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Barefoot running

Barefoot running has been a talking point for some time now and I have been wearing barefoot running shoes daily for about 18 months. Initially wearing my barefoot shoes was very tiring and my feet would throb and ache every evening in bed. Now though, I feel my feet have grown stronger and more mobile and when I wear supportive shoes I feel like I have marshmallows on my feet!

Many clients have asked me if they should buy barefoot running shoes themselves. My response is always the same. If you have good foot biomechanics and your foot strikes the floor well, then barefoot style shoes will help stretch and strengthen your feet and toes. If you have mild foot deformity or imbalance then its likely that you will have created compensations that may be exacerbated by barefoot shoes and supportive shoes may offer you some needed protection. If you are unsure if your feet are working as they should then please contact me for a quick assessment.

Recently the BBC’s Horizon program investigated sports running shoes and concluded that off the shelf shoes prescribed by foot type had little or no impact on running injuries. The debate that the show sparked regarding barefoot running inspired me to discover what “real” barefoot running was all about so I kicked off my footwear, peeled off my socks and headed out into Colwick Park for a 3K run with my trotters fully exposed.

My introduction even though on grass was quite nerve racking as I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and I was fearful of injury. I stepped carefully scanning the ground for signs of thistles, nettles, duck poo and anything else I deemed hazardous. Within minutes I had found my way to the tarmac road and cycle track where I felt it was much easier to spot hazards and it eased some of my anxiety. As I started to feel the heat penetrate up through the pavement I started to listen to the gentle slapping sound of my midfoot on the road and I began to smile.

The park is overgrown and the grass is meadow like which made for bouncy and soft landings, there is a small border of short grass lining the paths which I found very comfortable to run on. Some shaded areas had wet grass and mud which heightened my foot sensitivity as it squelched up between my toes, it was a feeling that reminded me of childhood. The more that I relaxed I became aware that my running gait had indeed changed. My mid-foot was striking the ground first but in shoes I would land on my heel, my centre of gravity was a little more forwards. I felt my core brace and tighten throughout the whole thorax in an attempt to minimize impact and stabilize my body as my foot struck the floor. I really felt like my core was getting much more of a workout and I was starting to lengthen my stride and pick up pace.

It wasn’t long before my speed had been dramatically reduced by an unavoidable dusty path covered in sharp stones and rubble which was painful to run across and it slowed me down to a walk in the worst areas. Once back on the grass, I encountered a few small hills and I felt for the first time my feet start to grip like hands both on the incline and decline aspects which is obviously a capability which is denied by footwear.

About two thirds of the way through the run I started to notice areas of my sole which were getting sore, had I been on a longer run my feet would’ve undoubtedly began to blister but luckily before it worsened I was back at the studio. My hot feet were pleased to meet some cold water in the shower as evidence of my grass allergy began to surface in the form of an itchy rash. The rash of course faded and as I reflected on what I had just done I concluded that I wouldn’t hurry to repeat it.

Complete barefoot running is extreme and with littering and jagged stones a small injury is likely to occur if it was performed regularly. The experience has however helped me to find appreciation for my barefoot shoes which still allow free motion in your foot and a feeling that you are connected into the ground. Crucially though footwear provides that tough barrier that protects our skin and gives us confidence to move faster and with more force. If your biomechanics don’t allow you to absorb force well then you should wear supportive shoes for impact activities.

As the barefoot debate is all about injury prevention it is important to point out that the greatest influence on running injuries is the management of the distance, duration and intensity of your running. If you progress your program gradually with a good structure you will significantly reduce the risk of injury regardless of your footwear. Pro runners stay injury free all over the world whether they are trudging the red earth in barefoot Kenya or pounding the streets of the NYC urban jungle, its good programming that protects them.

If you do want to delve into the world of barefoot, some minimalist and flexible sole shoes used during a weights workout in a gym environment is a great introduction.

For more information or for an individual assessment, please contact me.

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