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Baffled about Barefoot Running?

Posted by tdifranc on September 9, 2013

I recently received an email inquiry that I actually get quite regularly. It goes something like this: “I am trying to figure out if barefoot running/training is for me, how to do it the right way and what minimalist shoe I should wear but I’m frustrated! I’ve spent a bunch of time and money and all I got in return was foot/calf pain…HELP!”

The following thoughts/tips on the subject are based on my own personal experience with the barefoot running/training movement combined with my background as a Doctor of Physical Therapy/Certified Athletic Trainer/Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist…nothing less and nothing more! I am not necessarily linking my thoughts to pages of valid/reliable research on the topic nor am I a “Barefoot Running Expert/Specialist/Guru”.

My experience in the barefoot/minimalist shoe movement probably can be traced back to my youth growing up in Vermont somewhere between local dyed-in-the-wool “Vermonters” and “crunchy-hippie” like transplants. Both of these groups have a history of naturally spending much of their time barefoot and so did I! Put it this way – a kid growing up in Vermont gets used to running around barefoot!

Of course while I was running around Vermont in my bare feet the monster shoe companies of the ’80s & ’90s were launching a different approach to footwear. They told consumers that our feet needed as much support as possible and that their shoe was the most supportive on the market. They said it and people followed! People found the most “supportive”/heavy shoe they could find and even added orthotics if they could fit them in amongst all of the chunky foam, rubber and plastic.

What was the result? The result was the same as it usually is when lots of people jump head first into the EXTREME end of a new movement – they got hurt! Foot, lower leg, hip, and back pain/pathology certainly was not solved by all of the extra support in the shoes and it may have even been exacerbated! I don’t have exact numbers on this but I do know that when I first graduated physical therapy school and started as a rookie in the field I saw a pattern with my foot/lower leg overuse injury patients: Mo’ support Mo’ pain!

Watch the below clip from Pain & Gain but envision runners from the ’80s & ’90s talking about getting their next pair of ultra-supportive shoes to take over the running world instead of roided up weight lifters talking about taking over the world one pound of muscle at a time…you will catch my drift…

What slowly happened next, from my perspective, was classic in a hysterical way. Kenyans were winning every race in the world apparently without a single foot/lower leg injury (supposedly while training barefoot or in minimalist footwear), Christopher McDougall wrote Born to Run about how the Tarahumara Indians had developed the ability to run hundreds of miles over treacherous terrain without rest/injury in makeshift sandals (great read by the way) and the “Barefoot Movement” promptly exploded! All of the people that had jumped off the boat on the side of the “ultra supportive shoe movement” scrambled back into the boat fearing they had jumped off the wrong side. They didn’t stop there though…oh no! They turned and did a cannonball off of the opposite side of the boat! Barefoot was KING!

What was the result? The result was the same as it usually is when lots of people jump cannonball-style into the EXTREME end of a movement – they got hurt! Foot, lower leg, hip, and back pain/pathology certainly was not solved by extremely minimizing support in the shoes and it may have even been exacerbated! I don’t have exact numbers on this but I do know that around this time was when I started getting lots of inquiries like the one in the first paragraph of this post. I saw a pattern: Mo’ minimalist Mo’ pain!

In an effort to answer your current question (‘SO WHAT THE HECK AM I SUPPOSED TO DO??’) I would like to share my thoughts on how to safely navigate the barefoot running/minimalist shoe battlefield:

  1. Do not choose footwear that is on the extreme end of the minimalist spectrum unless you have enjoyed barefoot activity/training your entire life and your feet/body have adapted/responded well to it.
  2. Always avoid running extremely long distances (more than a few miles in my world/mind) in extremely minimalist footwear. It will not end well!
  3. If you wish to determine if minimalist footwear could work for you be sure to do it gradually! There are different levels and even different levels within brands. Ask your shoe store employee of choice to give you some options in the mid-range on the minimalist spectrum and start there.
  4. When/if you do try a more minimalist shoe than you are used to do not go out and do the same running/training workout that you are used to. Dial it back…way back! This is critical. Try starting with walking around the house/work/yard in your new shoes for the first week. Then try doing 1/4 of the the normal run/workout you are used to and build SLOWLY from there!
  5. Resigning to the fact that your feet are bruised or the tendons around your ankles are on fire and just pushing through it for weeks is a clown-like move. If you are reading this and can say that you have done this then I award you NO POINTS and may God have mercy on your soul! 
  6. Be OK with the fact that your feet/lower legs/knees/hips/back etc…may simply not be able to tolerate something that looks like a glove for your foot to use for running 50 miles a week in.
  7. It is NOT a good plan to consider barefoot running/minimalist footwear if you have any structural/boney deformity related to injury or surgery in the toes/feet/ankles. Along these lines if you have used rigid/custom orthotics for a long time with reasonable results then I do not suggest messing with a good thing. As always in a situation like this if you are not sure and think you might still be interested in exploring barefoot running/training with minimalist footwear it is a good idea to ask your trusted orthopedic MD or skilled physical therapist. Just be prepared for them to refuse to answer and tell you: “That’s a Clown-Question bro!”.
  8. Avoid user error. What I mean by that is even if you do pick the PERFECT pair of training/running shoes it does not mean you can be an idiot! The exact pair of shoes that is exactly right for you will not protect you from overtraining to the point of injury (user error). Just because the knob on your car’s top-notch sound-system goes all the way up/to the right doesn’t mean you should expect to be able to crank it time after time without blowing out the speakers eventually!
  9. Understand that if you are going to run long slow distances without appropriately doing strength/interval/recovery work while employing appropriate nutrition then you will hurt yourself (regardless of your shoes). Check out these former posts to learn more about how to train right and avoid injury: A. 10 Exercises You Need To Be Doing and B. Things We Already Know: Runners Don’t Lift Weights! 
  10. If you have a beach nearby use it. Walking short distances barefoot or doing light/short runs in the sand can be a good way to ease your way into running/training in more minimalist footwear.
  11. Be sure that you don’t over-think the actual technique of “barefoot running”. You will hear that you must run on your toes/balls of your feet to be doing it right. This is true if you are sprinting but otherwise it is not the complete truth. Running at a pace other than a sprint, you will not/should not be completely up on your toes. Trying to do that will likely result in injury. Minimalist footwear does help to shift you more towards the forefoot while running but it does not automatically pop you up on your toes like I have heard claimed before. Do not think through every step or sride…just go out and run in a way that feels comfortable. Picture yourself running into a headwind, relax and just RUN!
  12. If you have a hill nearby use it. Doing a few light sprints up a short hill can be a good way to groove the natural “barefoot running style” that people talk about. Sprinting is not for everyone but Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance has a GREAT post here on how to EASE into sprinting the right way. 

This post is not about telling you what pair of shoes you should buy so you can be part of the minimalist movement. It is more about giving you a guide to see if it is right for you and if it is then how to do it right! I have used many different minimalist shoes/models and because of that I know what works for me. When I run I tend to do more sprint/interval work than long/slow/distance. During the past two years I have LOVED these worn out old New Balance Minimus models that are technically “walking” shoes. Essentially they serve one main purpose: Ensure that I don’t cut my foot on a piece of glass. NB

They work great for me but don’t forget I grew up running around in my bare feet, I do plenty of lower body/hip strengthening, I use my nearby beach/hill, and I am very precise about the volume/frequency that I run. This is what works for me and hopefully this helps you become less baffled about barefoot running!

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4 Responses to “Baffled about Barefoot Running?”

  1. John Bauer said

    Great post! I love information that is on one hand technically sound along with just plain practical and sensible. I often tell people that running is a sport of maintenance and recovery. With that said, what general advice would you give to runners that are looking for recovery methods?

    • tdifranc said

      John – I would suggest that runners be sure to incorporate lifting and I would argue that this is a sort of preventative recovery tool. I would also suggest that more is not better in terms of miles/hours on the road – accepting this would go a long way in the recovery process. Finally I would direct them to eliminate inflammatory oils from their diet (canola/vegetable/soy among others) and get lots of anti-inflammatory foods like leafy green veg and good fats from grass fed animals/wild fish. Hope that helps! Thanks for reading.

      TD

  2. Dennis Borg said

    TD good post…. we are doing a ton of work at the Micheli Center trying to figure out what the best way to run is. For the most part changing your footwear may not be the best answer. Although there is not a ton of research out there we are seeing good results in preventing injuries among runners by modifying their gait pattern. We do not encourage a certain type of footwear or foot strike pattern, simply drills to help avoid over-striding which is a “braking” force, thus slowing you down and making your body absorb more force than necessary.

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