Barefoot Running: Does Running Without Shoes Make Sense?
Over the years running shoe makers have convinced us that without their expensive footwear, with arch support, ankle support, and plenty of cushioning, we would destroy our knees from running. Of course, through out this discussion these companies have become very rich. Whether you believe them or not is up to you. If you're curious about an alternative, barefoot running, read on!
Not long ago, if you had mentioned the idea of barefoot running to anyone, they would've thought you were referring to jogging along the beach without shoes. But, this relatively new phenomenon, which has yet to be scientifically vetted, is becoming more and more popular with runners of all ability levels particularly those that have suffered injuries from traditional running i.e. wearing regular running shoes.
If you think about it, our feet are miraculously designed. They can take a lot of pounding and abuse, and rather than breaking, they just become stronger (with proper rest of course). So, when did it become more natural and healther to wear thick padded running shoes?
When you run with running shoes you will notice that the heel of the foot strikes the floor first. But, is this normal biomechanics? Or does it happen because of the thick running shoe heel, which changes the natural position of the foot so the back is higher than the front? Not to the same extent, but almost like wearing high heels. When the back is higher than the front, you can't help but land with the heel first. The problem with this is that when the heel strikes first it's like putting on the brakes! Try it. Take 10 running steps and stop suddenly. Which part of the foot stops you? The heel. So, why do we run with the heel striking first? Isn't it like putting on the brakes with every single step?
The other thing to consider is that when the heel strikes first, there is no natural cushioning mechanism. There is no place along the leg that can safely absorb the impact. Therefore, the force travels straight up the leg, which can damage the ankle, knee, hip, and lower back.
Now, try running barefoot. You don't need to go far, just try it around the house. Don't take long strides and try and keep your foot under your body as it lands. You will notice that the front of the foot hits the ground first. Yes, it'll feel a bit weird, but that's because you haven't done this since you were a little kid, before you discovered shoes.
This doesn't mean that the back of the foot doesn't touch the ground, it just means that the front lands first (just a fraction quicker) and then the heel lands. With this method, the foot is better able to absorb the impact because the muscles of the foot are designed for doing so. As a result, you will have less force travelling up the legs.
Barefoot running needs a bit of practice. Start slowly, and on a treadmill at first. Make sure you get the hang of it and give your feet time to strengthen. And be warned that your calf muscles will get quite sore the first few times. That's because new muscles are being used.
Now, obviously there are many situations where it's just not practical to run barefoot e.g. at the gym, in cold weather, over very rough surfaces. As an alternative you might want to consider barefoot running shoes. These shoes are also known as "zero drop" and that means that the front of the shoe is the exact same thickness as the back of the shoe. So, the heel is not placed in a higher position compared to the front of the foot. These shoes come in a closed format like regular shoes. Or you can get them where the shoe is like a glove, and your toes fit into the shoe the same way fingers fit into a glove.
Whether you choose to go without shoes entirely or use shoes that closely approximate barefoot running, remember that the principles of exercise still apply. Don't overdue it, hydrate, and eat well for maximum performance!