By Guy Lawrence
“The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.”
—Leonardo Da Vinci
Guy: These are just one of the questions we ask sports scientist, barefoot specialist and running coach David Chamberlain.
I must admit, myself and running are not the most compatible companions. If Forest Gump were a gazelle, I’d be a silverback gorilla! In saying that, running has always been in there or there abouts with my training.
A few years ago after a spell of chronic back pain, one of the things I looked at were the shoes I was wearing, which sparked an introduction with the barefoot minimalist shoe ‘The Vibram Five Fingers’ which you can read my review here. I’ve worn minimalist shoes ever since.
I recently met running coach David Chamberlain and asked him would he mind giving us the low down on minimalist and barefoot running (& I’ll be doing the 2013 Sydney City to Surf.. Yikes!). And of course, if you got any questions or thoughts, we’d love to hear in the comments section below. Enjoy. Over to David…
What is barefoot and natural running and where does the concept come from?
Since the introduction of cushioned, highly supportive, modern day footwear, we have changed the way we run. We’ve transitioned away from our ‘hunter-gatherer’ style to a less natural and more ‘manufactured’ method of running.
By running barefoot, we effectively ‘re-set’ our style, bringing it closer to the way we are naturally designed to run. This includes: running relaxed with an upright body position; striking the ground with the forefoot directly under the hips; pulling off the ground; leaning from the ankles and taking relatively short, quick strides.
In its purest form, barefoot running is just that – running with no shoes at all. This increases the amount of feedback or proprioception that we receive from the ground and enables us to adjust and optimise our running form according to the terrain we are on. This can also be achieved, to a slightly lesser degree, by wearing minimalist running shoes.
The concept comes from the basic principles of evolution. Our bodies, and in particular our feet, have evolved into incredible structures that are designed to absorb shock, produce motion, flex and bend.
By giving them constant support and cushioning, we weaken them and inhibit them from doing what they are designed to do.
Is it just the latest fad or is it grounded in scientific fact?
I would ask the same question of modern day, cushioned running shoes. There isn’t a single scientific study demonstrating that running injuries have reduced since their introduction in the 1960’s. Evolutionary Biologist Dr. Daniel Lieberman proposes that it’s the shoes that are the fad and barefoot or minimalist running is the evolutionary norm.
Lieberman has conducted a number of studies looking at the different levels of impact on the body when running barefoot compared to running in cushioned shoes. He consistently found that a majority of barefoot runners land on the forefoot. By doing this, they don’t generate an impact ‘spike’ on landing which, amongst other benefits, leads to lower levels of force and stress on the knees and lower back.
Is Barefoot Running Dangerous?
Running is a skill and like any skill, it needs to be learned. Take a sporting activity such as swimming. If you don’t learn how to swim correctly, swimming is dangerous. If you don’t learn how to swing a kettlebell properly, kettlebell swings are dangerous.
Whilst barefoot and natural running has the potential to result in injuries, it’s no different to any other skilled physical activity. It takes time and patience to develop the skills required to master it, but done correctly the risks of injury and associated danger are greatly reduced.
Is barefoot running suitable for everyone or are there any factors to consider?
Whilst everyone is capable of running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe, there is no one size fits all model.
Changing to this style will put more stress in the muscles of the lower legs, glutes and hamstrings. It also puts greater levels of stress on the muscles, tendons and bones in your feet.
If you have a history of Achilles tendon problems, tight lower leg muscles, poor ankle and/or big toe mobility or a history of foot fractures, you should progress very slowly and seek advice and assessment from a barefoot and natural running specialist.
How do I know if it’s going to be right for me?
The first question to ask yourself is why do you want to try barefoot and natural running? If you are a thick soled trainer wearing heel striker who’s happy with their running times and never gets injured, the investment required to transition may not make sense.
If you do decide to go barefoot, make sure you consider your injury history, running objectives, lower leg and foot strength and ankle, hip and thoracic spine mobility.
At DC Run, we have a number of specialist barefoot and natural running coaches who can take you through an assessment to determine if it’s right for you. They can also develop an appropriate transition program to ensure you train safely and minimise the risk of injury.
Even if you decide it’s not for you, a number of the form and strength principles of barefoot and natural running will help to make you a stronger, more efficient runner.
Is it as simple as taking off your shoes or buying a pair of ‘Five Fingers’ and heading out for a run?
In a word, ‘no!’ In order to successfully change to running barefoot or with minimalist shoes, you need to progress slowly.
This progression should include a number of specific strength, balance, mobility and conditioning drills. These should be predominantly focussed around the feet, lower legs and the muscles that support and stabilise the pelvis.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you should start by practicing deep squats, skipping (jumping rope), walking and running short distances on different terrain, gradually increasing your run duration over time.
I’ve heard a lot about heel striking and forefoot striking – what’s the difference between them and what are the pros and cons?
Heel striking is when the foot impacts the ground with the heel first, generally in front of the body. During a forefoot strike, the forefoot hits the ground first followed by a brief heel contact.
For most people, heel striking is only made possible by wearing cushioned shoes. Without shoes, it would simply be too painful. Heel striking allows you to take a longer strides, which some would view as an advantage. However, when you strike with the heel ahead of the body, you are effectively ‘braking’ with each stride.
The advantage of a forefoot strike is that it reduces impact on a number of joints including the knees and lower back. It’s also more mechanically efficient as it forces the runner to reduce stride length, minimising body rotation and maximising the use of gravity and muscle-tendon elasticity to produce forward motion.
When we walk, we should roll from the outside of the heel, through to the big toe. When we run, we should land on the forefoot with a subsequent and brief heel contact. When we sprint, we come up further onto the balls of our feet and toes.
What are the best minimalist shoes to get me started?
When you’re starting out and going through that ‘re-set’ phase, most people find it best to be completely barefoot. However, once you’ve learnt the basics of good running form, there are a number of different minimalist footwear options available.
Inov8, Five Fingers and Vivo are three of the best minimalist footwear specialists and offer a broad range of options depending on what type of running and other training you participate in. The big footwear companies also now offer more ‘natural’ options such as Nike’s ‘Free’ range.
Unless someone has extremely well developed strength, mobility and balance, I tend to advise that, in conjunction with transition exercises and drills, they start with a slightly more supportive and cushioned minimalist shoe and progressively move down the scale.
Ultimately, it comes down to your individual objectives, strengths and development areas.
Is there anything I can do straight away to help prepare me for barefoot running?
For sure! Doing these 3 exercises often will help prepare you:
This helps to condition the muscles, bones and tendons in your feet. Before you start to run, walk barefoot for ten minutes a day, indoors or on grass, increasing by five minutes a week.
Once you are walking 20 minutes a day without pain or discomfort, you should be ready to start some short barefoot runs.
These will help to develop mobility and strength in your ankles, hips and lower legs. Squat down as deep as you can go and hold at the bottom for as long as possible, focussing your weight on your forefoot. If you can’t squat all the way down, use a support to hold onto and gradually get lower as your mobility and strength improves.
Note: The first image shows good form with heels flat on the ground and hips below parallel. The second image displays poor form with feet not flat on the floor and hips above parallel (this is very common at first with poor flexibility).
This is a must do exercise for anyone wanting to transition to a barefoot running style. It conditions and strengthens your lower legs, helps correct your posture and teaches the correct rhythm or cadence to maximise running efficiency.
Start with one round of 60 seconds and build up to three, three-minute rounds with 30 seconds break between sets. You should be able to achieve this before you start any barefoot or minimalist runs greater than ten to fifteen minutes.
Have you read the book ‘Born to run’ by Christopher McDougall & what did you think?
Yes. It’s a great book and I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in barefoot and natural running. McDougall is a great storyteller and does a fantastic job of explaining what barefoot running is all about.
From a run coaching perspective, it’s been an important book as it’s started a broader discussion about how and why we run.
You run barefoot natural running seminars, can you tell us a little more about them?
We run interactive, practical seminars that cover the key aspects of barefoot and natural running.
Participants are provided with individual ‘before and after’ running video analysis; a detailed overview of the history and science behind barefoot and natural running; information on how to assess yourself and others, as well as a broad range of practical strength, mobility, balance and form exercises and drills.
The aim of the seminars is to improve people’s knowledge on barefoot and natural running and help them to make a safe and effective transition. The next seminar is in Sydney at the end of June 2013, with Brisbane and Melbourne later this year.
And if anyone wants to learn more, where’s the best place to go?
You can find out more about the services we offer at www.dcrun.com.au
If you have any specific questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guy: I’ve twisted David’s arm and he’ll offer a discount to all those that mention this blog post (this is not an affiliate) for his up and coming seminars.
If you go any thoughts, comments or questions we’d love to hear in the comments section below. And if you enjoyed it we’d really appreciate the share on FaceBook… Cheers, Guy.