foot or shin pain. Relax the ankle and let the foot land softly.

Lift, don’t push. Do the feet push off or pound the ground? They should instead touch only briefly, followed by an immediate lift. The overall motion of the foot should be upwards, lifting from the ground rather than slamming downwards. This will prevent shuffling, shearing or twisting, which can lead to blisters or calluses.

Over-striding. Where do the feet land relative to your center-of-mass? They should land directly beneath the hips, not in front. Over-striding – or striking with the feet too far forward – is one of the most common sources of running injuries.

Cadence. Are the feet turning over rapidly? Aim for a high cadence (turnover rate), as this may help minimize impact forces and improve efficeincy. 180 steps per minute is roughly considered ideal.

Check out the recap from our second session, in which covered the fundamentals of running form, including lower and upper body mechanics. In our third and final session July 12, we’ll explore hills and speed and practical concerns of barefoot running.

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