What are a few reasons people should consider barefoot running?
Your feet are your connection to the Earth. The sole of your foot is extremely rich in sensory nerves. It tops the charts next to the palms of your hands, mouth, and genitals. Sensory nerves do the incredibly important job of receiving stimuli from the environment, such as texture, temperature, and traction. This information allows the body to make immediate and necessary adjustments at the point of impact. Think about what happens when you reach out and grab a hot pan in the kitchen: your body reacts immediately by pulling your hand away. You don’t even have to think about it.
When you put cushions on your feet, you essentially dismantle this feedback system. If you are running with poor gait mechanics while barefoot, you feel it immediately as a pain signal directly at the source: your foot. This feedback gives you the opportunity to make instantaneous adjustments in your form and avoid getting hurt. With shoes, you no longer have immediate feedback. You feel next to nothing. You run with poor gait mechanics for weeks, months, or even years. The next thing you know you have knee, hip, low back, or shoulder pain. But at this point you are completely disconnected from the original source of the problem. So, instead of making a very simple adjustment in your gait, you end up in the doctor’s office getting prescriptions, injections, or surgery.
Your feet are the foundation of your posture and the platform from which you move. In architecture, a stable foundation makes for a stable structure. It is the foundation that holds up the walls and roof, and so your feet hold up your legs, torso, spine, and head. If your feet are weak, they are unstable. Unstable feet make a terrible foundation. It is just like building a house upon a bed of sand.
When you place a brace around a joint (like a knee brace) for an extended amount of time, the muscles designed to stabilize that joint atrophy and weaken. The joint becomes structurally unstable. Arch support in shoes are a type of brace. They prevent the natural foot arch from functioning. Over time, the muscles that stabilize the foot atrophy and collapse. When the arch collapses, it causes a chain reaction of collapse throughout the body… knees, hips, back, shoulders, and head.
Choosing a barefoot lifestyle is certainly about the health of your feet, but it is ultimately a choice for a healthier you. As a therapist and coach, I have clearly seen the connection between my client’s chronic pain and injury, and the health of their feet – with specific connection to the shoes that they wear. Painful conditions of the knees, hips, low back, shoulders, and neck can all be traced through the fascial tissue down to weakness and instability in the feet. I believe that a lack of foot health is one of, if not the biggest, causes of pain, injury, and disease. Healthy feet are a direct cause of overall good health, wellness, and vitality.
Why do you think traditional running shoes should be done away with?
I don’t think traditional running shoes should be done away with. Shoes are a tool. Their use is a matter of personal choice. There are some who need the structure shoes offer because of certain foot dysfunction. There are others who don’t want to run barefoot and are perfectly happy in their running shoes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
My focus, instead, is in the effort to educate others. I want to help people make the most informed choice that they can make for themselves, and I’ll support them 100% no matter what that choice is.
Why isn’t barefoot running more widespread? Do you think it will eventually be the norm?
Shoes were placed on our feet before we ever took our first step. We are a shod society. This is a shod culture. We learned how to walk and run wearing shoes. Very few of us as adults even know how to walk without them. When I consider these things, it makes sense to me that barefoot appearing unnatural to a great majority of people.
I don’t know if barefoot living will become THE norm. I believe it will continue to grow in popularity. I also believe that there will always be a large part of the population that shuns being barefoot. Ultimately, I think that the biggest reason barefooting will fail to reach normalcy is the fact that so many people are making their transition way too fast and are getting injured as a result. The tendency will be to blame barefooting for the injury and return to the norm, to what they know.
What other athletes could benefit from the use of barefoot techniques/principles?
Every athlete can benefit from barefoot training. This is something that is pretty widely accepted in the strength and conditioning field. All of the top strength and conditioning coaches that I follow incorporate some level of barefoot training with their athletes, and the trend is growing.
What do you feel is the best way for people to start barefoot running?
A shift to a barefoot lifestyle is a major change to your body in every respect. Recognize this and take your time. Purchase a foam roller for daily self massage to help your body heal through each step of the process. Foam roller therapy helps break down joint restrictions, helps increase range of motion and mobility, and speeds up recovery between workouts. In my opinion, it is the best investment for your long term fitness and health. (For more info on foam roller therapy, check out How to Treat and Prevent Injury)
Where do you start? Learn to walk again. Begin this transition with walking. Yes, you heard me right: you need to learn how to walk. You must learn to walk barefoot before you can learn to run barefoot. I wrote two programs to get you walking and running barefoot without pain or injury in a relatively short amount of time. Check them out:
Spend the extra time in the beginning and really focus on your posture and form. Practice corrective exercises daily to strengthen the postural muscles of the arch of the foot, hips, and shoulders – click links for examples of corrective exercises for each.
Don’t expect to have all of the answers. Seek out professional help. The beginning stages make for a great time to hire a highly qualified and experienced professional. Get regular deep tissue massage therapy from a top notch fascial therapist. Find a personal trainer with experience with functional training and barefoot running, and get help from a great running coach to hone in your champion form. (Never worked with a professional before? Check out these Five Steps To Choosing A Professional.)
Is there any reason why someone should not partake in barefoot running?
Running is running whether you wear shoes or not. I don’t differentiate between the two. If you can run, you can run barefoot. If you cannot run barefoot, you shouldn’t be running at all. Running is an important functional movement. I believe that just about everyone can and should run. I think that just about everyone can and should run barefoot. However, there are some that need to transition extra slowly and cautiously.
If you have an injury, it is important to fully heal and recover from the injury before attempting to run. If you currently have a running injury, here are 10 Steps to Recover From Your Running Injury And Becoming A Better Runner.
There are people with significant structural or bio-mechanical dysfunctions that cannot run. If this is you, know that you may very well benefit from being barefoot anyway.
What are your favorite barefoot running shoes?
I love the Merrell Trail Gloves for the sharp rocky Texas trails, and the Tough Glove for casual wear. The Vibram Five Fingers will always be close to my heart since they were my first introduction into the barefoot lifestyle. But, hands down, my all time favorite will always be my bare feet.
Any other tips or advice you’d like to give to the beginning barefoot runners out there?
First, I am not an advocate of barefoot running. I am an advocate of barefoot movement and barefoot living. If you wear shoes with cushions, heel lifts, and arch supports all day at work, going home to run a few miles barefoot will bring very little benefit. It can actually cause more harm than good. Gaining the greatest health benefit for your feet, posture, and body happens when you are as close to barefoot as you can be as often as is possible.
Second, be more than a runner. Use functional training to train your body beyond just running. Our bodies have an amazing capacity to do incredible things. Running only captures a small range of what we are capable of. Actually, running is really similar to another movement pattern we do all day every day… sitting. Running and sitting each put our hips in flexion and our head and shoulders in a forward posture. If your only source of movement is running and sitting, it won’t matter what you have on your feet, you WILL experience pain and injury.