Should You Run Barefoot?

20 07 2011

Running shoes are on a diet. Over the past 2 years, the slimmed-down barefoot and minimalist sneakers have found their way into nearly every shoe store thanks to the popularity of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Runand a 2010 Harvard study that touted barefoot running’s forefoot strike and its low impact on bones and joints.

But injuries are rising with shoe sales, says podiatrist Marybeth Crane, a foot and ankle surgeon in North Texas. “I’d say that 85 percent of my patients get injured trying to transition to the new shoes.”

The problem for those trying it isn’t the shoes, though, but weak feet and poor form, according to emerging research.

Our ancestors’ way of running—landing on the forefoot—produces almost zero impact on joints and bones, the Harvard study found. Researchers videotaped runners on treadmills landing heel first and forefoot first, and measured the ground reaction force of each footstrike. They found landing heel first, as 75 percent of all shod runners do, generates up to three times the body’s weight in impact force—shoes or no shoes. (Related from Men’s Health: Yes, You Were Born to Run.)

So what’s causing the injuries? Some runners took to the road in thin-soled shoes without changing their foot strike accordingly—continuing to land on their heels, but now with less cushioning to absorb the impact. Minimal shoes drop their heel height from the standard half an inch to 1/7 of an inch, which can cause overuse injuries in unaccustomed calves and achilles. “Standard shoes have made our intrinsic musculature weak,” says Cane. “Too much, too soon, too fast in a barefoot shoe can strain the musculature to the point that it breaks down.” As a result, she says several newfound devotees are hobbling around with stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, and neuromas in their toes.

Researchers are conducting studies as we speak that compare injury rates between minimal and standard shoes, but results may still be a couple years away, says Saucony Human Performance and Innovation Lab director Spencer White.

Should You Go Bare?

If you suffer from repetitive stress injuries every year, you might want to consider switching to a midfoot or forefoot running form to take some of the stress off your joints, says Daniel Liberman, Ph.D., the professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard who conducted the landmark heel-stike/forefoot-strike studies. Just make sure to adjust your stride, strengthen your feet, and don’t rush the transition from regular shoes to minimalist shoes.

While it is possible to run with a forefoot strike in a regular shoe, experts don’t recommend it. It’s too easy to fall back into old habits. Plus, the midfoot strike—which can be easier to learn—is impossible in a thick-soled shoe. (It’s like running in high heels; since your heel is elevated, you’re not actually doing a proper midfoot strike.)

Before You Begin: If you’re overweight, or have nerve damage, diabetes or any serious orthopedic issue, you need a more supportive shoe—minimal shoes aren’t made for everyone.

Change Your Gait

Overstriding—when feet land in front of your body—forces the heel to land first. “The most efficient footstrike is one that lands exactly below your center of gravity, usually under your hips” says Crane. Aim for a quick cadence of 180 steps per minute and your feet should fall into place.

If you’d rather not overthink it, White suggests getting on a treadmill and force yourself to run quietly. “If you worry about landing on your midfoot or forefoot, you’ll work too hard,” says White. “Listen to the sound of your steps and make them quieter. It’s about treading lightly—a heel striker can’t do it. Your body is smart enough to figure out how to modify that motion.” To run quietly, your body must fall into place—your stride will shorten, feet will move under your hips, posture will straighten up or move forward slightly and it will be easier to land midfoot.

Build Slowly

Run no more than 200 to 400 meters during your first time in the shoes, and then, increase that distance by only 5 or 10 percent for each consecutive run. You don’t have to drop your mileage, just spend a small percentage of it in the minimal shoes. “It could take you a month to build up a mile of running,” says Crane, who estimates that only 15 percent of her clients manage to stay injury-free right after switching to minimal shoes. “Our body gets stronger with small incremental increases in stress, but breaks down and gets injured with large incremental increases,” says Crane. “This is why we stress a slow, gradual transition.”

Strengthen

Before you lace up your shoes, Crane advises you spend a month strengthening your feet for the job. “Our feet have been braced in shoes for most of our lives, weakening the muscles and muffling our inherent proprioception,” says Crane. A series of moves every day will prepare your feet for the new movements:

Towel Crunches. Bulk up the tiny muscles that stabilize your toes by placing your foot on a towel and crunching it up with your toes. Do 10 times and then rest for 30 seconds; do three sets.

Heel Walking. A quick way to strengthen shin muscles is to roll back and walk on your heels for 30 seconds before resting for the same amount of time. Do three sets.

Inside Foot/Outside Foot Walking. Follow the pattern of heel walking. Roll feet inwards toward the arches until you’re balanced and walk to strengthen medial muscles (posterior tibial muscle and abductor hallucis). Then roll your feet toward the outside edge and do the same to strengthen lateral muscles (peroneals).

Deep Forefoot Squats. Roll up and onto your forefoot, then squat down as far as you can or until your upper legs are parallel to ground and your butt is hovering over heels. Hold pose for 30 seconds and then stand up for 10 seconds rest; repeat 5 times.

Balance Training. Balance on one leg with other leg bent for 30 seconds. Switch legs; repeat 5 times.

Visit the Men’s Health Running Center for training plans, expert advice, and more ways to banish injuries forever.

—Rachel Sturtz

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