There is a significant movement in the running community toward barefoot/”natural” running, given the huge success of Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run” and other highly publicized research such as that of Daniel Leiberman. The biomechanical changes that occur when switching to a more natural running style should help reduce/prevent injuries. During all the excitement, many people switch to barefoot, Vibram Five Fingers or other minimalistic shoes without taking the time to weigh the pros and cons. Moreover, many if not most people, switch over too fast, too much, too soon. This discussion will outline the basics of the benefits as well as a basic outline of making the transition.
Compared to running shod (with shoes) three major changes occur when people run without shoes (barefoot or with Vibram’s – research shows the two to be quite similar)
What we know:
Running barefoot generally (but not always) causes people to:
1. Land with more of a midfoot/forefoot placement
2. Land with the foot closer to the center of mass (i.e. reduces overstriding)
3. Increase cadence
These 3 factors will result in:
1. Reduced joint loads (particularly at the knee and hip)
2. Reduced loading rate (the rate that the landing impact force is applied – reduced “pounding”)
3. Reduced horizontal braking forces
Given these three big changes that occur when running barefoot, it would follow that people who overstride, land with a heavy heelstrike and/or have a low cadence might benefit from incorporating some barefoot running into their weekly mileage. By doing this, these people would generally adopt a more “natural” running style and thereby reduce joint loads, loading rate and horizontal braking forces. As I stated above, these are all positive changes that should reduce/prevent injury. Unfortunately, sometimes our bodies hold on to what they know best and in some cases, people who kick off their shoes fail to transition to a lighter, shorter, quicker stride. In those people, some technical training is required or in some cases, they may not be candidates for the barefoot/minimalist movement.
At this point, I should add that in my opinion, that the addition of barefoot running as a training tool is a wonderful addition to the runners toolbox. However, I am of the opinion that it is a very small minority of people that could transition entirely to barefoot/Vibram running. Since the age of 2, most of us have spent the vast majority of time in cushioned, very supportive shoes. This reduces the loading capacity (ie. weakens) of our bones, ligaments and muscles of the foot. That being said, I believe it takes years to increase the “tissue tolerance” of these structures. I believe that this is the trap that many runners fall into, which is in reference to what I stated at the beginning, regarding “too fast, too much, too soon.” however, as a training tool to help adopt a more natural stride, barefoot/Vibram running is excellent, if done properly. “Barefoot” isn’t the important part. Instead, it’s the change in running style that barefoot running usually causes (i.e, less overstriding, faster step frequency and less heel striking) that is important.
As your running style gradually changes, you may be able to gradually transition the shoe that you use for your regular running miles into a more minamalist shoe (i.e., less heel to forefoot drop, lighter weight etc.) Consult your local running specialty shoe store about this.
If you are interested in incorporating barefoot/Vibram running into your program with the goal being to change your form naturally, please see the program I have included below (adopted and modified from Blaise DuBoise, PT of runningclinic.ca). This program can be easily incorporated into your weekly mileage.
Please remember, consult your health care provider before beginning this program. Also, should any significant pain arise from barefoot running, stop the program and seek attention from a health care provider. When running barefoot, please do so on a treadmill or area you are sure contains no sharp objects.
• W=walk R=run ‘=minute
• Start and end each session with a 5 minute walk
• Example: week 1, day 1 = start with 5 minute walk, the run one minute and walk one minute 3 times. End with a 5 minute walk. You are done for this day.
• 5 days a week are used, they do not need to be consecutive days
• Depending on your symptoms: Go back one week or take 1 or 2 days off, Repeat the same workout or Skip one or two workouts
|Week 1||Week 4|
|3X (1’R / 1’W)||5X (2’R / 1’W)|
|4X (1’R / 1’W)||6X (2’R / 1’W)|
|5X (1’R / 1’W)||7X (2’R / 1’W)|
|6X (1’R / 1’W)||8X (2’R / 1’W)|
|7X (1’R / 1’W)||9X (2’R / 1’W)|
|Week 2||Week 5|
|8X (1’R / 1’W)||10X (2’R / 1’W)|
|9X (1’R / 1’W)||3X (3’R / 1’W)|
|10X (1’R / 1’W)||4X (3’R / 1’W)|
|11X (1’R / 1’W)||5X (3’R / 1’W)|
|12X (1’R / 1’W)||6X (3’R / 1’W)|
|Week 3||Week 6|
|13X (1’R / 1’W)||7X (3’R / 1’W)|
|14X (1’R / 1’W)||8X (3’R / 1’W)|
|15X (1’R / 1’W)||2X (4’R / 1’W)|
|3X (2’R / 1’W)||3X (4’R / 1’W)|
|4X (2’R / 1’W)||4X (4’R / 1’W)|