I love following the barefoot debate. It gets me a little heated and also makes me laugh… I’m emotionally invested. The recent article from the NY Times: “Barefoot Running Can Cause Injuries, Too” was no different. What I enjoyed, more than anything, was an inbox full of questions. Students and fitness instructors from around the world asked me what my opinion was and most importantly: did this worry me?
I will use the term barefoot and minimal interchangeably – although barefoot means NAKED feet and minimal refers to a shoe which offers relief from cushioning, heel lift, motion control and arch support. A minimal shoe also allows the toes to separate – in a very wide toe box or ideally, with each toe in its own pocket, assisting separation, like the Vibram FiveFingers® shoe that was sited in the article.
Folks, running minimal doesn’t SOLVE running injuries. Approximately 75% of shod runners are “heel strikers” (Hasegawa et al., 2007) – meaning, they touch down heel first – similar to a normal walking gait (but faster – and with 1.5-3x their body weight of impact with each step). Running barefoot properly requires that the runner land either midfoot or forefoot. The study cited in the article does not indicate if the “new to barefoot” runners learned and mastered a new strike pattern. Nor does it state whether “new to barefoot” runners engaged in a foot fitness program anytime prior to the beginning of the study.
Most running injuries are a result of over-training, and in this case, it seems the bone marrow edema may be a lack of proper technique compounded with under-developed and foot and lower leg muscles. For example: imagine that you had your arm in a cast for 8 weeks. Once the doctor removed it, would you do push-ups? Of course not. You would begin with therapy to rehabilitate the muscles, connective tissue and joints. You would re-build local strength and endurance until you were prepared to re-introduce the pushup exercise to your body again.
As a “new to barefoot” runner – you need to consider the atrophied muscles and stiff joints that have been cast in shoes for (how many?) years. The cushioned heel lifts have allowed you to develop a contracted calf complex; therefore eccentric training is paramount. Walking steep hills (15% on a treadmill – 3.0 speed – have fun!) and other smart dynamic barefoot workouts (yes, like willPower & grace®) are crucial. Additionally, strengthening the intrinsic foot muscles are particularly important, which is why it’s important to perform foot specific exercises.
Barefoot running FEELS GOOD – so “new to barefoot” runners often do too much, too soon. If practiced correctly, in fact, it feels as though you are floating. The turnover rate per minute is about 180 – meaning that your foot is not in the air very long. Minimal runners tend to plantar flex (point toes) as they approach landing, minimizing impact, leading to a more springy leg, absorbing impact. Core engagement is also a key factor in deceleration and minimizing impact. However, these are learned and practiced skills for most traditional shoe-wearers and heel strikers.
New York City Podiatrist Dr. Emily Splichal asserts: “Everyone should have their running gait recorded and assessed.” Understanding your own gait is an incredibly helpful tool – as you will need to make micro-adjustments along the way – since you are not depending a man-made corrective device in your shoe.
Am I worried about the NY Times article? Not a bit. My position? Any new method or sport must be practiced at length to be mastered, why would anyone begin a running program without preparing for it? With regard to barefoot sports, Vibram Five Fingers® brings you close to being barefoot – but this shoe does not make your feet stronger or solve running injuries. YOU build strong healthy feet, while being barefoot (or close to it). YOU reduce impact by using your body more functionally, more efficiently. Only you can teach your body to move like a primal (human) being. However – you need to learn the drills and practice: after all, thanks to traditional athletic shoes, you’re domesticated now. You’ll need to re-learn primal skills. Have patience, be consistent, rest, recover and take good care of your feet (this includes massage). Be aware; tune into your body, and be safe out there.