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Barefoot Running: Part 2

In my last blog post, I discussed some of the history behind the barefoot running movement, as well as the biomechanics behind why many think it’s a good idea. This week, I’ll talk about what it takes to transition to a workout without shoes.

Are shoes bad for you? Not inherently, but as a physical therapist, I have treated many people over the years for injuries incurred from wearing the WRONG shoes. High heels, flip flops, and heavy boots can all have a damaging ripple effect on your body if you spend too much time walking or standing in them. And take care that you don’t buy the wrong athletic shoe or orthotics for your foot type. Supinators who wear shoes meant for pronators (or vice versa) will gradually amass damage in their feet, ankles, legs, hips, back, and even neck, and the culminating injuries may eventually force you to stop your activities until they are addressed.

Additionally, spending all your time in ANY shoes, regardless of the type, will have consequences. There are more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your foot and ankle that can become atrophied from the inhibited movement promoted by shoes. Believe it or not, the average toddler has better conditioned feet and ankles than most adults because as she learns to walk and run (typically barefoot), those muscles, tendons, and ligaments work together to keep her balanced.

If I’ve already sold you on barefoot running, hang on just a second. It’s not as simple as just heading out sans sneakers. It takes time and training to condition your feet and ankles for the extra challenge, just it takes time and training work up to bench pressing 250 lbs.

Start short and slow by walking for 5 minutes at a time (or less if the bottoms of your feet are particularly sensitive) on a soft surface, such as grass or sand. Practice good barefoot technique from the beginning – meaning train yourself to be a forefoot striker if you’re not naturally one. Short, light steps are the goal.

Gradually increase the time of your barefoot walk; as it gets longer, you can insert a few minutes of jogging in the middle (for example, walk for 5 min, jog for 3-5 min, walk for 5 min). If at any time you experience unusual or nagging pain, stop and apply RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) for a few days. If the pain subsides, try again for a shorter time than when you left off. As your feet become stronger and tougher, you can extend your jogging time and begin to add in more challenging terrain, such as dirt, blacktop, and gravel.

Unfortunately, the reality is there are too many dangers out there for me to ever endorse barefoot running fully. Unless all your runs take place on a pristine golf course, you are guaranteed to someday contend with broken glass, sharp sticks, rocks, goat heads, cheat grass, blazing hot sidewalks, etc. Blisters, punctures, and other wounds on your feet are in real danger of becoming infected, and although your feet will toughen with time, the risk never truly goes away.

Fortunately there is a compromise. Minimalist shoes are so named because they don’t have all the fancy padding and cushioning of typical athletic shoes, but can still protect your feet from dangers. Minimalist shoes come in a variety of types, and some are “less shoe” than others, so you can pick the level of minimalism that suites you best. Again, it takes time and conditioning to transition to these types of shoes, so be patient but persistent; I know many people who have found a new, more injury-free lease on their running life thanks to minimalist shoes.

If you need help picking a shoe, visit a specialty running store, such as Shu’s Idaho Running Company. Good luck with your transition, and keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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