I just read a really great synopsis of the science that exists (and doesn’t exist) supporting barefoot running. It’s the most concise and well-balanced piece I’ve come across, so I thought I’d go ahead and pass it along. (Perhaps you’re also asked your thoughts on barefoot running by any person who finds out you like to run these days?) The piece is on the Science of Sport website, which is written by two fellows with their PhD’s in Exercise Physiology. Both are also coaches. It’s called “The barefoot running debate: Born to run, shoes & injury: the latest thinking” and was written by Ross Tucker. It concludes that barefoot running may, or may not be for you. 😉 It’s not a panacea for everyone, (What? One size doesn’t fit all?!?) but it can certainly be a very useful training tool. I like the author’s emphasis on making slow changes. Here are Tucker’s recommendations for making a decision about trying out barefoot running.
- If you are injured, or struggle with chronic injury problems, then give barefoot running a try. It may be especially helpful if you have knee problems, or any anterior injuries (anterior shin pain, for example), because going barefoot will switch the load. The benefit (in a backward kind of way) of starting injured is that you’re pretty much compelled to go back to beginner level and build up, so your chances of staying beneath that “injury risk line” are better!
- If you are not injured, but fancy trying it, then by all means, go for it, butbe very careful. I would suggest the best way to approach it is to think of barefoot running as a training modality. Just like you’d go to Pilates to improve core strength, or spend time in the gym on upper body or leg, think of barefoot running as a session. There is some evidence for this, incidentally. Pieter Bruggemann (of Oscar Pistorius testing fame) actually did a study on the Nike Frees, and found that just using them in the warm-up improved lower leg strength, balance and agility within five months. So this points out one way to do it – do warm-ups either barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Or do five minutes at a time, building very, very slowly, so that you don’t affect your other training but gradually develop the strength. If you find that you enjoy it and don’t seem likely to be injured, then push on.
- If you are a high-mileage runner, then think carefully about tinkering with barefoot running, or about changing your technique to land on the forefoot. For one thing, if you are a competitive runner, or even aspiring runner (going for PBs, that is), then you’re the person most likely to overdo it! It’s part of what makes you competitive! So again, I’d advise that you consider incorporating barefoot running into the programme as a training aid, because it will help your feet, calves and ankles. But as with any training aid, phase it in very slowly.
- If you are constantly battling calf, hamstring, foot or ankle problems, then consider barefoot as treatment, but take the most conservative guideline you can think of and halve it – do 50% less than what that says. The rationale is that someone with a hamstring injury can’t just avoid strengthening the muscle – it’s part of the rehab. So for chronic calf and ankle/achilles problems, running barefoot may be exactly what you need. But you are the kind of runner who has to start with five minutes of walking, not running, and hold back massively. If you can succeed, then hopefully this will help your return to running in shoes, and maybe, eventually, minimalist shoes.