Thursday, 24 January 2013

Barefoot Running - Part 1

Barefoot running. Surely you've heard of it by now? Also known as minimalist running? Natural running?

If you are a regular exerciser, but don't spend your spare time browsing fitness magazines and books, then you might not have heard of this. My little sister hadn't until my brother and I mentioned (me because I'm interested in fitness, and my brother probably more because he's interested in fads. Love you Dave, but you know it is true!)

So, for all those faithful exercisers who haven't heard about barefoot running, this post is for you!

Let's start at the beginning. What on earth am I talking about?

I first heard about barefoot or minimalist running in a fitness magazine. Then the Maffetone method brought it up again. Then it came up again in 'Born to Run' and I started to do some more investigation.

The basic theory is this: our foot was designed to run without any cushioning or stabilization. The foot has a massive number of bones which give it a natural shock absorption when running on the middle to balls of our feet. However, with the introduction of more cushioned shoes, we have started landing on our heels, which is not how we are designed to run and leads to a lot of the injuries runners seem plagued with.

The solution? Go back to running in bare feet and very soon your posture and foot fall will go back to the more natural movement (possible with some retraining).

Generally, there is a lot of internal logic to this argument.

1. striking the ground heel first does seem an unnatural and jarring movement if you aren't wearing padded shoes.
2. deconditioning elements in your feet and legs that usually stabilize the foot would lead to injury.
3. runners are generally plagued by injuries.

So, the movement is not altogether crazy. If you watch some of the videos out there, a lot of the proponents of the movement seem slightly on the hairy palm side of normal, but the general principle that you should reduce the padding in your shoes and try to run with a more natural mid to ball striking gait seems sensible.

So where can you sign up?

Now slow down. If you are anything like my eldest brother, and a large proportion of men appear to be in some respects, then you will jump straight in, kick off your shoes, try to run a marathon and end up injuring yourself. 

First warning: obviously the skin on the bottom of our feet is not as tough as it would be, so some form of footware is necessary at least to begin with.

Second warning:  after years and years of running in shoes, a lot of the muscles and stablizers that normally would be super strong are not so strong and can become inflamed if you go straight into long runs in anything close to bare feet.

Have you ever spent a day at the beach and after walking on sand for a hours the next day your foot is cramping and sore? Well, that's because you are expecting it to adjust to the moving sand, something it's totally not use to and the muscles fatigue just like any muscle with a new exercise.

Going straight to barefoot running is a milder, but similar form of this.

So, if you are interested in this movement, I recommend working towards it in three steps:

First, try to get a pair of runners with the least amount of padding and the most flexibility that you can tolerate. Usually, super cheap running shoes work well for this.

Second, actively work on building up your foot muscles.

My top exercise suggestions:
- If you can, walk on sand as much as you can.
- Walk around your house barefoot. 
- Every night while cleaning your teeth or chatting on the phone, balance on the ball of one foot, and work your way up to doing it with your eyes closed. This will strengthen all the stabilizers.

Third, look into getting some of the minimalist shoes out there once you feel comfortable. The five-fingered vibrams were some of the earliest, but a lot more have come onto the scene. Just remember that you should always start with a few sessions just walking in them, then build up to alternate walking and jogging and finally jogging/running normally.

In the next post I'm going to look more at the technique for barefoot running, and then in the third post I'll review some of the different barefoot products out there, as well as looking at how to make your own... just because you know you want to.

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