An introduction to Barefoot running

It’s evolution, baby

Humans have been around for somewhere in the region of two million years or so. The humble cushioned sports shoe/ trainer has been around for maybe about 50 years.  So how did we run before that??  Ah, yes, we didn’t need shoes!  If you think about it, humans are the only upright, two-legged, running species – the minute we started to move further and more efficiently than anything else was how nature engineered us to run.  It wasn’t as a result of new technologically designed Nike/adidas/Mizuno trainers!  So we are naturally designed to be moving without shoes.

If we are designed to run naturally, why do so many of us have running injuries?

A huge proportion of our sensory receptors are in our feet i.e. the signals that go between our body and our brain to tell us how to interact with our environment – to move, to keep our balance etc.  But if we’re covering our feet with super-padded, uber-shock absorbing, over-protective materials, then our feet aren’t in touch with our environment in the same way, so our brain isn’t getting the best signals to get us to make quality movements.  The body is incredibly clever, so it adapts quickly.  The more we wear our comfy shoes, the less effective our feet become at telling our brain how to move.  Therefore we become reliant on our super-padded, uber-shock absorbing, over-protective shoes because the muscles, tendons and ligaments in our feet and ankles have not been used to their potential, and are quite weak.

And most of us “jog” – something in between a walk and a run – which only grew in popularity around the 1960’s. Before that our body motions mainly involved walking, running or sprinting.  While we naturally walk using a heel-toe movement, we actually naturally run landing on our forefoot first – but jogging has introduced this new ‘hybrid’ style. The heel-toe movement is fine for walking, but is not designed for the heavier forces that are present when we run.

So our muscles, tendons and ligaments are not being used effectively enough, and the “jogging” motion is causing us to land in a somewhat unnatural way – putting force through our legs that we’re not used too.

What should be done to get back to “natural” running?

There are a number of stages and exercises one can start to do to re-train the sensors in our feet, and re-strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in our lower body.

The following exercises will build up your strength and ability to barefoot run, however for most people, actually running barefoot around your local area might be a little unappealing given the state of the roads/tracks (broken beer glasses, sticks, stones etc)!  There are a range of ‘minimalist shoes’ now available, that do away with the super support of normal running trainers and allow your feet/ankles to do the most efficient running whilst providing protection from the immediate environment.  You’ve probably seen the shoes with ‘fingers’ for each of your toes – but the one I am personally keen to promote is the Vivobarefoot range – of which I can offer you a special 20% discount code if you are interested in buying some!  Read on for the strengthening exercises:

1. Barefoot walking.

Take off your shoes and socks and start walking barefoot again – try it across a variety of surfaces inside and outside the home.  Think about moving your weight smoothly from your heel to your big toe. As your feet and brain start communicating again, your steps will become less tentative and more confident.

2. Barefoot squatting.

The deep barefoot squat
The deep barefoot squat

Learning to deep squat properly (not just to the point where your knees are at right angles, but to the point where you’re almost sitting on the ground, with both feet still firmly planted on the ground) teaches you three important things that will maximise your barefoot running style and minimise your chance of injury when barefoot running:

– Balance: A proper deep squat will have you balanced over the balls of your feet – crucial for barefoot running

– Strength: A proper deep squat will build strength in those lower parts of the body needed for barefoot running

– Flexibility: A proper deep squat will improve the range of movement in those tendons, muscles and ligaments in your ankles, knees, hips and spine

3. Barefoot jumping.

Once your barefoot walking and squatting okay, you can take it up a level by making it more dynamic and jumping.  It will build on the strength, balance and flexibility gained from barefoot squatting and teaches you about balance and motion as well.  You can build on this by moving from 2-legged to 1-legged jumps.

4. Barefoot running.

Once you’re comfortably doing all three previous stages you’ll be ready to run! You’re brain and feet will be reconnected, and you’ll have better posture and rhythm.  It’s still a new way to run though, so don’t expect to be able to do the same distance as what you’ve been doing in regular training.

While it sounds reasonably straight forward, it’s important to take the time to build the strength and flexibility required to barefoot run properly – don’t (barefoot) run before you can (barefoot) walk!

I am working on stages 1 and 2 at the moment so will keep you updated on my progress.

Get in touch if you’ve got any questions about this!

~ Cozzie

One Response to An introduction to Barefoot running

  1. Pingback: Barefoot running anyone? | Helping Hearts 2013

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