Barefoot Running for Form Improvement

The start of the revolution

  Auckland Joggers Club

Auckland Joggers Club

New Zealand claims the title of birthplace of the running revolution from back in early 1960, when Arthur Lydiard formed the Auckland Joggers Club. After running with Lydiard in 1962, Bill Bowerman, former track coach at the University of Oregon, brought jogging back to America. The rest, as they say, is history. Bowerman went on to be co-founder of Nike and from this early beginning, led by Bowerman, running grew into one of the largest mass participation sports in the world. As running grew, so too did the clothing and shoe industry to meet the growing needs of people who took up the sport.

In these early days running shoes were low on technology. Temper foam was still in development at NASA, canvas was the fabric of choice and Converse Chuck Taylors were the go-to multipurpose sports shoes. Now they are the must have gear for the coolest of coffee shop hipsters.

During these heady days of zero impact protection and little to no arch support, the natural gait of the runner was more towards the midfoot. As the force generated when your foot comes in contact with the ground can be up to seven times your body weight, the foot needs to protect your body by employing the tendons, muscles and natural arch to spread and reduce the force that passes directly onto the body.

Anecdotal evidence during the early developmental period pointed to very low incidents of injuries due to runners using the evolutionary advantage of our ancestors by landing on the midfoot, using the arch and tendons to spread the load of force generated through running. It is important to note that, as a species, humans evolved as long distance runners that chased their prey to the point of exhaustion (persistence hunting). Thousands of years ago there was no Nike Pegasus, humans simply had their callused, leathered feet. We are hardwired to run on our midfoot with a high cadence, as this is the most energy efficient and least damaging way to run.

 
 

The heel strike generation

In the 1980s to ‘90s, the shoe technology was so greatly improved that bio-mechanics moved towards experimenting with changes to the running gait. If the stride length could be increased and the cadence be kept the same, theoretically the perceived limitations of human running speed could be challenged. This theory was able to be tested with the increased cushioning that came with improved technology. This meant that the athlete with the extra protection could land on the naturally less forgiving heel, in an attempt to lengthen their stride and hopefully improve speed. In theory, the hypothesis was sound. The cushioning and shoe design meant that the majority of the shock from the foot strike was absorbed by the shoe material and the momentum of the body meant that the runner was able to roll onto the mid and forefoot and toe off in one continuous motion.

Unfortunately, the hypothesis was not supported by the large majority of the runners that suffered knee, hip and foot injuries. It turned out that the shock of the heel strike was absorbed and essentially taken away from the heel but the force was relayed through the body and eventually finding the weakest point of the body to release. This turned out to be the knee, hip or in some cases the feet themselves.

In comparison to the 1960s and ‘70s the number of injuries in the ‘80s and ‘90s was much greater. Initially this was put down to the greater number of athletes running, compared to the previous decades and to a lack of athletic conditioning to get used to this change in running style. However, there was something behind this increased injury rate and it was firmly placed on an anatomically inefficient technique of over striding and heel striking. A renaissance was needed to get runners injury free once more.

Barefoot running renaissance

With hindsight we now see that the natural running style of landing on the midfoot is far more efficient, and less damaging on the body, than a longer striding heel strike style. The barefoot revolution took over as stories of the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) tribe emerged from Copper Canyon in Mexico (refer to the YouTube video below). Many stories of their great feats of endurance as they ran 100s of miles, shod only in leather sandals, to communicate, trade and simply enjoy themselves, has spawned many books and documentaries about what makes them super human runners.

It comes down to the Tarahumara utilising the most efficient technology that has been thousands of years in the making - the human body. Just as the most powerful computer in the world cannot match the power of the human brain in complex thought processing, the most expensive running shoe can not compete with the efficiency of the human foot. Its ability to dissipate a force of up to seven times the weight of the athlete, thousands of times during a marathon, and still make micro adjustment to efficiently manoeuvre around obstacles is unmatched by any human engineered machine.

 
 

Many would say that the human body is a marvel of evolution. Should we stop trying to out-engineer an organism that has been continually refined for millions of years and throw our $250 running shoes away?  In part, I would agree. However, the new technology of mid-sole foam, state of the art uppers and high wearing composite rubber soles can be used in conjunction with our natural biological efficiency and still be true to the ethos of the barefoot revolution. As a society we spend an amazing amount of time on our feet. Much more than our caveman ancestors.

Modern human feet and legs hold our body weight for much longer as we stand and walk more than ever before. We also punish our feet by wearing ill fitting shoes, which negatively impacts on our ability to maximise the efficiency of our feet when we employ them in running. While I understand the viewpoint of the militant barefoot runner, who rejects all forms of technology and engages in strict minimalist running, I also feel that this approach is counterproductive. By refusing all forms of technology, you are placing your body at risk of injury. Instead we must marry the best of the old, with the best of the new. You can do this by combining the efficiency of the Tarahumara midfoot running style, with the protection of a low drop, high end running shoe. For those times that you accidentally over stride and heel strike, or are pushing a faster pace down an incline, you are protected by the increased shock absorbing technology. By investing in some added protection you will increase your time training and maximise your performance in the long term.

Key to natural running

In order to embrace the ancestral way of running on your midfoot, you need to lose your shoes for a while - embrace your inner child running around the backyard and note how you naturally land. We get comfortable running in highly protective shoes and consequently we over stride and heel strike. The best way to overcome over striding is to land a few times on your heel with bare feet.

When you put your shoes on the shelf and run around your backyard you will automatically see how your body protects itself by using the midfoot to cushion and absorb the impact of the foot strike. You will notice that your stride will become shorter and the foot plant will occur under your body, rather than in front of it. In order to maintain speed your cadence will naturally increase and, just like a high cadence in cycling, the benefit of a high cadence outweighs any negative that may occur through the reduced stride length. Along with the reduction of stride length and higher cadence, you will have less force hitting the ground with each foot strike. You will also note that your upper body will become more compact in its movement as you are not flailing your arms to compensate the over reaching stride length. This conserves your energy levels, placing the majority of your expenditure through your legs.

The midfoot style may take some time to master. Some who have made the transition report calf strains or shin splints. This may be due in part to the lower leg having to work more, due to primary activator muscles switching from the thigh to the calf. Others report foot pain as they cope with a reawakening of tendons of the arch and surrounding support structure. The key to overcoming these potential problems, and embracing a move to a midfoot style, is to hasten slowly. The midfoot style is driven by the lower leg and consideration must be given to gradually re-accustoming your lower legs to this change in running form. It is recommended that you keep your midfoot sessions short at first and increase distance and/or time gradually. After each session, run several hundred meters with bare feet on grass. This will help to strengthen your arch and supporting foot structure, and ultimately improve your running speed and efficiency.

The arch in a bridge or building is the most perfect support structure in architecture - you do not see an architectural arch with a support structure underneath it. So too, the arch of the foot is the perfect structural support element in the body. By supporting it with an arch support in a running shoe, you are more likely going to encourage weakness of the arch support muscles in your foot, as they are no longer needed. By running barefoot on grass you will strengthen the supporting muscles that hold up the arch, similar to the mortar which holds the bricks in place in the arch on a bridge.

In the end, this is just a discussion piece; you as a runner need to find a style that best suits the natural form and ability of your body. I have witnessed many runners who had ungainly, anatomically poor styles, but they were able to train their bodies to overcome their weaknesses and ultimately become successful runners. You know your body better than anyone; make your decision based on the best available information and what works best for you. If you are fast, efficient and injury free then there is no need for change, but if you are struggling to get out of the door because of injury, then it may be time to reassess your running style. Open your mind and you may be amazed at what may come in.

By Sean Riley