Barefoot Running — The Ultimate Low-Tech Exercise (Part 2 of 2)

This post is about running and comes with a disclaimer. I am not a medical doctor nor does a Ph.D. in anthropology qualify me to give out exercise advice. Use the following information at your own risk. Consult with a health-care professional before you hurt yourself. Thanks — Scott Johnson


Yesterday, I wrote about the evolutionary history of bipedal running. Today, I’ll talk about the barefoot or forefoot-strike running movement.

 

The Nuts and Bolts of Barefoot-Style Running

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Forefoot running tracks.

The first time I tried this out, I went full barefoot and ran 2 mi on asphalt roads — this was a mistake and I had blisters that took a week to heal. Note that at this time, I was regularly running 6–8 mi shod with no problem. The pads of my feet were not built up enough for this type of running so I looked into running barefoot style with shoes on.

I found plenty of academic studies suggesting that the biggest benefit of barefoot running was forefoot strike and shorter strides (Boyer and Derrick 2018; Lorenz and Pontillo 2012; Rice et al. 2016; Shih et al. 2013; ) not necessarily running without shoes. The studies that really jumped out at me were Rice et al. (2016) and Shih et al. (2013), which suggest exactly that fact: they took 29 and 12 runners respectively and measured the force of their footstrikes when running in different configurations: fore- and rearstrike with regular, minimal, or no running shoes. The results show that running with minimal shoes and a forefoot strike reduces the impacts and likelihood of foot damage.

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DIY “barefoot” running shoes.

Now I run in shoes with a wide toe box. I bought them for $5 at a resale shop about four years ago and cut the heel down with a electric carving knife. Then I pulled out the inserts to keep my feet as close to the ground as possible. In the photo, you can see where the ball of the foot and toes have great wear, and the heel looks worn only where I cut it down. In the above photo, the snow makes a good medium for showing how the forefoot is deeper and striking the ground while the heel floats higher.

A few cautionary notes should be mentioned here, though. Forefoot and barefoot running does have some dangers, although at least one study shows that this style of running correlated with half the number of injuries compared to rear-strike running in padded shoes (Daoud et al. 2012). It is, however, more taxing on the Achille’s tendon, and thus the transition should be gradual (Rice and Patel 2017). Also it is noted that people who are new to forefoot-strike running may injure themselves at the end of a longer run when fatigued and losing form (Melcher et al. 2016; Tam et al. 2017)

I’m not going to give a tutorial on barefoot running here, but I will link a video below, in case you’re interested. I do want to go through the things I noticed the most in my transition to forefoot-strike running.

  1. You will slow down and lose distance at first. This is learning a new skill. I ran a marathon with a 7:45-min/mi pace with rearfoot strike. When I switched, my pace dropped to 10-min miles, slower than I’d ever run. Also, I could not run as far because of item 2.
  2. You’re going to use different muscles. When you run with a forefoot strike, your calf muscle is absorbing the load and impact instead of cushioned heel pads. My calves got sore after 2 mi. It took a while to build up to long distances again, which was frustrating.
  3. Your stride will shorten and quicken. With padded running shoes, people tend to stretch out their leg in front of their center of gravity and land on their heel. Without that padding, you’ll shift to land on your forefoot just under or in front of your center of gravity. This cuts your stride by a third, so to cover the same distance, you need 1.5 times more strides meaning a faster cadence.
  4. You’ll feel like you’re floating. Instead of bounding between steps, you’ll be gliding with small, light steps. My steps are so quiet that people walking on the same paths don’t hear me running up behind them.
  5. Your posture will become more upright. I envision a thread attached to the highest point of my head, above the ears, pulling me upright. This aligns my body and increases the feeling of floating.

If you’re interested in a video, here’s a good place to start:

If you’d rather read a book on the topic, the place to start is Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run.

 


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