Going Barefoot (3 of 3)
Part 3: The Benefits of Barefoot Running
As noted in the last post, leading biomechanists are not against running barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Neither am I.
When I look at the benefits, I have to recommend that you safely move toward it if you’re not already.
Here are three key benefits for going barefoot or minimalist:
- It helps you strengthen your feet, which contributes to better balance and more efficient movement through the kinetic chain. Your feet can best sense the ground surface and subtle changes in body position when they are bare. This allows muscles in your hips and legs to better manage the total ground reaction force (the force exerted by the ground on a body in contact with it) and create more efficient movement, including running gait. FiveFingers offer a way to guard your soles, if leery of going barefoot, while allowing your body to move similar to how it would move if it were completely unshod.
- Smarter landings. Most people land on the forefoot, midfoot or whole foot instead of the heel. Runners take shorter and more frequent steps without a cushioned shoe because landing on your heel doesn’t feel good. (See also A Growing Body of Evidence.)
- Decreased excess pronation. Biomechanically speaking, the natural thinner heel of your bare foot has a shorter moment arm from the subtalar joint axis (the joint about which your foot pronates and supinates) to the vertical ground reaction force that strikes ground on the lateral border the foot. Force times the moment arm gives you the tendacy to pronate. The wider heel of a cushioned shoe creates a longer moment arm which increases the tendacy to pronate. Makers of traditional running shoes have searched for the optimal density of cushioning materials to match what your heel already does well (if you’re at an appropriate body weight for given activity), and added stiff heel counters, arch support and high medial midsole density to provide stability and prevent overpronation.
Transitioning to Barefoot
Training in minimalist shoes and going barefoot can have a profound effect on your functional and athletic performance. Going barefoot or wearing minimalist training shoes—and even sandals—has advantages over wearing shoes with more cushion and support if you don’t have severe pronation. However, sudden changes in your training and even functional activity may lead to disaster, so it’s important to have a solid transition plan.
When I ventured on my first barefoot road run I had already acclimated to working (training) half days in FiveFingers. In addition, I carried a pair of traditional running shoes in each hand just in case—and to be reminded by a sheltered runner that they were supposed to go on my feet as he passed me.
If you decide to go barefoot or minimalist its very important to take it easy and gradually change your running style and foot support. Otherwise, you are likely to experience injury. Dr. Reed Ferber, a professor at the University of Calgary and director of the Running Injury Clinic, told Runner’s World that about 20 percent of his patients come in injured after attending a workshop on the Pose Method, or natural posture, or another coached running style. I’ve also personally spoken with a number of people who said they experienced stress fractures or activity-halting pain after a sudden change to minimalist shoes or a sudden change in running style in traditional shoes.
The solution: Adequate strength and flexibility are necessary to properly support human movement. When it comes to enhancing performance and avoiding injury from overuse, it’s important to both listen to your body and implement a very good training program with appropriate recovery time built in.
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