Barefoot running is currently a growing trend in the running world, being touted as a great way of improving balance and strength, while promoting a style of running similar to that of our ancestors. Supporters believe that the transition from the conventional heel-striking running style to either a forefoot or a midfoot strike lowers the impact forces, thus decreasing the risk of injury. The evidence available so far, although anecdotal in essence, claims that practitioners of forefoot and midfoot striking can avoid or mitigate conditions such as runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, repetitive stress injuries, and stress fractures.
Although this type of running has been making headlines ever since the ‘60s, most of its popularity has been fueled by Chris McDougall’s 2009 book, Born to Run. In it, the author claims that running without shoes, or with minimal foot covering, forces people to run in a more efficient manner, also making them lighter, faster, and less prone to injuries. A wealth of scientific evidence, as well as a number of barefoot marathoners setting world records, has convinced many to return to the basics of human movement.
As a musculoskeletal specialist, I am often asked whether I support minimalist or shod running. In a nutshell, I believe it’s not appropriate to say people should go one way or the other, always running barefoot or never running barefoot. There isn’t such one-size-fits-all solution.
On one hand, it’s certainly true that running footwear has become overly-complicated in recent years. Instead of a natural progression to make the running shoe lighter and more flexible, we’re seeing more and more inflexible and stiff footwear that inhibits the natural foot motion. On the other hand, if you have 20 years of running on your heels and you suddenly decide to switch to running on your forefoot, your body anatomy will be stressed a different way. Chances are, you will get sore, and if you overdo it, you will probably get injured.
The important thing is, first of all, to understand how barefoot running loads your body differently from shod running, and then, if you decide it works for you, to make the transition slowly and carefully.
Understanding Barefoot Biomechanics
The running style of some of the fastest marathoners is similar to that of a person running barefoot. The shock is absorbed by landing lightly on the forefoot as opposed to on the heel, while the landing leg, slightly bent to absorb impact, comes beneath the torso. The strike begins on the outside corner of the foot, rolling inward as the impact is mainly absorbed by the ankle and the foot muscles, rather than the heel and the knee. As a result, the body is protected from impact-related injuries such as shin splints, ruptured ligaments, iliotibial band strains, runner’s knee, and Achilles tendinitis.
The concept of shoes is that they spread the load and absorb some of the force, at the same time reducing the size, the impact transient, and the rate of loading. They also protect the foot from the elements and rough surfaces that may numb or injure it. On the other hand, shoes treat the feet like planks that move only at the ball of the foot. While they do a good job at protecting feet from obstacles, they also make the runner unaware of the exact foot’s position by numbing the sensors in the foot that tell it how to react to a certain terrain.
Along with decreased impact, running without shoes can also stretch the calves, strengthen the muscles and tendons in your feet, and redefine your arch. As you move away from landing on your heels, you will notice an increase in balance due to more developed stability muscles, and also a stronger sense of the ground, which can protect you from stepping awkwardly or twisting your ankle.
Tips on Forefoot Strike Form
Remember, there is no one ‘perfect’ running form. Everybody’s body is different, so you have to find your own technique that protects you from injury and ensures you get the most out of your training. You can, however, make use of these general tips:
- Land gently. As you land on the ball of your foot, allow the heel to come down gradually, flexing your ankle and bringing your foot and lower leg to a soft and relaxed landing. To learn proper form, start by running barefoot on a smooth surface such as pavement and allow your foot sensors to calibrate the impact of the landing.
- Don’t over-stride. Over-striding (landing with the foot too far in front of the hips) stresses the Achilles tendon and the calf muscles and can lead to shin pain. Try slowing your pace in the beginning to test your cadence and gradually shorten your stride length to prevent injury.
- Build gradually. If you do too much too soon, you will likely get sore or injure yourself. Start by walking around barefoot to accustom your feet to the ground. Don’t run more than one mile per day during the first week, and do not increase the distance by more than 10% per week. Rest and let your body recover if you feel pain. Be patient with yourself; it will probably be months before you can make the complete transition, so try to build gradually.
Whether you choose to give barefoot running a try or keep running with your shoes on, it’s essential to practice proper form at all times to avoid stress injuries and pain. Your local chiropractor can help you determine what’s causing your discomfort while running and design an effective treatment plan to help get you back on the track quickly.
About the Author
Dr. Marc Browner is the Founder of iChiropractic and Wellness in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida in 1991, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life Chiropractic in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.