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Should We Run Barefoot?

Recently there has been a lot of focus on the concept of running barefoot.  Some purists suggest we should all be running barefoot, period.  Personally, I don’t care for the word ‘should’.  It implies someone else telling me what to do or be, when we all have to decide that for ourselves.

But can we just go run barefoot?  To help answer this, consider how long it has been since you ran barefoot.  20 years, 40 years, 60 years?; most of us have not run barefoot since we first learned how to run as toddlers (*).  How many years of shoes, dress shoes, high heeled shoes, perhaps periods of inactivity, or of modern running shoes do you have in you?  These are just a few examples of all the stimulus the body is adapting to every minute of every day.  This adaptation happens slowly and if we want to reverse the resulting changes in posture, muscle strength, flexibility, balance and confidence; it may take time to do so safely with limited risk.

If you decide to one day go for your regular run barefoot, you are suggesting that you have a ‘fast forward undo’ card.  Nature probably does not work well that way for most of us.  But I am not suggesting that this approach (or any other approach) is wrong or impossible, just that we can be met with resistance if we go against nature.  In many cases, running barefoot can be very helpful in reconnecting with our sense of the ground and how we are interacting with it.

[*We might consider that the way we run ‘naturally’ is the way we ran instinctively as young children in bare feet.  This is the same way many people or cultures who have been running all of their lives continue to run.  They have maintained the instinct for running efficiently and without injury.  There are numerous images and videos on the internet – some examples of ‘natural’ running might be elite Kenyan runners, and also the Tarahumara Indians from Mexico in a related post Natural Running Technique.]

Challenges

Here are some challenges to running barefoot:
– Let’s face it, most runners are Type A personalities. Running ‘less’, get ‘slower’ or take a few ‘numerical’ steps back to move forward in a new way is difficult.  In our society, we tend to want ‘more’ and want it ‘now’.  Going barefoot will require a period of adaptation with limited expectations of speed and distance to reduce chances of over-stress and injury.  Running barefoot takes constant focus, ongoing practice and patience.  There are no shortcuts to developing new habits.  The most effective approach is likely to make Gradual Progress resulting in long term success.
– Running barefoot is best done with relaxed feet.  Putting feet/body/mind in the unfamiliar situation of being barefoot on an unfamiliar surface will likely result in mental apprehension and physical tension, particularly in our feet.  Many runners run tense and stiff already as it is in shoes, so being barefoot presents an even larger challenge to staying relaxed.  Relaxed feet means less stress at impact, less effort in the lower legs, less overall tension, less resistance to motion, and even a reduction in the fight or flight response that can be caused by cramped feet.
– It can be dangerous out there.  Danger exists on the roads, sidewalks, everywhere; even on the trails and grassy areas you will find man-made (and natural) obstacles to distract you and promote apprehension.  Unfortunate, but reality.

Options

Here are just a few approach options:
– Option A: Do nothing.  This is heading out the door, shoes or shoeless, and hoping for the best.  Given that 65-80% of all runners get injured every year, we might consider learning all that we can to avoid being part of that statistic.  Many times a simple and subtle adjustment can have a significant effect on our running experience.
– Option B: Run barefoot and let your body figure out the necessary technique. In this case,  the body provides feedback to the mind; and the mind attempts to make adjustments.  This approach can be risky, frustrating and can sometimes take a lot of time via trial and error.  This may also not result in the highest possible level of running efficiency.  To this ‘let the body guide you’ approach, you might add a few ideas suggested by others.

[Note: Even cars these days have a powerful computer that uses sensors to make operational adjustments.  The difference here is that the computer is pre-programmed with a complete understanding of how the vehicle is designed and how it operates most efficiently.]

– Option C: Learn how to run barefoot before you run barefoot; so that you could run barefoot if you wanted to.  Meaning, pre-program the human computer.  This approach is mind/body, where the mind and body act as a team.  The mind directs to the body based on learned principles; and the body provides feedback to that process.  In this case, basic knowledge of anatomy, principles of nature and laws of physics are applied proactively to improve technique.  As technique improves the body will naturally sense and signal a change in footwear is available.  Then small steps to change footwear occur generally along this path: Motion Control shoes to Stability to Cushioning to Racing Flat to Minimalist to Barefoot.  Small steps suggest small changes as well as a gradual adapt-in period for the body to get comfortable with any change.  In this case; technique, balance and confidence are all developed in parallel.  Also in this case, this approach is clearly Rooted in Principles which can each be used more or less depending on one’s own experience.  When or if you change your footwear is based completely on your own instinct and experiences.

Do I Personally Run Barefoot?

I don’t, but have a very good sense that I could.  I run almost all of my miles in very light, very flexible trail racing flats.  I started working on my running technique about four years ago in a very stiff Motion Control shoe.  As I improved my running technique over months, I found I needed less and less shoe.  As I worked on my alignment, I reduced pronation and moved to a cushioning shoe.  As I improved my interaction with the ground, I reduced the need for cushioning and moved to racing flats and trail racing flats.  This also increased my ability to sense my interaction with the ground.

New Balance 790

I now run most of my miles on all surfaces in New Balance 790 Trail Racing Flats; and have completed several ultra marathons up to 50 miles in them.  I have recently started running more and more without any insert at all.  I also keep my shoes tied loose.  I slip them on and off without needing to untie them.  This does two things.  First, it keeps my feet very relaxed since the shoe does not constrict my movement and allows it to land naturally within my shoe.  It also gives me constant feedback on my running technique.  If my feet slide around in my shoe, then my technique must is off due to undesired horizontal forces in my feet.  So my chosen shoes have become an aid to my technique practice with limited to no interference.

I have run short distances at times barefoot to get feedback on my running technique.  I also use running barefoot at times with my clients.  There is nothing like a hard surface to teach someone how to be ‘soft’.

I have considered running barefoot more but sense this would add risk in terms of safety, and adversely affect my focus on technique.  I personally want to explore the unknown path more while further refining my technique.  Being barefoot may interfere with those goals.

Technique

Here are a few technique points to consider for both barefoot and shod (**) running:
– Aligned posture with shoulders over hips over ankles
– Relaxed feet
– Midfoot (full-foot) landing to use primarily the structure of the lower leg/foot for momentary support
– No lower leg effort, no pushing off with the feet/toes
– Highly efficient position and motion by cooperating with the forces of nature; which means a subtle forward lean from the ankles to engage the pull of gravity and feet landing under the posture line and not in front of it

[** shod, an interesting new term meaning shoe-d.]

There are many running ‘techniques’ approaches to consider, many taking a purist position on ‘right’, ‘wrong’ and ‘should’ – a position I do not take.  I am partial to ChiRunning due to my own success implementing its simple principles and their benefits.  My experience is higher and higher levels of effortless running with virtually no recovery; and the elimination of all aches/pains and injury.  If the above list makes sense to you; then please check out ChiRunning and see if it can work for you also.  Perhaps there is just one ChiRunning concept that will make all the difference for you.  Or perhaps there are additional time-tested principles of nature that can be helpful.  After all, we are talking about running more ‘naturally’.  Proactively applying principles of nature seems like it could be an efficient approach to moving in that direction.

[Note: If you are a walker (aren’t we all …), then ChiWalking is a great way to apply the same principles of nature to walking and hiking.  And applying more focus to walking can lead to higher levels of running technique since we get to practice our running all day long].

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David Stretanski is a holistic health, fitness and wellness coach and Certified ChiRunning®/ChiWalking® Instructor. For more information on David, please see his About Me, Contact page or his website at http://www.eChiFitness.com.

ChiRunning® and ChiWalking® are registered trademarks of ChiLiving, Inc.

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Posted on Monday, Oct. 5th 2009 10:38 AM | by echifitness | in All, Barefoot/Minimalist, ChiRunning, Fitness, Wellness | 9 Comments »

9 Comments on “Should We Run Barefoot?”

  1. thinnmann Says:

    David,
    This is a very well written post. It presents all sides without bias. It provides plenty of additional information for people who are interested. There is only one statement I disagree with, as a part time barefoot runner. It is, “It is dangerous out there. Danger exists on the roads, sidewalks, everywhere; even on the trails and grassy areas you will likely see some form of man-made danger from time to time. Unfortunate, but reality.” I disagree because the running shoe itself presents just as much danger, possibly more, in terms of injuries caused, strength lost, and bacteria growing in there. Also, the most damage my feet have ever suffered while running barefoot were not from “man-made danger”, but from natural objects: sticks, acorns, roots, bees.

  2. Greg Heinemann Says:

    Hey Dave,

    Great post. Have you looked into the Vibram Five Finger shoes as a way of helping yourself work into the bare foot running. They’re pretty amazing.
    Like you said, people need to be proactive about the rest of the body and it’s ability to execute function and respond to the new stimulus!

    Great job my friend! Health through motion!

  3. echifitness Says:

    Hi Gene,
    Thanks for the read and the feedback – appreciate it.

    Agreed on your specific comment. My point there was the perception of danger to bare feet; and the effect on running tense. After re-reading, I agree I only presented the man-made scenario and neglected the natural. I think there are numerous challenges on many levels no matter where you on the scale from over-shoe to no shoe; to what (perceived) degree it exists and how you can train yourself to limit them is up to the individual. Re: Bacteria; I am not sure I will be running barefoot on Manhattan sidewalks anytime soon, although I am sure it would teach me a new level of running ‘light’.

    Balance in all things, with gradual progress in the direction of our goals.
    Thanks again.

  4. echifitness Says:

    Greg,
    Thanks – happy you enjoyed it. I have looked into the VFFs, but they are hard to come by locally with all the publicity lately. I might be able to order over the net, but would really like to fit them on before I purchase. If you know of any local sources, please let me know.

    Health Through Motion indeed. I learned that one 10 years ago now from Pete Egoscue himself. I would not have been running a few months later without The Egoscue Method, and certainly not running ultras now without posture as a solid foundation for the ChiRunning technique.

    Thanks again for connecting.

  5. Joe Says:

    Dave Excellent topic. I recall in my road racing days going to the high school track once a week for interval training, and occasionally taking off the running shoes and running bare foot on the football field grass. At first, it felt very strange after all those miles on the roads (in shoes). However, with little concern for safety, I really enjoyed running barefoot several times, focusing on my posture, a neutral mid-foot plant and staying as light as possible on my feet. I would recommend it to all runners. Best Regards Joe

  6. Laura Says:

    I think the choice to run barefoot is a very personal one, and should be made without the ego involved (i.e., if everyone else is doing it then I should too) – we call this nonidentity in the ChiRunning world. 🙂 I agree with Joe that if you can, you should try it once in while. I prefer to do it at least once a week just because once I get into it, I feel it really helps me relax more and enjoy my run. But I probably won’t end up doing it all the time, but who knows?

    I wear Vibram 5Fs but they aren’t for everyone. If you have a wonky toe, or just something not in the “norm”, they won’t fit as well. I had to stretch the second toe on mine since I have Morton’s toe. There are other options if you can’t wear them, like Feelmax (mostly available in Europe) or just plain old aquasox. A barefoot running friend of mine (Barefoot Jon) wears aquasox when snow and ice are on the ground (Vibram 5Fs now has the Flow for that). A little funny story here – he ran a 5K at a local nudist camp run (Bare Buns Fun Run) but was too shy to go all nude so he wore a thigh length Tshirt. It was funny to him to see all these naked people except for their shoes, and he as the opposite – naked feet only!

    Anyway, nice post!

  7. How Should We Run? (Part 1) « EnerChi Fitness Blog Says:

    […] is that 'Should' word again (see post Should We Run Barefoot?).  Personally I am not a fan of this word, but using it again here to make a […]

  8. How Should We Run (Part 2) « EnerChi Fitness Blog Says:

    […] is that 'Should' word again (see post Should We Run Barefoot?).  Personally I am not a fan of this word, but using it again here to make a […]

  9. Bill M. Says:

    I have run 1x-2x a week barefoot, with Vibram Five Fingers KSO (VFF) or in aquasocks for about 10 months. Of the three I actually liked the $5.00 aquasocks made in China and sold at Target. They were thin, I could wear my usual running socks and my feet spread out on each foot fall. The problem is they only last for 50 or less miles. If the VFF’s were not shod exactly right I would get blisters on the outer side of my big toes. I am eyeing the Killkenny flats but haven’t gotten to buy them yet. In this 10 month time I have not endured any of the upper leg muscle issues I had with shoes that had thick stiff soles and a built-up heel. When I started I had soreness in my calves but it eventually went away as I got used to the barefoot gait. I did get a foot bruise wearings Vff’s last August by stepping funny and stomping my arch on a rock to avoid an unleashed dog. Running barefoot does requires constant attention to the ground surface and everything around you. I think I have benefitted overall from varying my footware from heeled/firm soled to thin flexible sole/no heel. I now worry more about the free-range canines in my neighborhood looking to cause a different kind of leg pain. Maybe I should carry dog biscuits on my runs?

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