A Few Thoughts on Barefoot Running

First and foremost, I am not an elite runner and have no ambitions to be one. I primarily focus on running 5K distances (5K PR is 20:08, not bad for a bigger guy). It has been several years since I have run a half marathon or greater. At 210 pounds, I have accepted the fact that even though I enjoy running, my body is not well suited to running incredibly long distances on a regular basis. However, I will on occasion run longer distances for the challenge and fun of it.

My running training revolves around being prepared for the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) that we conduct twice a year, and having a good aerobic base in case I go to a school for the Army where we will be asked to run a set distance in a certain amount of time OR if we have to ruck a set distance. For example, this past spring I went to Air Assault school where we were asked to complete a 2 mile run, 6 mile ruck, another 4 mile run, and a 12 mile ruck in a ten day time frame. My fitness goals revolve around being prepared for events like that.

Before I dive into the content of this article I wanted to qualify myself (or disqualify) so that the reader would know who the author is. I am not a writer for a fancy running magazine or a running web outlet. I am the farthest thing from that, and I will remain that way for a reason. A lot of popular running media outlets write training articles touting what training methods and lifestyle methods elite runners undergo. Average Joes subscribe to these magazines and read them thinking "well if that is what the kenyans do then I should do it too." Chances are, if you are reading this you are not an elite marathoner or runner (maybe you are). Parroting training methods of elite runners if you are an average person like myself is a sure fire way to find yourself getting hurt or overtraining (believe me, I have done it).

Here is a brief history of my running career:

-My first year of grad school I got big....really big. 250 pounds and 30% body fat. My friend challenged me to run a marathon with him. I did, and I was hooked. Body weight dropped to 205.

-Following the first marathon I set out to run 2 more. One I trained effectively for and ran a faster time, the next I overtrained and got hurt and decided I was done with 26.2 and was going to focus on distances more suited to my body type.

-I continued running for fitness related to rugby.

-After college, I ran in about 1 half marathon a year to stay fit while doing crossfit.

-During this time I discovered the POSE method of running and switched to a minimal running shoe (New Balance Minimus has been my go to for the past 6 years). Changing my running style and footwear led to greater speed and less injuries.

-In my mid to late twenties I fell in love with the sport of weightlifting, and running went on a hiatus.

-At 30 years old I succumbed to my midlife crisis and joined the Army National Guard.

-At Basic training I was classified as having a flat foot and was given a very large, clunky, motion controlled shoe (and several pairs of cheap standard issue boots).

Here is where the story gets interesting.

During basic training I was not allowed to wear a shoe other than the ones that were given to me. Between running in my big, clunky, motion controlled shoes in the morning, and marching in my cheap boots all day, my feet ended up in really bad shape. I had plantar fasciitis so bad that I couldn't walk in the morning. I hid this injury from my drill sergeants for the remainder of my time at Ft. Leonard Wood to avoid being recycled due to injury.

When I returned home I focused on rehabilitating my feet and switched back to a minimal shoe. Over the course of the next 6-8 weeks I was able to restore strength in my feet and my running form and mid foot strike. When I had switched to the larger shoe I regressed back into a heel strike running form. Heel strike is when the heel of your foot strikes the ground in front of your center of gravity, as opposed to a mid foot strike directly underneath or close to underneath your center of gravity. The heel strike in front of the body translates to a lot of lost momentum and a great deal of impact traveling up the kinetic chain (foot, knee, hip, back, torso). Big running shoes with a great deal of padding in the heel promotes a significant amount of heel strike. A 200+ pound runner like myself should avoid heel strike at all costs.

Think about it this way. Have you, or anyone you know, ever been in a leg or arm cast? I broke my foot in 6th grade and was in a cast from the knee down for 8 weeks. When the cast came off what do you think the muscles in my leg looked like? Do you think I had good balance on that leg? The muscles in my leg were atrophied from not being used for 8 weeks, I found walking to be awkward, and my leg was so de-conditioned that I had to relearn how to do most normal functions. This is why most people undergo physical therapy after taking a cast off, to re-learn basic functions.

Large motion controlled shoes affect your feet in much the same way a cast affects your leg or arm muscles. By wearing shoes that do not allow your feet to respond to the ground while walking or running, you are changing the biomechanics of your feet and not allowing them to do what they were designed to do. I get asked questions on almost a weekly basis about plantar fasciitis, and receive very strange looks when I tell people they need to strengthen their feet (I think most people expect me to prescribe them an orthotic). Yes your feet have muscles in them. Muscles that developed and evolved over millions of years of our species learning how to walk upright in a bipedal stance. By introducing motion controlled shoes at a very young age and wearing them our entire lives we "inactivate" the very muscles that are supposed to maintain the arch and allow our feet and ankles to act similar to a spring that interacts with the ground.

So, what do I think about orthotics and motion controlled shoes? I think they are necessary during acute injuries in the same way that a brace or cast is necessary during an acute phase of an injury. They provide support for tissues that may be undergoing healing, but once the injury is healed it is time to return to normal function. In order to return to normal function, we must strengthen the feet and build ankle mobility.

Enter barefoot running and minimal running. First, what is the difference between barefoot and minimal? Exactly like it sounds. Barefoot running is completely barefoot, while minimal running involves shoes that do little more than protect the soles of your feet. Personally, I do my warm up exercises barefoot, and do my run in minimal shoes.

Before I share my thoughts on barefoot running, let's explore the controversy that surrounds it first. Just like anything else in America, people have become polarized on this topic. Minimal running emerged a few years back and was touted as possibly being a good tool for fixing running form (which I happen to agree with, it is a great tool, not the end all be all). Just like we do with anything, camps emerged that started advocating barefoot and minimal running as the best thing to ever happen to running. Minimal shoe companies started emerging making some incredible health claims in regards to their product for barefoot running. On the other end, articles started coming out talking about the negative effects of this style of running. Both camps became diametrically opposed to each other. But, as history has always shown, the truth of the matter always seems to lie in between the two extremes.

Before anyone jumps into minimal or barefoot running they must first prepare their feet for it. Think about it, you have likely worn big, cushioned, motion controlled shoes your entire life. You can just go from running in normal shoes and jump to minimal for the same reason you can't walk into a gym tomorrow and squat 500 pounds. You have to build to it. You must developed strength in your feet, balance, and coordination. Moreover, you have to realize that your old heel strike running form that you employed with your old shoes can not and will not translate well to a minimal shoe. You have to re-learn how to run.

I believe that many (NOT ALL) people can transition into a minimal shoe, but it requires time and a willingness to rethink how they use their feet. Once you have established a baseline of strength and coordination and are ready to begin running in this style you have to slowly introduce mileage, almost as if you are starting all over.

Minimal running can be a very effective tool and may actually improve your running efficiency, but you MUST be willing to put the time time in to prepare for it and build the strength and coordination necessary to do it effectively. This includes rebuilding the muscles in the feet, legs, hips, and lower back. Do not (I REPEAT, DO NOT) go buy a pair of minimal shoes and go running in them right away.

This week in the office I will be teaching a quick 15 minute workshop on how to begin strengthening your feet and developing ankle flexibility. Tuesday July 10 at 4 and 5 PM, Wednesday July 11 at 10 AM and 4 and 5 PM, I will be leading a quick class in the back of the office on how to do simple at home exercises to rebuild your feet. The class will be open to 10 participants during each class time (50 total over the course of two days). We will cover balance exercises, rehab exercises, deep tissue work, and how to effectively strengthen the hip to restore foot biomechanics.

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