Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Coach Laura: Going Barefoot?

Coach Laura,

I've heard a lot lately about running barefoot. Even one of my friends has started running barefoot, which just sounds crazy to me. I like my running shoes with plenty of support, thank you very much. What do you think?


Not About To Go Shoeless

Dear Shoeless Joe,

You might be sorry you asked my opinion! I may not be running a marathon barefoot any time soon, but I think there are a lot of advantages to this barefoot movement. To clarify, I don't actually go barefoot, but I do use a pair of minimalist shoes for my training run. This allows my foot to have some basic protection from the road and any obstacles in it while still gaining the benefits of not having my foot encased in an unnatural shoe.

Experts are starting to see that our ancestors were right - letting our feet be more natural instead of being confined to or conforming to a shape that's not naturally our own is actually better for your foot and stride. It allows the muscles in the feet to strengthen, which can help make you a more efficient runner and athlete. 

You may also find that without shoes, your stride will change to its more natural form, which is a good thing! Many running shoes are designed with a higher heel and low toe, which forces the foot to land on the heel each time you hit the pavement. If you try running even a few steps without shoes, you'll probably notice  that your body will naturally protect your heel from landing first. Instead, you'll probably find yourself landing more towards the front of the foot, gradually rolling back towards the heel. 

True story - the first time I tried running with minimalist shoes I had just finished my first 5K. At the race's after party a vendor was there selling their brand of minimalist shoes. Like you, I had been hearing about this trend and decided to give it a try. I expected to feel sore and not last very long. Not only did I finish my standard three miles in a shorter time than usual, but had the energy and strength to go another mile and a half - something virtually unheard of for me! I wanted to go further but was starting to get "hot spots" on my toes. And that was the most painful part for me of transitioning from standard running shoes to minimalist - building up callouses. I'm proud of those hard spots on my feet now, because they are a badge of honor for me!

Here's a nice little summary of some advantages:
  • You may develop a more natural gait and strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot.
  • Removing the heel lift of most shoes helps the Achilles tendon and calf muscle stretch and lengthen and may reduce injuries, such as calf pulls or Achilles tendinitis caused by short, tight tissues. (Note from Coach Laura - this is one thing that made my plantar fascitis completely disappear!)
  • Runners will learn to land on the forefoot rather then the heel. The heel strike during running only came about because of the excessive padding of running shoes, but research shows this isn't the most effective natural running stride. Landing on the heel is essentially putting on the breaks every step. The most efficient runners land on the midfoot and keep their strides smooth, light and flowing. Landing on the forefoot also allows your arches to act as natural shock absorbers.
  • You may improve balance and proprioception. Without shoes, you activate the smaller muscles in your feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination.
  • You may feel more grounded. Being barefoot helps you improve balance, but it also helps you stay grounded and connected with your environment. You'll learn to spread your toes and expand your foot while it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all your movements. 
According to this Australian study
Running in shoes appears to increase the risk of ankle sprains, either by decreasing awareness of foot position or by increasing the twisting torque on the ankle during a stumble. 
Running in shoes appears to increase the risk of plantar fasciitis and other chronic injuries of the lower limb by modifying the transfer of shock to muscles and supporting structures.

If you feel like you want to start making the transition or at least give it a shot, start a little bit at a time.  Start by taking your shoes off and walking around the house barefoot. If you want to try something out doors but don't want to commit to the price of another pair of shoes, an inexpensive alternative or starting point is to get some cheap water shoes to try out - you know the ones - mostly neoprene with a thin rubber sole that you can find at a drugstore or similar store. 
Another advantage not listed above that I have found is that I don't have to buy running shoes very often. Since there's no thick sole on my minimalist shoes, there's nothing really to wear out. I've had the same pair of minimalist shoes for three years now! However, I don't recommend planning on using a $10/pair of beach shoes if this is something you're going to do for longer than just an experiment.
Here are some basic steps to get you on your barefoot way:
  • Take it slow. Try 5-10 minutes a day of walking barefoot, work your way up to 10-15 minutes of jogging every 3 days, and eventually get back to your normal jogging routine. If you try to push it too hard too quickly, you can do some serious damage to your feet and calves which will keep you off the roads for quite a while. (Coach Laura here: truth - I tried to do too much too fast and sidelined myself with some crazy calf stuff for longer than if I had just started more moderately.)
  • Stretch! Make sure you stretch after each walk and run.  This will help eliminate the crazy soreness after the first few rounds.
  • Run on grass when possible, go with asphalt over concrete. Get started on grass if possible, as that will provide the most cushion when you’re just starting out.  However, running on tough surfaces will certainly make you adjust that running style quickly!
  • Have fun with it. I run “barefoot” because it gets me excited about running and it's pain-free. 
 Remember, whatever you do, make sure you're having fun with it. If it doesn't work for you, that's okay - it doesn't have to. Just because I love it and will preach it to anyone who asks doesn't mean it's going to be your new gospel, and THAT'S OKAY.  The other day a friend of mine asked some exercise advice on Facebook and got as many different answers as people who responded. It reminded me that there is no one formula or answer for everyone because everyone's different.
Whatever you do, do it safely and fun-LY!
To your health,
Coach Laura

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