Ask an Expert: Barefoot Running

Is the barefoot running trend over–or are there real benefits to minimalist running? – Kevin

It’s been an interesting few decades in the running shoe industry. We started with a lower heel-to-toe drop (the difference between the height of the heel versus the toe in a shoe) in the 1970s where you could pretty much feel the ground as you ran over it. As time passed and running became more mainstream, running shoe drops grew beefier and beefier, adding more cushion with every stride. Remember the Nike Shox?  I do, they rivaled my high heels on a Saturday night!

When the best-selling book Born to Run was published, it changed the running shoe conversation by highlighting the benefits of running barefoot as well as running with less under foot. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it as it’s as entertaining as it is educational and definitely defines the biomechanics of running in a way that would make anyone want to shed their shoes and head out for a run.

The truth is, we are made to walk and run barefoot, and doing so provides proprioceptive benefits (muscle sense) with the land that we move across. A perfect example of this is when a young child learns to walk and stabilize. Many times they are barefoot and they can feel the ground they are trying to move across. When you add shoes to the mix, they almost have to relearn how to walk because it reduces the body’s connection to the ground and rather than their body stabilizing, the shoes do more of the work along the way.

(Authors note: The same is true for my dog Bear! When I put those cute little winter mittens on all four of his paws, it took him weeks to learn to walk normally in them because he couldn’t feel the ground underfoot.)

Does that mean we should all donate our running shoes and run barefoot? No.  It simply means, that if we wanted to invest the time to evolve back to living barefoot – we could. When I raced in Fiji, there was a native that helped us across a raging river and through a cut bamboo field. His feet looked liked shoes–large and wide–and moved without even as much as a scrape on his feet through the field.

My point: our feet are well protected and well supported–almost to a fault. The running shoe industry is righting itself now with a more balanced approach to shoes. They went from pushing shoes that looked like sandals to minimalist shoes that had a little extra protection to now, what I believe is a hybrid, between the beefier models and the minimalist (what Goldilocks would deem “just right”).

Although barefoot running was a craze, it led to a greater understanding of shoe technology and biomechanics. It is also fair to say that if the shoe works for you, don’t mess with it. I’ve heard from so many runners that went from running without issues to changing to barefoot or less shoe overnight to find Achilles and calf issues a month later.

It’s important to note that if you want to run in less shoe, you will need to allow time to adapt to running in less shoe and in some cases on a lower to the ground stride. When women wear high heels, all the muscles, tendons and joints have to adapt and shorten (tighten) to move safely. Over time, our body’s response is often tight, short calf muscles and Achilles. Like a higher drop running shoe, if you go from high to low to quickly, you’re putting 2-3 times your body weight with every stride putting the tight, short muscles under great pressure.

The key is to train your body just as you would for a marathon: a gradually progressive program that includes strengthening your feet, ankles and core, investing time simply wearing “less shoe” and including range of motion and flexibility exercises for your feet and ankles. Yoga is an effective way to do this because all of the exercises are done without shoes. If you’re like me, at first this led to cramping of the toes and feet, but over time, my feet adapted and allowed me to walk barefoot around the house without issue and eventually wear less shoe under foot.

The benefits of running in less shoe are a greater sense of the ground underfoot, better stabilization from within, improved balance and range of motion and form that encourages landing in the mid-foot, which can help reduce impact forces up the body as you land.

Finally, sometimes we can get so caught up in the details that we miss the truth. Many runners can make the transition safely to wearing a shoe that has less support and cushion and with a lower drop. But for many, it could mean the difference between running healthfully and not running at all due to pain.  It’s always best to be mindful of what works for you – and then go with it.

Happy Trails.
Coach Jenny Hadfield

Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.

Ask an Expert: Best Running Surfaces

Running SurfacesI typically run on the sidewalks around my neighborhood – is this bad for my joints? Is there any benefit to switching it up and running on different surfaces like the road, grass, loose gravel, etc.?  -Sarah

Running on a variety of surfaces is a great way to mix up your routine, boost your motivation and improve your running performance. The key is to learn about the pros and cons of each to make the best choice for your personal running life. Here is a list that will guide you in the right direction.

Sidewalk

  • Pros:  A safe, out of the line of traffic place to run, especially in urban areas and in the darkness. Many sidewalks, if in good condition, provide a predictable and even (not cambered) terrain, which allows for better running form and alignment.
  • Cons:  The concrete sidewalk surface is much harder than asphalt and create greater impact forces on the body versus the road, track or path. You may need to stop and start to cross streets, navigate pedestrians and other obstacles on the sidewalk throughout your run, not allowing for a continuous flow and pace.

Street/Road

  • Pros:  Running the roads can be as inspiring as a scene out of Forrest Gump.  There are a plethora of options and roads to explore and you can start right outside your doorstep or hotel room. The asphalt is easier on the muscles, joints and tendons than the sidewalk. Although there still may be some points you’ll need to stop and go for lights and traffic, you can generally get into a continuous running tempo.
  • Cons:  Many road and streets are cambered with a crown or peak in the center and an angle toward the side of the road. Running on an uneven surface can create muscle imbalance and alignment issues including knee and ITB pain as one leg is landing slightly higher on the ground than the other. Safety is an issue, especially with high speed traffic and distracted drivers. Always be sure to run against traffic to see and be seen.

Paved Bike Path

  • Pros: This terrain is the little black dress for runners. It offers the stability of an evenly graded sidewalk, with the forgiveness of an asphalt road, without automobile traffic. Many paved bike paths are marked so it can be a good way to develop your pacing skills and perform speed workouts as you can run uninterrupted.
  • Cons:  Although beautiful, many of these bike paths run through secluded areas and forests. Always run in groups, carry ID and cell phone and be aware of your surroundings. Keep your ears to the path so to hear bike and recreational traffic coming from behind you.

Crushed Limestone Path

  • Pros:  Perhaps one of the best terrains for running, limestone paths are typically flat to slightly rolling, evenly graded and very forgiving on the body. Less impact on the body means more efficient recovery and progression in your performance. They offer a safe haven from automobile traffic and a tranquil running environment. Many of these trails are can be found in parks and forest preserves, are well marked for distances and have bathrooms along the way.
  • Cons:  Unless it is outside your door or work, limestone path runs may be best suited for longer training runs or weekend excursions when you have more time to getting there.

Single Track Trail

  • Pros:  These trails run through the heart of forests and back country and undulate with the terrain. They are narrow and organic which makes for a truly unique running experience. It’s not uncommon to run over rocks, tree roots and across streams. Every step demands your attention making it a zen-like running workout. Similar to mountain biking, it develops running strength and finesse and decreases the risk of over use injuries due to running in the same wear pattern on more predictable terrain.
  • Cons:  You are running well off the beaten path in an isolated area where animals, bugs and adverse weather may cross your path. Technical trail running is energy demanding and like mountain biking or downhill skiing, it requires time to adapt and learn the optimal skills to run efficiently.

Track

  • Pros:  Your local high school track is a safe place to run your mileage as you’re off the busy streets and out of traffic. Most tracks are measured and marked where four laps equal one mile and therefore it is a great way to learn how to pace yourself naturally. All you need is your shoes and a watch or timer. The track is also a predictably flat surface and a great place to learn to run and perform speed workouts. A bonus benefit: many tracks are made from a forgiving rubber material that it easy on the muscles, tendons and joints.
  • Cons:  Unless you live by a track, getting there can be a hassle for the busy-minded runner and some tracks have limited public access usage. Running in a circle can become monotonous for some runners who enjoy the sense of exploration.

Happy Trails.
Coach Jenny Hadfield

Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.