Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Barefoot Running - PART II (Yes, there's something to it)

So in Barefoot Running - Part I We saw the flaws in some of the classical arguments for barefoot running; specifically that the modern running shoe was the bane of injury free running in the recreational runner and that shoe companies propagated the modern running shoe technology 'myth' just to make money at the expense of said runners.

But while barefoot running is 'hyped', it's not all 'hype'. There are some very good reasons to at least explore ways that barefoot running (or it's close cousin - minimalist running) can help you run more injury free.

First and foremost - barefoot running, or running in a very minimalist shoe, will help you reconnect with the feedback from your feet as they impact the ground. It will help raise awareness on how your foot strikes the ground and how it articulates throughout it's departure. It will make you more aware of your balance points and it will also help to gradually strengthen the various muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones (density) in your feet. And if you have any doubt that your foot is about as complex as a structure gets in your body, take a gander at this picture (and these are just the muscles):

That's a whole lot of moving parts! And each one is just sitting there, waiting to cause you problems if you don't pay attention to using it in the way it wants to be used.

Another safe way to try out minimalist running is simply to invest a pair of minimalist shoes. Certainly you can drop $100 bucks on some Vibram 5 Fingers models, or any number of racing flats or minimalist offerings from each of the major running companies - but you could also go out and get a pair of canvas boat shoes too. After all, you are not looking for support, cushioning and stabilization. You are just looking for something that protects the soles of your feet from the nasty stuff on the ground you may encounter while providing minimal interference between your foot and the ground.

A better way to drop $100 bucks would be to go seek out a few running clinics. There, the instructor will look at your running form and give you some advice on how to be a more efficient runner. Running efficiently means expending the least amount of energy possible to move forward at a particular pace (i.e. as much energy as possible directed to moving you forward instead of banging your feet on the ground in an improper way).

I won't get into all the different running form schools of thought. There was actually a great article in Running Times last month that said that there really is only one way to run efficiently, and that all of the various methods (Pose, Chi Running, etc.) were just different variations of the same theme. Pick a good clinic, and you'll get the essential elements of proper running form.

As for the folks that say that 'running comes naturally to us' - I say bullocks. Not the type of running we do. Not trail running, or marathons or track work, etc.. And cavemen didn't spend 8 hours a day sitting at a desk, hunched over a computer screen, trying to squeeze in a quick run at lunch. Neanderthals didn't wear Ecco shoes, or high heels and didn't carry around 20 lbs of extra weight. Take a clinic - I see people all the time out there that are just pounding the crap out of their bodies rather than directing that energy in a forward moving direction. Arms flailing, over-striding, shuffling, head hanging down, hunched over. Of course if their purpose is to burn as many calories as humanly possible over the shortest distance - then "that's a BINGO"!

And here's a way to experiment with some of the benefits of barefoot running without even running. Just try to walk around more in your bare or stocking feet. Go get a pair of canvas Sketchers for the office and mall. The problem with the ortho shoes and inserts is that they unnaturally support your feet. Of course, if you are on your feet all day, then this can help with fatigue, but don't forget that muscles unused are muscles that atrophy. And atrophied muscles are more prone to injury. Simply stated, if you spend a little time walking around in your stocking feet, and a little more each day - they your feet will slowly build up more strength and resilience to injury. I personally walk around in my stocking feet at home all the time and a lot of times at the office. At the end of the day my feet feel like a million dollars. Again - start slowly. It takes time to build strength in any part of your body. Weeks and months and years.

In summary, barefoot running has some great things to offer. But IMHO it's a bit over-hyped and insubstantially vilifies some practices, companies and approaches that aren't villains. Like any craze, there are the religious zealots that will take you right over the edge and into the ER. My advice it to slowly and safely experiment and slowly add some easy walking and eventually running barefoot into your weekly workouts. But when it comes to doing serious speed or distance work, slap on those high tech, cushioned stabilizing works of technology and art - the high performance running shoe. If you've done your clinic work and focus on constantly improving your efficient running form - then they aren't going to make you run wrong. But they will keep you safe when you accidentally do.

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