You may have heard people talking about ‘barefoot running‘ or ‘minimalist running shoes‘, or perhaps started to notice runners on Melbourne’s various running tracks wearing one or other of the five-toed running shoes. Questions which spring to mind include ‘Is this yet another new fad?’. Conversely, are there good reasons for the current trend we are starting to see away from highly engineered running shoes towards more naturalistic footwear and running styles?
In my mind at least, the answer is simple – our bodies weren’t designed to wear shoes. As my clients at Mosaic Myotherapy will have doubtless heard me say, we also weren’t designed to walk on regular flat surfaces (ie manufactured floors and roads), sit on chairs or use western-style bathrooms either, but that’s a topic for another day entirely. Our feet (and bodies more generally) have evolved over millions of years to enable us to run ‘as is’ ie unconstrained by shoes. While placing our feet in shoes protects us from impact, cuts and infection, research shows that it modifies our natural biomechanics and may in fact increase our likelihood of injury (not just through the foot, but also through shins, knees, hips and beyond).
Over the past six months I’ve been fortunate to spend time with some of the world’s most exciting clinician-researchers who are challenging our ideas about how humans move (Robert Schleip from Germany, Philip Beach from New Zealand and most recently, Blaise Dubois, the head of The Running Clinic in Canada and one of the world’s leading experts on prevention and rehabilitation of running injuries). Although coming from different backgrounds and perspectives, all three emphasise the clinical benefits of (re)introducing natural movement patterns into our lives to maintain musculoskeletal health and in doing so to add years to life and life to years.
This theme also emerges clearly in Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run” which tells the story of how he overcame running injury by adopting barefoot running practices used by some of the world’s greatest distance runners: the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
Most scientists agree that as human beings, the design of our feet indicates that we intended to be long distance runners, with each foot comprising some 26 bones and in excess of 20 muscles and tendons, all of which interact to help absorb impact whilst propelling the body forward. A good example of this is the Achilles tendon and the arch of the foot working together as springs such that when one’s foot strikes the earth, they absorb the energy of impact and use it to push you forward.
Modern Running Shoes (aka ‘Big Bulky Shoes’)
Advocates of barefoot running argue that padding in modern-day running shoes is particularly problematic. The extra heel cushioning which allows runners to land heel first (heel-strike) prevents the foot and lower leg from absorbing the impact. Consequently, the forces are directed up through the leg to the knee and hip, increasing your risk of injury in these joints and the structures they support.
Studies are increasingly showing high rates of injury among runners (>50% in a season) despite the widespread use of cushioning technologies in shoes to minimise impact. In one study of military recruits published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, the injury rate was not decreased by the practice of prescribing shoes according to foot type (i.e., low, normal or high arch; stability, cushioned or motion-controlled). If these technologies were contributing to lower injuries in runners then a lower rate of injury should have been observed in those individuals who received footwear which was specifically engineered for their particular foot type.
Scientists believe that a mid-foot landing is better for your joints than heel-striking, as tends to happen when people running in the modern-day running shoes, or ‘big bulky shoes’ to borrow a phrase oft used by the Running Clinic’s Blaise Duboise. Likewise, landing on the ball of one’s foot (not the toes!), allows the Achilles tendon and arch of the foot to do what they were designed to do – ie absorb impact and propel forward. This then allows you to run more efficiently as the momentum is naturally transferred forward. Conversely, with heel striking, the body slows down a little, forcing the runner to work much harder in order to move forward, thereby increasing the potential for fatigue and in turn increasing the chance of technique associated injury. Common examples of injuries seen in runners include shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures and iliotibial band syndrome to name but a few.
Transitioning to Barefoot Running
While barefoot running may appear to be a panacea for those of us afflicted by pain and other dysfunctions which limit our ability to run as we’d like, transitioning to a more naturalistic running style is necessarily a gradual process which requires patience and dedication.
In short, when it comes to the clients we see at Mosaic Myotherapy, our general advice is to start the process by running barefoot (or with minimalist shoes) for one minute on the first day, at the start of the run, and to extend that by one minute each day to allow for gradual adaption. We also counsel our clients to listen to their bodies and be especially alert to new pain in the calf, achilles tendon, sole of the foot and top of the foot as this may indicate the progression is too fast and needs to be slowed down.
Stay tuned for more posts about transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running. To learn more about what we do and how we can help you achieve your goals, call us today on 1300 55 44 51.