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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Beware Newbie Barefoot Runners!

In spite of what your friends and what self appointed "fitness gurus" might tell you, running does not injure your knees, running does not injure your back, nor your hips, or your ankles, or any other joint in your body.  Let's put it this way, you can run poorly, or you can run properly.  When running properly, you should never experience back pain or pain in your legs other than that of a good workout.  You see, barefoot running has been blamed for a sudden increase in heel pain, plantar fasciitis, and other pains in the legs and feet.  Well, it's not the actual act of running in a barefoot or minimalist manner that is causing these injuries.  It's the person that is partaking in the barefoot running that is causing injuries to themselves because of improper barefoot running mechanics.

The whole concept of barefoot running is that of getting back to the root of when the populous of this world didn't wear shoes or shoes that were of "minimum" support.  Barefoot running is getting back to the use of all of our leg and foot muscles in a very proficient and efficient manner. We as a people have become extremely lazy regarding the way we move and give very little attention to proper movement.  Our shoes are so cushioned now that we just stomp and plop our feet down with out even having to think about how we walk.  In fact, trying to correct foot supination and foot pronation is rather comical.  Being either supinated or "over pronated" is an accumulation of daily lifestyle habits.  We can choose to pay attention to how we walk and utilize muscles in our feet and legs, just as we pay attention to how we sit our desks, whether we slump or sit straight.  Well, when getting back to walking and running in minimalist footwear or barefoot, our running and walking are performed very differently than if we had supportive shoes on.

I'm going to be a bit harsh here, but if you're heel is hurting after even just several minutes of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, then you probably deserve it!  You can't expect to step out of a supportive shoe and then run in the same manner that you did when in the shoe.

Foot mechanics as well as mechanics in your legs are very very different when running minimalist style.  Here's why:
1.  First of all, your heel shouldn't be forcefully striking the ground when running barefoot!  You should be reaching for the ground with your mid foot when running barefoot.   
2. There should be relatively no up and down motion during your running stride and therefore eliminating a downward impact on your heel.  All of the energy put into running should be forward and not upward.  To really get the concept of this, look at an elite 100 meter sprinter or a middle distance runner.  Look at the way their foot strikes the ground, watch how they hold their trunk, and notice how little their body will translate in an up and down direction during their running stride.  Everything they do is pure efficiency, a smooth transition in to forward propulsion.  There is no energy lost in upward movement.  There is no time lost moving from a heel strike to mid-foot, to toe off.  It's a mid-foot strike to toe off and even then, the toe off isn't going from the small toe over the large toe, it's just straight forward.  And take a close look at their shoes.  The don't have a supportive or padded heel at all!  As said before, this is because they don't even come close to striking their heel.

So, getting back to the heel and foot pain when initiating barefoot running, you need to approach this technique like a gymnast being newly introduced to the pommel horse.  It takes practice, it takes time to develop proper technique, and it takes time to get to know your body again when starting something this new and challenging!  The payoff though is super incredible!  You'll develop a great awareness of your body, you'll develop more muscle in your feet, legs, hips, and lower back, you'll burn more calories in the same amount of time, and your fitness level will sharply increase!

The best thing of all is that if you do start barefoot running with an injured leg or foot, this injury will probably go away after a short while as long as your introduction to this type of running isn't too quick or aggressive.  This is because you'll most likely be normalizing a muscle imbalance, one that was most likely caused by foot wear that is "too" supportive and therefore reduces the amount of muscle activation that is required when wearing something more natural.  If you want speed and efficiency, then go barefoot but use the right technique!  If you are new to running or running barefoot, find a coach and have a couple of sessions with this running coach.  It will be worth the investment!

I wish you the best of luck with barefoot running and minimalist shoe running.  Be smart about it though!  The payoff is more than you would have expected.  If you have any questions or concerns, just drop me a note and I'll do my best to help out!

Happy Bipeding!

Brad Senska, PT, DPT, BS.