Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Barefoot Running in Shoes

I run barefoot ... but I wear shoes while I do it.

Several years ago, I became fascinated by and caught up in the rise of barefoot running.  It was inspired - mostly - by the publication of Chris MacDougal's fascinating non-fiction narrative Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super-Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.  MacDougal's theories on and investigation into "barefoot running" was truly engaging investigative journalism on par with with the work of Eric Schlosser or Thomas Freidman.  And sales of Born to Run were aided by a timely and often-emailed New York Times article which also sang the praises of running "the natural way."

Until that time, I had gradually moved away from running and into more biking as I approached my forties and developed what the trainer at my school called bursitis, or more seriously a pre-arthritic knee. That didn't please me, but I had never been a passionate runner, and I truly enjoyed biking.  The problem with running was the mild discomfort behind the kneecap after a run, and the stiffness in the knee early in the morning, especially as I headed down the stairs.  I learned a few exercises and added the occasional rounds of MSM, glucosamine, and chondroitin to my vitamin regimen.  It was better in the summer and fall and worse during the winter and spring.  Of course, when I talked about running 5Ks and 10Ks like the BolderBoulder, our trainer shamed me with talk of his 85-year-old father speed walking the races.

And then I started reading Born to Run, and it made so much sense.  The anthropology and evolutionary biology behind his research was fascinating and convincing.  And the stories of the Stanford track team kicking off their complimentary Nikes during practice because they preferred running barefoot was intriguing.  Ultimately, the truth became clear - we've been running wrong.  Man is meant to run on the balls of his feet, but the rise of the running shoe industry had introduced the heel strike, which ultimately screws everything up.  In fact, our trainer even noted how my heel strike was contributing to my pain.  And we shouldn't have a heel strike.  If man is running naturally - like the way you would run if you were barefoot in the front yard and your toddler ran into the street in front of a car - he would be running on the balls of his feet.  It puts all the stress on the quads and the calves where it should be and completely off the knee joint where it shouldn't.

So, I began to change my gait.  And the knee soreness slowly faded away.

The rise of barefoot running has led to a new wave of products such as the Vibram Five-Finger Shoes.  And they are certainly popular.  Other shoes like the Merrells, Newtons, or various forms of Adidas offer a better running shoe style because they don't contain all the extra padding designed to offset heal strikes.  I'm personally a big fan of New Balance and always have been.  They work quite well for the barefoot runner.  It's not necessary if people are hitting on the middle to the balls of their feet and then lowering the heel to then push off with the calf for the next stride.  Ultimately, you should jog and run in the same gait that you sprint.  And no one sprints with a heel strike.

So, pick up Born to Run and give it some thought.  Then kick off the shoes, head out on the grass or a soft track, and give it a try.  It will definitely save your knees, if not your life.  And, in a teacher's view of running, it doesn't even matter if you keep your shoes on for your barefoot running.


Adolfo Neto said...

If you don't run (completely) barefoot, the muscles of your feet will never get as strong as they deserve to be.

mmazenko said...

You may be right. But, I would argue that at least changing my gait for a barefoot style, even if wearing a Merrel or Vibram, is preferable to a heel strike. And, since many will probably never make the full transition to barefoot running, I think proposing the gait shift alone is worthy of discussion.

Lou Reiner said...

I would agree that it's about the form not the footwear.

BUT, I've seen hundreds of runners in minimalist shoes who THINK they've changed their form but haven't. I have videos from runners who have been TEACHING "barefoot style" running for years who, in their VFFs or Merrells were still heel-striking and overstriding.

FWIW, if you want footwear/protection and the closest thing to barefoot: www.InvisibleShoe.com

mmazenko said...

Thanks, Lou.

I have a student who runs in huarache-style "shoes," and he loves them. In fact, he made his own.

Having not like the Vibrams too much, I'm going to stick with minimalist shoes. But, I am evolving.