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Barefoot Running: Part 1

During the original running boom of the 1960s and 70s, barefoot running was made popular by such athletic giants as Abebe Bikila (an Olympic gold medalist marathoner) and Zola Budd (a world class 5k racer). In 2009, the movement experienced a resurgence thanks largely to the release of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, an exploration of barefoot running via the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico (natural runners who regularly cover hundreds of desert miles barefoot). Today, barefoot running has a small, but cult-like following of enthusiasts, most of whom claim it has changed their life by allowing them to be active in ways they never could in their shoe-wearing days.

The concept of barefoot running is both romantic and inspiring – the promise of freedom and simplicity is always alluring. Followers of the barefoot movement claim that running without shoes reduces the risk of injury and is healthier for your body overall; however, experts are divided on the truth of these claims. Some implore you to ditch your shoes, others say to keep lacing up, and numerous scientific studies can be found to support both sides of the argument. So how can you tell if barefoot running will benefit you?

The act of running is essentially an exercise in the distribution of impact forces. A 150 lb. person, over the course of running one mile, endures 60-90 tons of force. Where does that force go? This depends on your type of footstrike, meaning the part of your foot that is first to touch the ground when you take a step.

People are generally classified as either heel strikers (landing heel first) or forefoot strikers (landing on the ball of their feet first). Less common are mid-strikers, who land with the middle of their foot first, often somewhat flat-footed. As a general rule, the faster your pace, the more you will land on your forefoot (think of sprinters, who essentially run on their toes). Additionally, the longer your stride, the more you will land on your heel. Although footstrike and stride length can be retrained, most people fall naturally into their own combination of footstrike and stride length.

Forefoot striking is thought by many to be ideal, as impact forces can be absorbed by the Achilles tendon, as well as the more than 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the foot and ankle. Heel striking, on the other hand, leaves the relatively unprotected heel to deal with impact forces alone, making for a much more jarring running action. In a large way, athletic shoes have evolved as they have in an effort to compensate for heel striking. Shoes have become ever more technical – looking to marry cushioning and support with lightweight, compact size – all in the name of injury prevention. Unfortunately, results are mixed.

When a person runs or even walks barefoot, they instinctively become a forefoot striker, better at absorbing force and more efficient in terms of movement and posture. Therein lies the benefit of barefoot running – but don’t toss your shoes just yet. Learning to run barefoot is deceptively complicated and not to be undertaken lightly. Next week, I’ll discuss what qualities make a good candidate for barefoot running, how to get started, and a way to compromise. Until then, keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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