Here’s something interesting. About a week ago, I posted this picture on Instagram:
It got a lot of attention, and not for the reason I thought it would. Instead of the run-of-the-mill comments about high mileage, I got a bunch of “you’re running barefoot!!”‘s and “are you running barefoot?!”
I thought I’d take the opportunity to expand on my barefoot running escapades to hopefully answer some questions and solve some riddles.
Stick with me and there’s a surprise for you at the end of this post!
First, let’s start with the why. Why was I running barefoot in this picture? Because my foot hurt. (Typing this out sounds oddly familiar to something I’ve read before but I promise it’s not intentional.) Anyways. My left ankle was bothering me. I couldn’t figure out if something was legit hurting or maybe it was just the tongue of my shoe bothering me. Perhaps I had laced them too tight. I wasn’t quite done with my workout yet, though, so I did what any
normal person runner would do and I took off my shoes and continued on with my run. Lo and behold, my feet and ankles felt much better and I finished my run with no issues. In this example, I used barefoot running to pinpoint and fix a problem.
But there are other reasons barefoot running can be used. Here are a few:
You Should Try Running Barefoot
Running barefoot changes almost everything about running form. Stride shortens, cadence quickens, and foot strike changes. But how and why?
Lessen the Impact
First and foremost, running barefoot forces you to become quick and light on your feet. When observing a runner with shoes and then the same runner without shoes — most often the latter shifts to land toward the middle or ball of the foot. Landing on the ball of the foot as opposed to the heel allows for much less impact from the foot strike through the entire leg all the way up to the hip. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a heel striker so please don’t think you need to go out and change your footwear and form. That’s not what this post is about. Keeping reading.
Shorten that Stride
When the foot strike shifts, the next thing to change is typically stride length. If you run in traditional running shoes (with 10-12 mm heel drop), you may be plagued by persistent running injuries. In many cases, an overstrider is also a heel striker. While heel striking in and of itself is not bad, the moment of impact could be the culprit. If you’re a heel striker, you might notice you tend to “reach” with your foot and overstride by allowing your heel to make impact with the ground ahead of your center of mass. It’s at this point — the overstride — that can lead to injury-trouble for many runners. I’ve been there before, multiple times in fact, and it’s not awesome. One of the things I’ve personally worked on is shortening my stride length and it helps immensely.
Quicken Your Cadence
The next thing to follow with shortening your stride is quickening your cadence. This is a natural progression and again, not something you necessarily need to worry about or work on if you’re running just fine. But if you shorten your stride, your cadence is likely to quicken which is definitely a good thing. When you quicken your cadence, you take quick, short steps. This is ideal because then you’re not hitting the ground ahead of you — you’re actually making contact right beneath your center of mass.
A note here before we go on — I have always had a fairly high cadence (176-180 or so). Cadence alone is not a safeguard against or predictor of injuries. Despite having a high cadence, I overstrided — a lot. It lead to injury after injury. The takeaway here? Shorten that stride!
Let’s get back to the original question:
Why does barefoot running help?
Receive immediate biofeedback.
If you’re an overstrider and you overstride barefoot, your body will tell you right away. But more often than not, it won’t tell you because you’ll naturally take shorter steps. Running barefoot every now and again can help to “reset” your form.
Running barefoot can help you work out the kinks.
Like my example from the beginning of this post — I felt lousy in shoes but as soon as I took them off, my running improved immediately. In this case it was just an instance of poor lacing, but running barefoot can tell you a lot about your running self if you need to do some research.
Barefoot running will help develop muscles you don’t ordinarily use.
The human foot is a complex appendage. There are over 100 muscles in the foot, and there’s evidence to suggest activation of some muscles does not occur when wearing traditional running shoes. Which makes sense, right? Your toes can’t naturally splay in a traditional running shoe, and they certainly can’t grab like they do when you’re barefoot. It’s no wonder all the muscles don’t activate in shod runners. Muscle development of the large muscles is always a good thing. Therefore, muscle development in feet is no different.
I’m ready to run barefoot. How do I get started?
First and foremost, if you have never run barefoot before you need to start slow. Please don’t kick off your shoes and expect to run a 5-miler sans footwear. Don’t even try to run a half mile. If this is your first time, try for 2-5 minutes at a time. No, seriously.
If you don’t ease into it, you risk serious injury to your feet, your Achilles, and your calf muscles.
A treadmill is the easiest and safest bet.
A treadmill is in a controlled environment. There’s no gravel, gum, sticks, or glass to worry about. Most gyms will likely frown upon barefoot running so I recommend trying this at home if possible.
The football field of a local high school track is a good option.
If you’re unable to run indoors on a treadmill, the next best option is to head to your local high school and run on the football field inside the track. It is usually free of debris like sticks and gravel but be sure to check it out before you start. If it’s your first time running barefoot, running down and back the length of the football field a couple times is sufficient.
A park will do, too.
If you can’t run indoors and you can’t find a football field, a park will work, too. But be sure to find a low-traffic area and carefully inspect for debris such as broken glass, cigarette butts, gravel, and sticks. (Not everyone that uses the local park is as eco-conscious as runners!)
Once you get used to running a few minutes at time sans shoes, you can increase your time on your feet. If you’ve ever made the switch from traditional running shoes to minimalist footwear, you’ll recognize this protocol. It can take weeks — sometimes months — to build up the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs to make the switch from shoe to bare. Be patient. Running barefoot is super fun but don’t overdo it.
I’m not a doctor. If you’re reading this post and you’re injured, please don’t attempt running barefoot to fix your problems. Get to a PT, a chiropractor, a podiatrist — anyone that can help properly diagnose your situation — and then come back here after you have a plan of action with your healthcare provider. Barefoot running is not the end-all, be-all of running injuries and injury prevention. It’s just one tool of many that works for some people.
I run barefoot every couple of months to work the kinks out. Barefoot running is awesome, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you have limited sensation in your tootsies, skip it. If you don’t have a safe space to run, don’t. But if you do decide to try it just remember to start slow.
And now I have a treat. As the Cleveland Marathon ambassador of the week (wahoo!), I get to give a FREE ENTRY to one of you! And who doesn’t love free stuff, amiright? Check it out and then check out my fellow ambassadors — all giving away free entries in the coming weeks!
TALK TO ME!
Do you run barefoot?
Have you ever been told you overstride? How did you correct it?
Did you sign up for the Real Runners Virtual Summit? <—— link!
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