Barefoot Running

I’ve been thinking about the idea of barefoot running for a while and was recently lent a book called Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It’s an inspirational and eye-opening book about a tribe of long distance runners from Mexico and a group of elite ultra-distance runners from around the world. They don’t all run barefoot, but there is an underlying story in the book about running shoes not being all that they are cracked up to be.

The book advocates a natural running style based on the way the human body has evolved. Although we aren’t the fastest creatures on the planet it suggests that through a process of natural selection we have actually be ‘designed’ to run very long distances for a long time at a moderate pace. We weren’t (and still aren’t) able to beat other animals in a sprint but we can wear them down over hours and hours of steady state running with the occasional sprint. The fact that we can sweat and the fact that we can breathe at a different rate to our running stride allows us to keep going, change pace and recover on the move, something that our prey couldn’t do.

It also looks at the complex arrangement of bones, ligaments, muscles and tendons in our feet, which are in fact one of the most complex parts of our body, showing that the arrangement of them creates a series of springs and levers that allows us to keep running efficiently for extended periods of time. Modern running shoes however inhibit some of these natural movements, making us less efficient.

Parts of it make sense. We are designed to run upright, we do have a complex arrangement of components in our feet and as with any other part of the body, if we don’t use them they will atrophy and be less effective than they could be.  Modern running shoes with their cushioning, support and stability all cocoon our feet and stop them working quite the way they should. Running barefoot however allows our feet to spread, twist and contort as they should and using them strengthens them allowing them to serve us well and may in the long term prevent injuries.

Our feet are also very sensitive and the thoughts are that messages from our feet to our brain allow our bodies to adapt to any terrain and maintain balance and poise. Wearing shoes interferes with this feedback process and to compensate we actually strike the ground harder when wearing shoes as the feet are trying to ‘feel’ the ground beneath them. The only way to do this through various layers of cushioning is to push harder into the ground, sending shockwaves through the ankles, knees, hips and back and into the rest of the body. No wonder runners are prone to injuries.

I’ve always walked on my toes and have strange shaped feet, and do have weak ankles and pains in my feet fairly often, so strengthening them in any way I can seems like a good idea. We live on the beach, so barefoot running is an option for me so I’m going to try it out.

I did a little test run the other day, only about 3 miles along the sand, but it was lovely. It was pretty slow, but my stride and running style immediately changed from that of my ‘normal’ style when wearing shoes. My stride was shorter and faster, I’m sure I was hitting the ground less forcefully and running lighter and I did at times feel as though I could just keep going and going. It wasn’t fast, but it never is on sand and I guess I’ll need to adapt to the new running style, but I think I’ll do some barefoot running now and then.

I tore some ligaments in my ankle a couple of months ago and have had shin splints since then so I didn’t keep going and going, but I will introduce some barefoot runs into my training schedule and start increasing the distances just to see how it goes. Obviously I won’t be able to run barefoot in races or on certain terrain, so I’ll still do some training in shoes, but one barefoot run a week may well help strengthen my feet so it has to be worth a try.

I’m not suggesting everyone give it a go, but at least read Born to Run, it may give you something to think about.

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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