Feel the Dirt Move Under Your Feet

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How barefoot training can help you fly

Four years ago, I shattered my femur and hip in a near-death accident, and now sport a titanium femur and hip, have had 10 knee operations, have little or no lateral and medial menisus, no left ACL and a near inch leg-length discrepancy. I was told I would never run again. I tried running, though, and my body fell apart. I went from overuse injury to overuse injury, including plantar fasciitis, shin splits, patellar tendonitis, chondromalacia, IT-band syndrome and hip problems. I couldn’t find a way to run pain free—until I started running barefoot.

This article appeared in our October 2010 issue.


Photo by Kennan Harvey

Since then, I have been a promoter of barefoot running as a tool for every runner. Barefoot running is low-impact, toe-centric, promotes good form, enhances stability and adaptability, strengthens your feet and provides a feeling of connection to the earth. So take off your shoes and incorporate barefoot into your training to bring out the natural runner in you.

Mind Your Form

> Keep your pelvis neutral (waist level). In  a mirror, make sure you’re not bending at the waist, a bad habit that may be attributed to high-heeled running shoes.

> Stand erect. Imagine a string from the top of your head pulling you tall.

> Run from your center.  Breathe low, i.e. inhale till you feel it just below your belly button, and exhale fully to the same spot.

> Keep your chest up and open and shoulders wide and relaxed.

> Carry your arms wide, keeping them bent at a 90 degrees or less.

> Lean forward from your ankles, letting gravity do the work

Stop the Pounding

According to a 2010 study by Harvard’s Dr. Daniel Lieberman, running barefoot with a forefoot strike has only a third of the impact of running in a shoe. “In heel striking, the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact … a nearly instantaneous large force,” says Lieberman’s study. “This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. With a forefoot strike, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates very minimal impact force … quite simply, a runner can avoid experiencing the large impact force by forefoot striking properly.”

Another recent study in the journal PM&R by researchers from the University of Colorado and University of Virginia suggests running in a high-heeled (heavily cushioned) running shoe produces 56-percent more dangerous torque at the hip and 38-percent more torque at the knees than running barefoot.

Cushioned shoes dampen your ability to sense what’s happening beneath your feet. You’ll therefore automatically hit the ground extra hard with each step just to compensate for not feeling the ground directly. Although Lieberman’s study insinuates a distinct correlation between such forces and common running injuries, it emphasizes that there are no definitive supporting studies.

“‘Barefoot’ running in Vibram FiveFingers a few days a week has vastly improved my ankle stability and helped me get rid of my patellar tendinitis. The foot, ankle and calf strength and stability I have gained has helped my trail running immensely,” says Nichole Embertson of Santa Rosa, California. “It has also led me into using a minimalist trail shoe when I am not running barefoot and connected me to the trail in a new and wonderful way.”

The Forefoot Advantage

When you’re running barefoot, you’re more naturally inclined to land on your forefoot. According to Dr. Lieberman, “Our research indicates that habitual barefoot runners use all kinds of landings, but predominantly forefoot strike, even when going downhill.”

Running on the forefoot allows you to use your metatarsals, the bow-shaped bones behind your toes that act as amazing springs, along with your arch (which can grow quite strong through barefoot running), your Achilles tendon and your calf, quad, hamstring and glute muscles to absorb shock. Keeping your strides short, your legs can whirl around quickly (approximately 180 strides per minute), like spinning on a bicycle, with minimal resistance and braking action.

Stripping off those rubber boxes reveals two amazing machines. It’s almost as if you have eyes in your feet. In fact you have as many nerve endings in your feet as in any other part of your body (even the genitals). Barefoot running wakes up these dormant nerves and helps you feel the ground, improving your proprioception, or the ability to sense your body’s position in space.

Shoes reduce your proprioception, as concluded by Doctors Siff and Verkhoshansky in a 1999 study, which found that running shoes always reduce proprioceptive and tactile sensitivity and that going barefoot preserves proprioceptive sensitivity.

Dig In

> Warm up your feet. Try to pick up a golf ball with your toes. Practice this before running to strengthen your arches. Start with one minute, then two.

> Begin on a field of soft grass. Pretend you’re a tiger walking with your claws extended, grabbing the ground and pulling through with each stride.

> Spread your toes apart and land on your forefoot with your heel slightly lifted off the ground and pull the grass with your “claws.” Jog 50 to 100 yards and then “tiger walk” back and repeat.

Economical Option

Another benefit to running barefoot or running in a lighter shoe (once you’ve gone barefoot to strengthen your feet) is economy. Studies such as those by C. Divert (2005, 2008) show barefoot running can reduce your workload by up to five percent, which is a significant savings in distance trail running.

There are several reasons. First, you get rid of the braking motion or impact transient. Second you don’t have to decelerate and reaccelerate the mass of the shoe. Think of your feet rotating around like a round bicycle wheel with no loss of momentum as the ball of the foot passes underneath, versus chopping into the ground with your heel like rotating a square wheel, where you lose all momentum each time your heel hits the ground.

Transition Slowly

During my transition, I started running barefoot only 100 yards. I ran up my forefoot as if running uphill, because that’s the only time my feet didn’t hurt. And I walked home grabbing the ground with my toes in an effort to flex and strengthen my feet. Then, I iced, rested and used my current shoes and orthotics to recover. I progressed to 200 yards, 300, 400, then more. Training barefoot every other day over three months, I built up to running 10K barefoot, and faster than I’d ever run in a shoe.

Eager runners who try minimalist shoes, such as Vibram FiveFingers, New Balance 101s or inov-8 X-Talon 190s, often get excited, run too many miles before they are ready and injure themselves. Instead, start out completely barefoot, and run only a few hundred yards. Go slow and work on proper form (see sidebar). Let your skin condition be your guide—if your skin becomes tender, chances are you’re overly fatiguing muscles, tendons, ligaments and even bones. Time to slip back into shoes.

Think of your feet as muscles. You’d never lift weights two days in a row, so don’t run barefoot two days in a row until your feet are strong (wait at least three months). Instead, rest and recover or go back to your shoes.

After only a few short months, you’ll notice changes in your form, such as a shorter stride, higher cadence (you’ll eventually reach 180 strides per minute or more) and taller stance, even when you go back to shoes.

“[After easing into barefoot running], something amazing happened: I got my stride back. With proper stride I tend to not need the extra weight of a padded shoe,” says Zach Bergen of Boulder, Colorado. “My feet are stronger and for all practical purposes, my joint fatigue is gone. I am now hitting PRs and running more often, because I don’t feel beaten down after a run.”

But once you’ve felt the dirt beneath your feet, you might become hooked. Barefoot running is more than a sport. It’s a dance with nature that allows you to discover the capabilities of your body. So take off those shoes—you’re just an inch of rubber away from nirvana.

Michael Sandler has been a professional cyclist and national-level running coach for 20 years. He is also co-founder of the RunBare Company and author (with Jessica Lee) of the recently released Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth, available at www.BarefootRunningBook.com.

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