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Should You Run Barefoot?

The idea of barefoot running has been around for years but came to the forefront with the best-selling book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, which explained the phenomenon. Specifically, we’re born to run as our ancestors did thousands of years ago when they went barefoot. This promotes a natural spring-like stride on the balls of our feet that dissipates force and allows us to run longer and without injury.

These days, many runners have tight hips and a lack of mobility and flexibility. They strike with their heels, which causes the body to absorb the force of the ground into the joints. Many running shoes, with their thick heels, tend to exacerbate the problem.

Most barefoot running experts suggest using barefoot running as a tool only—perhaps just twice a week for 20 to 30 minutes on a lush grass surface such as a soccer field or the infield of a track.

Hank Campbell, who conducts barefoot running clinics in St. Petersburg, Florida, has runners keep their shoes on initially.“I get them to focus in regular shoes on mechanical things that they’ll notice when they’re barefoot and then transition into drills and easy strides, he says. “From there they can work up to 20 or 30 minutes a day, maybe twice a week, and that will provide huge dividends in terms of form.”

Michael Sandler, author of the new book Barefoot Running and creator of RunBare.com, says barefoot running saved his athletic career. A former speed skater and pro-level cyclist, he suffered a broken hip and shattered femur during an inline skating accident three years ago. Doctors said he would never run again and he needed custom orthotics just to walk. After discovering barefoot running, he now can run up to 50 miles at a time. He spoke to CorePerformance.com about barefoot running.

CorePerformance:  What are the benefits of barefoot running?

Michael Sandler: Barefoot running helps in two ways. First, when you’re running barefoot you’re running “aware foot.” You have more nerve endings on the bottom of your feet than anywhere else on your body. It’s why we’re ticklish and why we’re able to run incredibly light. It’s like being a cookie thief, stealing into the kitchen at night barefoot on tiptoes as quietly as we can. When we feel the ground, we can run incredibly light. We hit the ground up to three times lighter out of a shoe than in one and with far less toque to the hips and knees. Second, we change our gait and stride to something of a forefoot stride. We use our metatarsals as a spring-like mechanism, the arch and Achilles tendon, along with the calf, quad, glute, and hamstring as a two to three foot long spring rather than relying on the heel of the shoe. That forces us to extend the leg out and drives force up through the body which attenuates shock rather than dissipates it.

CP: Do you run barefoot all the time?

MS: I’m a moderate voice. While I’m barefoot 90 percent of the time, whenever I can be, I believe it’s something people have to do lightly—baby stepping your way in. Some may make it all the way to barefoot running. Some may go to a Vibram Five Fingers shoe. There is no right or wrong answer, but I advocate that everyone spend some time barefoot to feel the ground, to learn how to run light, to work on that new stride and work on strengthening your feet, which is something some people say cannot be done, but you can. If you’re a lighter stronger runner, you’ll benefit regardless of footwear. Chances are you’ll go to less and less footwear.

CP: How do you feel about Five Fingers and the other barefoot shoes?

MS: I like the products. I did a long run recently on some wet, chewed up trails and another where there was some broken glass. So I wore some of the barefoot shoes. You have different tools in your quiver, different ones for different purposes and that gives you even more freedom. If you’ve done too much in one shoe, pull out something else and it gives you more freedom and variety that way. I do clinics at running stores. Some stores were hesitant initially. Why invite people to talk barefoot running in a running store that sells shoes? But they’ve come around to understand that we’re not talking about throwing shoes away. We’re talking about running with a more natural form and using footwear that helps. Even diehard old-school people who say this will never work are coming to clinics and trying it and saying, “This makes sense.”

CP: What about people who have knee, ankle, or foot issues?

MS: The majority of people who come to our talks have bad knees, hip, backs. I was called Mr. Flat Foot. I wore a hard plastic orthotic just to go across the living room floor otherwise my plantar fasciitis got upset right away. For people like ourselves, barefoot running helps by strengthening the body from the roots up, like a tree. We build strong feet and work our way up from there. The shoe is driving the force up through the body. By using proper form, you’re using your legs like a giant spring mechanism so you can dissipate force and run again.

It’s hard to strike the ground the same way once you’ve discovered how to run light. You run as if on springs and it’s so much more liberating. Once you’ve experienced that lightness, that freedom and your joints no longer hurting, you might not go back to a shoe. You realize that pain is good because it helps you figure out what’s working and what’s not. Once you learn that, it can be a tremendous guide in whatever footwear you choose.

CP: What’s the best piece of advice you give runners?

MS: You want to run like a four or five year old. Watch how they run. They run light and free up on their foot and above all else they’re having fun.

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Foot Pain, Training, Outdoor Recreation, Barefoot, Knee Pain, Running, Foot