Born Free: Barefoot Running
I’ve just stepped into a new world! I guess I’ve been caught in a jungle of rubber and synthetic materials for too long. In the past few months, the topic of barefoot running has weaved its way into my training sphere and conversations, and I’ve become more and more curious.
Coming from a background in sports orthopedics and other medical specialties, I’m highly intrigued by recent studies touting significant findings for the benefits of running barefoot, versus running with traditional supportive shoes and the complications that can result. The results are well supported. For example, in a January 7th posting, Orthopedics Today discusses a recent study showing that “running in shoes exerts more stress on the knees, hips and ankles than running barefoot or walking in high heeled shoes.”
My personal orthopedic resource, local Maui physician Clay Everline MD, Seton Hall University Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic SurgeryBoard Certified in Sports Medicine and Internal Medicine, and founder of Waves of Health, shared his thoughts with me. “One thing I enjoy about the FiveFingers® is the increased proprioception from the spread toes and the molded arch support. It nearly forces you to run with proper biomechanics. Barefoot running is natural running where the foot contact with the ground helps you correct your stride by sensory biofeedback.”
The FiveFingers referred to by Dr. Everline is a barefoot running shoe from Vibram that is wildly popular and accommodates many other sports beyond running. You may take a second look at this gecko-like foot cover. They weigh about 6.7 ounces and can be custom tailored up to a size EEE. Running a marathon in animal pad-like rubber sheaths seems really interesting, and is getting noticed in the running world. There are barefoot running blogs with serious topics and conversations that cover everything from lack of arch support to “do everything” barefoot. Some tout their back pain has been cured by the change that has occurred in their posture. Others claim they no longer suffer from plantar fasciitis or other stresses to the foot and ankle joint causes by soft, fluffy shoes.
As an experiment for this article, I recently took a few laps in the sugar cane fields here on the North Shore of Maui to try barefoot running for myself. I thought of the movie Born Free and running not from the lions, but with them at early dawn in my new raw feet. While it took dodging a few sticker bushes, rocks and unsuspecting cane roots jutting out from the raw dirt itself, I actually was digging it! I liked feeling the traction I could get between my toes and the direct contact was great.
Now I didn’t run a lot of miles — just enough to get a real feel (and get the shot!). I also experienced an incredible connection to the earth, as I discovered those that ran before me have expressed the same. My feet were stained for a bit by the rich red minerals in the dirt, but all was good.
Here on Maui, our feet are pretty tough from walking over the rocks to the water to surf, fish and windsurf in some spots, or just from literally flattening out over time without wearing regular shoes. Many locals and others prefer to hike barefoot in the slippery jungles, or with a split toe aquatic shoe called Tabis. Going to the mainland in real shoes is no longer that simple. Our feet get a little wider and more swollen from our lifestyle. Forget my Italian shoes! Most of our days on Maui are spent barefoot, and no one ever wears shoes in one’s home except at fancy parties or other rare occasions. But since I wear supportive shoes in my day-to-day training with clients, I’m more used to it than most.
BAREFOOT RUNNING TIPS
Before you toss your sneakers and hit the ground, literally, it’s best to take a few precautions. If you tend to pronate or if you are more flat-footed, it’s highly suggested to ease into the bed of something with some support. If you try one of the special shoes designed for barefoot running, proper sizing is important. Most people who use custom orthotics to help correct biomechanical deviations need to consult with their specialist and adjust accordingly.
Dr. Everline also says, “Watch out for sharp rocks and sticks! Barefoot running should be avoided by those who have diabetes, specifically diabetic peripheral neuropathy, and other sensory problems of the feet, due to increased risk of infections from cuts that go unnoticed. Feet should be meticulously checked after each session if going completely barefoot. Cuts should be cleaned and dressed.” So be careful of medical conditions that may contraindicate this new style of running — always check with your own doctor first.
You will also need to change your gait as you walk or run (see Mary’s recent article Cross Training and Injury Prevention with more info about gait for runners). Most of us strike the ground with our heels first and this seems more natural. We all seem used to the cushy, supportive shoes that cradle our feet with very thick soles. Practice landing softly on the balls of your feet or more mid-foot. Your calves and ankles will also get stronger, and you can learn to run with less impact and torque on your body and joints.
Start with short distances to build the supportive muscles of the foot, and be mindful of hard running surfaces such as asphalt or concrete. Look for softer surfaces at first, like hard pack dirt, the sand, grassy parks or special cork tracks. Additionally, it can take up to 2 weeks to get your legs and muscles used this new form of running.
If you’re a barefoot runner, please share your experience!