How to start barefoot running without suffering injury
Trying barefoot running is not simply a question of taking off your trainers - unless you want to risk injury.
Why isn't it that simple?
With natural, 'shoeless' running, the lateral edge of your forefoot is the part which strikes the ground with the most force. Running in padded shoes typically alters this as more emphasis is placed on the heel and the area towards the back of the foot - which can, ironically, put more stress on your heel, knees and hips.
Making the switch to running barefoot is for many athletes a way to strengthen the foot and help improve speed. But it forces your feet and legs to act differently, so introducing yourself gradually to a new technique is important.
So don't be tempted just to throw off your normal running shoes one day and go for it.
There are various ways of tackling barefoot running: you might choose to wear specially adapted socks, running moccasins (like outdoor bedroom slippers) or minimalist shoes that resemble ordinary running shoes but are constructed from very thin, unpadded materials with a flat sole and minimal tread.
Going from padded, structured running shoes to minimalistic ones is quite a physical change for your feet and not one which should be presumed easy or natural. It is essential that you train the foot and leg muscles gradually to adapt to the new footwear in order to reduce the risk of injury and lessen metatarsal stress.
Due to the design of barefoot running shoes it is actually recommended that you alternate training in barefoot shoes with continued running in your normal running shoes.
Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University points out, 'If you've been a heel-striker all your life you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles.'
The first consideration when choosing your first pair of minimalist running shoes is the thickness, or profile, of the sole and heel; you want your feet to immediately sense and communicate to your brain the type of terrain you are on, adapting to a natural running style.
Avoid shoes which have a built-up heel as these encourage you to over-point your toes when running, which could lead to foot damage.
Secondly, think about the flexibility of the sole and check there is no arch support. Barefoot running is all about training your foot arch to naturally flatten, so a stiff sole and arch support will only prevent the muscles from acting in this way.
A good way to test this, is by seeing if you can twist and bend the sole of the shoe with ease. Of course it needs to protect the sole of your foot from the environment, but flexibility allows your foot to become more familiar with the ground.
Thirdly, the lighter the shoe the better. If the shoe's weight is distributed unevenly (ie heavier at the toe or heel) it will cause a bias tendency in the way the foot moves with the shoe, and go against its natural movement. It is advisable to begin with a mid-sole level.
The Nike Free Run range has a helpful 10-point number scale which helps identify the thinness of the soles eg models with a 3 in the name will be more flexible than those with a 10 (which is the thickness of an average running shoe), making the range a good starting point for first time minimalist shoe buyers.
Alternatively, look at Saucony's Kinvara or Mirage shoes which are also mid-point shoes.
For the more extreme, hardened barefoot runner, the Saucony Hattori shoe claims to be the brand's lightest ever general purpose running shoe. Or consider the Vibram 5 Fingers shoe, which was the first of its kind on the market and the shoe of choice for many barefoot runners.
Sportsshoes.com has a large range of minimalist shoes and is a good place to compare models if you are unsure.
Take time to stretch your hamstrings and calf muscles before starting your barefoot run. Prof Lieberman also suggests massaging the arches of your feet, as this helps in the breaking down of scar tissue and healing.
When you first start barefoot running, kick off on a hard, smooth surface such as a tennis court or running track rather than a bumpy street. Your feet will naturally adjust to moving on this surface by forefoot striking, rather than the heel striking we tend to do in padded running shoes.
Don't be tempted to run more than a quarter of a mile for your first barefoot running session, as your foot muscles will tire more rapidly.
Leave a rest day between each training session and remember that training your feet to run in this way will take time so build up distances by no more than 10% each week. If at any point you experience pain, stop.
Our feet have evolved to run in specialist shoes, so it will take time for them to adjust to minimalist running and they will be in discomfort to begin with. Sore, tired muscles are normal, but bone, joint, or soft-tissue pain is a signal of injury and if any of these occur, stop running immediately and consult a chiropodist.
It is important that you continue to wear your padded running shoes when running long distance or racing while you train your feet to run barefoot. Only when you feel 100% comfortable running barefoot and experience no discomfort at all should you start to run in minimalist shoes more often.
Running shoe specialist Saucony suggests that minimalist running isn't an end, but a means, and many footwear retailers agree.
Brett Bannister, MD of Sportsshoes.com, says, 'Minimalist shoes can be built into your training regime to help strengthen your feet and leg muscles, but you still need to pick the right shoes and be careful to make the transition slowly.'
So remember, minimalist shoes are an excellent training aid to incorporate into your running routine to great effect, but don't throw away your regular running shoes. Combine the two for better performance and best results.
Join the chat about barefoot running here.
Posted: 28/06/2011 at 18:40
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