Should We Be Running Barefoot?

Posted by David Stretanski on Tue Feb 2nd, 2010, 5 comments

Recently there has been a lot of discussion on the concept of running barefoot. There are some purists who suggest we should all be running barefoot, period. Personally, I don’t care for the word ‘should’ in any context. It implies someone else telling us what to do or be, when we all have to decide that for ourselves.

But can we just go run barefoot? To help you answer this, consider how long it has been since you ran barefoot. 20 years, 40 years, 60 years?; most of us have not been running barefoot since we first learned how to run as toddlers (*). How many years of shoes, dress shoes, high heeled shoes, perhaps periods of inactivity, or of modern running shoes do you have in you? These are just a few examples of all the stimulus the body is adapting to every minute of every day. This adaptation happens slowly and if we want to reverse the resulting changes in posture, muscle strength, flexibility, balance and confidence; then it may take time to do so safely with limited risk.

If you decide to one day go for your regular run barefoot, you are suggesting that you have a ‘fast forward undo’ card. Nature probably does not work well that way for most of us. But I am not suggesting that this approach (or any other approach) is wrong or impossible, just that we can be met with resistance if we go against nature. In many cases, running barefoot can be very helpful in reconnecting with our sense of the ground and how we are interacting with it.

[*We might consider that the way we run ‘naturally’ is the way we ran instinctively as young children in bare feet. This is the same way many people or cultures who have been running all of their lives continue to run as an adult.  They have maintained the instinct for running efficiently and without injury. There are numerous images and videos on the internet - some additional examples of ‘natural’ running might be many Kenyan marathon runners, and also the Tarahumara Indians from Mexico. More on this in a related blog post: Natural Running Technique.]

Challenges

Here are some challenges to running barefoot:
- Let’s face it, most runners are Type A personalities. Running ‘less’, get ‘slower’ or take a few ‘numerical’ steps back to move forward in a new way is difficult. In our society, we tend to want ‘more’ and want it ‘now’. Going barefoot will require a period of adaptation with limited expectations of speed and distance to reduce chances of over-stress and injury. Running barefoot takes constant focus, ongoing practice and patience. There are few shortcuts to developing new habits. The most effective approach is likely to make Gradual Progress resulting in long term success.
- Running barefoot is best done with relaxed feet. Putting feet/body/mind in the unfamiliar situation of being barefoot on an unfamiliar surface will likely result in mental apprehension and physical tension, particularly in our feet. Many runners run tense and stiff already as it is in shoes, so being barefoot may present an even larger challenge to staying relaxed. Relaxed feet means a midfoot (fullfoot) landing and results in less stress at impact, less effort in the lower legs, less overall tension, less resistance to motion, and even a reduction in the fight or flight response that can exist if you run on your forefoot.
- It can be dangerous out there. Danger exists on the roads, sidewalks, everywhere; even on the trails and grassy areas you will find man-made (and natural) obstacles to distract you and promote apprehension. Unfortunate, but reality.

Options

Here are just a few approach options:
- Option A: Do nothing. This is heading out the door, shoes or shoeless, and hoping for the best. Given that 65-80% of all runners get injured every year, we might consider learning all that we could possibly do to avoid being part of that statistic.  Many times a simple and subtle adjustment can have a significant effect on our running experience.
- Option B: Run barefoot and let your body figure out the necessary technique. In this case, the body provides feedback to the mind; and the mind attempts to make adjustments. This approach can be risky, frustrating and can sometimes take a lot of time via trial and error. This approach may also not result in the highest possible level of running efficiency. To this ‘let the body guide you’ approach, you might add a few ideas suggested by others.

[Note: Even cars these days have a powerful computer that uses sensors to make operational adjustments. The difference here is that the computer is pre-programmed with a complete understanding of how the vehicle is designed and how it operates most efficiently.]

- Option C: Learn how to run barefoot before you run barefoot; so that you could run barefoot if you wanted to. Meaning, re-program the human computer. This approach is mind/body, where the mind and body act as a team. The mind directs to the body based on learned principles; and the body provides feedback to that process. In this case, basic knowledge of anatomy, principles of nature and laws of physics can be applied proactively to improve technique. As technique improves the body will naturally sense and signal a change in footwear is available. Then small steps to change footwear occur generally along this path: Motion Control shoes to Stability to Cushioning to Racing Flat to Minimalist to Barefoot. Small steps and a gradual adapt-in period are used for the body to get comfortable with any change. In this case; technique, balance and confidence are all developed in parallel. Also in this case, this approach is clearly Rooted in Principles which can each be used more or less depending on one’s own experience. When or if you change your footwear is based completely on your own instinct and experiences.

Do I Personally Run Barefoot?

I don’t, but have a very good sense that I could. I run almost all of my miles in very light, very flexible trail racing flats. I started working on my running technique about four years ago in a very stiff Motion Control running shoe. As I improved my running technique over months, I found I needed less and less shoe. As I worked on my alignment, I reduced pronation and moved to a cushioning shoe. As I improved my interaction with the ground, I reduced the need for cushioning and moved to racing flats and trail racing flats. This also increased my ability to sense my interaction with the ground.

I now run 100% of my miles on all surfaces in New Balance 790 Trail Racing Flats. I have recently started running more and more without any insert at all. I also keep my shoes tied loose. I slip them on and off without needing to untie them. This does two things.  First, it keeps my feet very relaxed since the shoe does not constrict my movement and allows it to land naturally within my shoe. It also gives me constant feedback on my running technique. If my feet slide around in my shoe, then my technique must be off due to undesired horizontal forces in my feet. So my chosen shoes have actually become an aid to my technique practice with limited to no interference.

 

New Balance 790

New Balance 790

I have run short distances at times barefoot to get feedback on my running technique. I also use running barefoot at times with my clients. There is nothing like a hard surface to teach someone how to be ‘soft’.

I have considered running barefoot more but sense this would add risk in terms of safety, and adversely affect my focus on technique. I personally want to explore the unknown path more while further refining my technique. Being barefoot may interfere with those goals.

Technique

Here are a few general Chi Running technique points to consider for both barefoot and shod (**) running:
- Aligned posture with shoulders over hips over ankles, and with a level, stable pelvis
- Relaxed lower legs, ankles and feet
- Midfoot (full-foot) landing to use primarily the structure of the lower leg/foot for momentary support
- No lower leg effort, no pushing off with the feet/toes
- Highly efficient position and motion by cooperating with the forces of nature; which means a subtle forward lean from the ankles to engage the pull of gravity and feet landing under the posture line and not in front of it

[** shod, an interesting new term meaning shoe-d.]

There are many running ‘technique’ approaches to consider, and there are some who take a purist position on ‘right’, ‘wrong’ and ‘should’ – a position I do not take. We all have to decide what works for us. I am partial to Chi Running due to my own success implementing its simple principles and their benefits. My experience is higher and higher levels of effortless running with virtually no recovery; and the elimination of all aches/pains and injury. Perhaps there is just one Chi Running concept that will make all the difference for you. Or perhaps there are more of these time-tested principles of nature that can be helpful. After all, we are talking about running more ‘naturally’.  Proactively applying principles of nature seems like it could be an efficient approach to moving in that direction.

[Note: If you are a walker (aren’t we all ...), then Chi Walking is a great way to apply the same principles of nature to walking and hiking. And applying more focus to walking can lead to higher levels of running technique since we get to practice our running all day long].

Please share your thoughts and any questions in a comment below.

Enjoy,
David Stretanski
Chi Running®/Chi Walking® Certified Instructor
NJ/Northeast USA

 

Tags

  • injury prevention,
  • barefoot running

5 CommentsLeave a comment below

I just took a workshop from Chris Griffin in San Francisco. I had gotten fed up with my knees, shoved my prescription orthotics and stability shoes in the back of the closet, reread Chi Running, and went out running in martial arts shoes. Even though I went short distances, it was not a good idea! My knee actually got a lot better, but I started getting awful blisters on my toes. Turns out I wasn’t letting my heel hit the ground; I was “prancing” on my toes (as Chris called it, haha).

It makes perfect sense. I knew a cocktail waitress who couldn’t walk barefoot on the beach because her achilles was shortened from wearing heels all day. Well, how high of a heel do you think orthotics plus stability shoes have? That’s a good two inches minimum!

Moral of the story: Do Not Defy The Law Of Gradual Progress! I should have done what you did—lower or remove the orthotics for a while, then move to a more flexible shoe with a lower heel for a while, and gotten myself into neutral shoes in a couple years.

I am trying to run “barefoot” with Vibram Five Fingers.  Things went well for a few months till I developed a pain in the tarsal tendon on my right foot.  It went away after several weeks, body sensing and reevaluating my progress through chirunning.  The same condition developed this past month in my left foot.  Even now that condition is slowly subsiding and a once again feel comfortable when running.  My lesson is that gradual progression is not an option.  The pain may be sudden, and the relief is certainly gradual.  I feel that the pain endured has brought me closer to the principles of Chirunning and I am/will be a better runner because of it.  But beware of the constant struggle against going faster, farther, harder while barefoot.  Do it gradually, thoughtfully, smartly.  Then one you may forget you ever wore running “shoes”.

David Stretanski Feb 2nd, 2010 09:52am

Logan, thank you for your comment. Congratulations on your ChiRunning ‘practice’. The Body Loosener: Ankle Rolls is a great exercise for the whole foot. I would do them in shoes to protect the toes, but tie them very loosely so the foot/ankle is not restricted. Really try to make the rolls circular; and notice any difference in stiffness clockwise vs. counter clockwise and left vs. right.

Then try to reproduce the relaxed lower leg feeling when you are running. Also try to keep your feet pointed forward. Any amount of everted feet results in knee/lower leg rotation and torque which is very stressful.
Enjoy,
David.

I just bought my first pair of VFFs and have yet to take them out on a real run. When I tested them out in the store (on a treadmill - which I generally can’t stand and which may have affected my running form in any number of ways), I noticed that I was landing on the balls of my feet, not my midfoot where I usually land when wearing traditional running shoes. I’m not certain my heels ever touched down, actually. From what I’ve read on other forums addressing barefoot running and VFFs, this isn’t uncommon, and certainly better than a heel-strike. But, should I be attempting to train myself back to more of a mid-foot strike as I used to have in my running shoes? Or is the forefoot strike a better adaptation in this case? I’m a little wary all together about anything concerning my footstrike, as I am still recovering from a stress fracture of a sesamoid in the ball of my foot (interestingly, this old injury tends to only bother me when I walk, and not when I run). Any insights?

David Stretanski Feb 8th, 2010 02:14pm

Hi Ellen,
That is very common to want to run more forefoot when barefoot/VFF and midfoot when in running shoes. Some possible reasons why:
- Geometry: most running shoes raise your heel up so the Achilles/calf is at a larger angle. When you take away the shoe, the ankle/lower leg has a hard time with the smaller angle needed to land midfoot. Achilles/calf stretch and Ankle Rolls Body Loosener are good options to work on this.
- Apprehension: it takes time to get used to being is less or no shoes. Tension in the feet could promote a more forefoot landing.

Landing on the forefoot engages the foot/ankle/lower leg. This is a relatively small part of the body doing a big job. In ChiRunning we are working to relax the extremities and move based on position. ChiRunning suggests a relaxed midfoot (fullfoot) landing:
- To allow the foot/lower leg structure to support your body weight through momentary support.
- To ‘soften’ and distribute your landing and reduce stress on the foot; or any one part of the foot.
- To allow an efficient forward fall over your feet. An engaged or tense foot/ankle/lower leg can impart resistance in the ankle (hinge).

So there are potential trade offs in stress, impact and effort if you land forefoot. If you use a practice run to work on this, consider just focusing on one-legged posture stances with a relaxed fullfoot landing. If you do Ankle Rolls beforehand, try to replicate that feeling on the practice run.

You injury might only be bothering you when you walk if you only push off with your toes when you walk; and not when you run.
Hope this helps,
David.

What are your thoughts?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Share Your Story image

Share Your Story

We love hearing from you!

Whether you're a veteran marathoner or just getting started on a fitness routine, please let us know how Chi Running and Chi Walking have changed your life.

Write to us > >
Home