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Running Barefoot

Aug 17, 2007
There is no question that running shoes today are far superior to anything we used back in the early 1970s. In those days companies weren't putting much effort into technology for developing shock absorption, stability, and motion control for running shoes. If you are close to my age, then you'll remember the early days of the 70's running boom when state of the art was Nike's new outersole, developed by Bill Bowerman using his wife's waffle iron.

While today's shoes are designed with specialized features to meet your individual needs as a runner, I'm not totally convinced that all of these advances have actually reduced the overall incidence of running injuries, and at least one authority agrees.

How can that be? Michael Yessis, Ph.D. in his book titled Explosive Running, explains that today's cushioned, extra supportive running shoes actually encourage runners to strike the ground with their heel first rather than at the midfoot, increasing the force of impact generated up the front of the leg. Heel strikers also have a tendency to pronate, or roll their foot inward upon contact. Dr. Yessis speculates that the foot's supporting structures (bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles) eventually weaken when protective shoes do their job too well.

Outlandish as it sounds, Yessis thinks barefoot running may be the answer. Without shoes, runners are forced to land closer to the arch on the mid-foot rather than striking heel first, dramatically reducing impact. Without all of the extra support that a running shoe provides, barefoot running also strengthens the foot by allowing it to function the way it was intended to work.

Common sense tells you not to start leaving your shoes at home every time you head out for a run. Barefoot running must be introduced gradually. Start by finding a smooth stretch of grass to jog on, and try 4 or 5 minutes twice a week. Jogging without shoes, you'll notice immediately what Dr. Yessis is talking about when he says you will not want to land heel first. Keep the pace slow and relaxing.

Over time as your feet become stronger, I recommend adding a couple of minutes a week to your barefoot running. Focus on how your feet land, then practice carrying that technique over to the roads with shoes on. Before long you'll notice your foot plant changes as you begin to adapt a shorter more efficient stride with quicker turnover.

Nike has again led the way by introducing a shoe actually made to simulate barefoot running. It's called Nike Free, a shoe that lets your foot do the work it's supposed to while offering minimal protection and support.

I wouldn't go barefoot running or even run in Nike Frees if you already have heel pain or some other foot injury, however a couple of 20 minute barefoot jogs a week may give a healthy runner an added advantage.

In 2001, the tiny nation of Kenya produced 300 different athletes (including one female) that broke 2 hr and 20 minutes in the marathon. Sadly, that year only 20 Americans ran under 2 hr 20 min. Besides their intense training schedules, a not so obvious difference from Americans is that Kenyans typically spend their entire childhood running WITHOUT SHOES! By going barefoot, their feet are strong and they learn to run the correct way at a very young age.
About the Author
Dave Elger is a well respected authority within the running community having written hundreds of articles on the topics of running and wellness. You can contact him at http://www.daveelger.com. He also supports the Okinawa Running Club
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