The naked truth about barefoot running


Some say barefoot shoes divert the strain from bones and joints but others say going barefoot gives you all sorts of injuries too

There is this part-yogi, part-running nut in my gym who seems to live in those glove-like weird barefoot running shoes and is trying to convert us all to wearing them. Would you recommend them for me?

I am a middle-aged mother of three who recently took up running after reading your book and am now covering four-five miles a week, three times a week. I don’t want to run in races or anything, just keep fit and losing weight like I am. My trainers are fine, and I have no injuries so far, thank God.

Kerry, Dublin

The topic of barefoot running is not without controversy, but bestselling book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall has certainly cemented its mainstream popularity.

After living with and observing a tribe in Mexico, McDougall proposed that everyone should be running barefoot because it improves gait cycle – Translation: running barefoot makes you more efficient.

The central reason for this is that the impact of not having an artificially built-up heel (as modern running trainers do), forces the runner to land on their middle or forefoot as opposed to their heel, which reduces the stress through the lower extremities of the body and spine at impact (translation: running barefoot takes the strain away from the bones and joints and puts it back into the ligaments, muscles and tendons where we “should” take it).

This “barefoot strike” also creates a smoother transition to the next cycle, as the other leg comes through and prepares to hit the ground.

So instead of pounding the ground and springing forward as a “heel strike” forces the runner to do, you glide over the surface instead.

The most popular minimalist shoes on sale now are the Vibram Five Fingers (which sound like the ones your gym pal wears), New Balance Minimalist and the Nike Free Run.

The idea goes back to Nike’s original designs which provided protection to the foot, but allowed you to run with barefoot mechanics.

They are lightweight and flexible, and have a wide toe box (the front of the shoe) and what is known as a zero-drop sole.

This means that the heel of the shoe is the same thickness of the rest of the sole (in contrast to conventional running shoes that are built with a dramatic heel lift).

It is thought that the heel lift of modern-day shoes is to blame for a good portion of running-related injuries by creating imbalances of strength, weakness and stiffness in the lower extremities – so the barefoot brigade expound; opponents arguing that going barefoot gives you all sorts of injuries too.

Stresses and strains

The reality is that both types of running expose you to the whole gamut of injuries and changing from one type of running to the other is inevitably going to put your body under new stresses and strains which you need to take measures to counteract.

So the most relevant question for you might be, can you be bothered?

Because if you want to try minimalist shoes – and there is absolutely no valid reason why you shouldn’t – you will effectively have to start again from scratch to minimise potential injury. Below are some simple and obvious rules to follow if you can (be bothered that is):

1.Be realistic. Train at a much lower intensity to begin with and dont expect to transform yourself into Zola Budd overnight;

2.Expect pain. Just as learning to run in the first instance was painful, so will learning to run “barefoot” as your body adjusts to this new skill.

3.Dont try out your new shoes if you have a pre-existing injury.

4.Go slowly. Go back to square one (or step 1 in RFBR. Walk your circuit first and build yourself up again from scratch).

5.When you buy a new pair of high heels, the best thing to do before you take them out for a night on the tiles, is to “wear them in” around the house so you get used to walking in them and they dont give you blisters (with any luck).

Unnecessary injury

The same applies here. Wear your minimalist shoes around the house and while doing normal activities, (which is where your yogi nut is being clever), as the more you do this, the less likely you are to over-train in them and cause unnecessary injury.

For what it’s worth, I’m not persuaded to re-learn to run “barefoot” at this stage. I have evolved as a runner used to the built-up heel typetrainer and it works just fine for me.

And, if you have been lucky enough so far to enjoy an injury-free running ride, maybe you feel the same way.

The Grit Doctor says: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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