Myth Busting: The Bare Truth Revealed
If barefoot running was about having strong knees or joints, Michael Sandler for one, with his titanium parts, wouldn’t be able to run a single step. Instead, as studies from Dr. Lieberman of Harvard have shown, there’s up to 3 times LESS impact to the body out of a shoe, than in a shoe. That’s because out of a shoe you shift from landing on your heel (which even in the “best” of running shoes transmits a shock wave straight up through the body, to your forefoot, where your foot and leg work together as a two to three foot long shock absorber and spring like mechanism.
The shape of the foot is no accident. It has many small bones, not because it’s weak, but because it’s strong, like a suspension bridge. Each of those pieces work together in unison to absorb shock, and spring back. When you land on your forefoot, you use your metatarsals, the bow-shaped bones of the foot as a spring, you use your arch (which, unlike what you’ve been told, can become incredibly strong. The arch is one of the strongest structures in nature, which is why almost all of our bridges are made out of this shape), you use your arch as an incredible spring, along with the Achilles tendon (the only tendon capable of holding 2000 pounds of force) along with the calf, hamstring, quad and glute as a fantastic two to three foot long shock absorber or spring.
When we take shorter strides (a heavily cushioned or heeled running shoe encourages a longer stride) you land on the forefoot, load our springs, and are propelled forward, with almost no impact at all (in fact, Dr. Lieberman demonstrated that the shock wave found in a shoe (the heel strike, or what he calls the “impact transient”, is virtually non-existent when out of a shoe and landing on our forefoot.
First off, the foot is not weak; if it were, then we’d never be here today. Instead our ancestors survived by running, hiking, hunting, farming, and everything else it takes to survive for millions of years without shoes. The foot is incredibly strong (see what I mentioned about the arch before), it’s just been constricted if not mutilated (more on this in a minute) by our shoes. But given half the chance, the foot can be reawakened and grow back strong, just as nature intended.
The challenge is that we need to start slowly and wake things up progressively. After spending a lifetime in a shoe our muscles, ligaments, tendons and even bones are weak. If we jump right into things, either fully barefoot, or especially in minimalist footwear, we’re likely to go too far, too fast, and injure ourselves. That’s why I recommend starting with only 100 yards, fully barefoot, then going back to your tradition shoes for the following day, and then adding 100 yards of barefoot running every other day. In this way you give your feet a chance to rest and recover and grow back stronger.
One last argument I hear about the feet is that they have only “intrinsic muscles” (call them internal muscles of the foot only) and therefore can’t be strengthened. However, skeletal muscles are skeletal muscles, they don’t care where they’re located. If they’re stimulated with work (known as exercise) and fatigue, they grow back stronger. The only the we need to do is give them a chance to rest and recover in between workouts.
This is an argument typically made by people who have never run barefoot except for on the beach.
From gymnasts to runners, studies (let’s cite specific study here) have shown that the more cushioned the surface or cushioning under foot, the harder you land, rather than the lighter. That’s because the human body relies on FEEDBACK to determine how to land. Running barefoot is like playing the piano, how in the world could you hit the keys lightly if you’re in a heavily cushioned glove? When you land on a highly cushioned surface, you land hard because your feet are blindfolded and can’t figure out what’s going on beneath them.
Running barefoot is running awarefoot. We have more nerve endings on the bottom of our feet than anywhere else in the human body. It’s why are feet are sensitive, ticklish, and why reflexology exists. And it helps us determine the lightest way to land.
It turns out, because of the thousands of nerve endings on our feet and the sensory feedback they provide, the harder the surface, the more feedback we get, and the LIGHTER we land. (it’s quite the opposite of dropping a weighting shoe onto a force plate in the lab, because the shoe isn’t alive and can’t control its fall).
When someone starts out barefoot we recommend the HARDEST surface, rather than the softest surface (it’s also why we recommend going barefoot first, rather than starting in a minimalist shoe), because when you’re fully barefoot on a hard surface, you can’t cheat and quickly find the lightest way to stride. For instance, when you’re running on grass or in minimalist footwear, you can hit your heel down first and get away with it. But hit your heel down on cement and you’ll promise never, ever to do that again. Hitting our heels down just isn’t natural…but you can’t feel that in a shoe or on a soft surface.
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as transition footwear. When you start running with new form you need your body to feel the ground and teach you a new stride. Nearly any footwear (save except for a sock) dampens your sensation with the ground, preventing you from getting the feedback you need to run light.
In the beginning you want to start entirely out of footwear to get maximum sensation. You also want your weak sensitive skin (it’s soft and sensitive from time in a confined shoe, but not to worry, the skin strengthens quickly) to have direct contact with the ground. This way, you’re letting your skin be your guide. If you start out barefoot on hard ground with weak skin, it becomes very difficult to go too far, too fast, because if you do you tear up your skin. By stopping when your skin gets sore (or preferably before, just as it starts getting sensitive) you help protect the muscles, ligaments, tendons and even bones on the inside that need time to adapt. In minimalist footwear or a “transition shoe” you protect the skin and are likely to go too far , too fast (and use bad form such as a heel strike) causing damage to everything on the inside.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about barefoot like shoes, and gloves for the feet, and “barefoot technology”. The truth is that anything on the bottom of the foot, save perhaps a loose fitting moccasin, changes our stride. It does so in a few key ways.
First, as we mentioned above, anything on the bottom of the foot prevents us from feeling what’s going on. This is particularly bad when we get started, and the reason we want to go fully barefoot to begin. After we’ve developed a light stride we can start wearing minimalist footwear, but we want to look for the THINNEST footwear we can find. Remember, the more cushioning under your foot the less you can sense what’s going on and the HARDER we’ll strike. Think of it like driving an old American car with loose steering around the race track. You can’t feel what’s going on so it’s easy to get yourself in trouble. Instead, you want responsive steering, or shoes that let you know what’s under your feet so you can make changes in how you land in a moments notice.
Second, nearly any shoe inhibits movement of the foot, either by being too narrow, or holding the toes in a fixed position (spread or otherwise). Dr. Rossi, a podiatrist who wrote 8 books on the human foot said that unfortunately no American child’s foot hasn’t been deformed by their footwear by the age of 6. This is true, and a crime, but more to the point it deforms our foot by holding the toes in a particular position. Now whether that position is narrow footwear that doesn’t allow the toes to spread and act as a spring, or toe-like footwear that holds our toes spread out in a particular position, it all has the same result; it constricts movement of the incredibly dynamic foot. Landing on our forefoot, our toes naturally spread and contract acting as a spring. There are over 30 joints in our foot, a very delicate balance of piano strings designed to act as a perfect spring. Restrict even one of these joints, and like a tight link in a chain, you kink and affect every one of them.
Third, the majority of minimalist footwear curve the toes up the front. This is called “toe spring” and was designed for heel striking shoes to make it easier to roll off of the toes at the end of the stride. In theory it sounds good (minus the heel-strike part) but it ignores or neglects the very design of the foot. If you think of the arch in the foot like a bridge, a bridge has two supports for it. For our foot, we all have a strong heel that supports one end of the bridge. And on the other end we have our toes to support our bridge. It turns out that 18 out of 19 muscles and tendons of the foot attach to the toes. So if you want a strong foot, you need strong toes. If you look at your feet, your toes naturally grab down, which supports your arch or your bridge. But if your in shoes that curl upward at the front, they prevent your toes from grabbing down, or from your body to be able to support your arch, and your foot comes collapsing down. So in minimalist footwear where we’re supporting our own arches, we need the toes to grab down, rather than being forced upward toward the sky.
Fourth, we need to stay away from motion control, which is hiding in the majority of minimalist footwear. In essence, it’s grooves on the bottom of the shoe helping direct or tell your foot where the shoe wants it to go. When your foot wants to go one way, and the shoe wants it to go another, this leads to a big problem, known as shin splints. Look for footwear without any a-symmetrical grooves or patterns on the bottom of the shoe so your foot can land where it wants to land, NOT where you shoe wants it to go.
Build in slowly to barefoot running and you’ll be running light and free in no time. Just start with 100 yards every other day, spend the rest of your time in your traditional shoes or orthotics (we call these “foot recovery devices”) and remember to change slowly, listening to your body.
A new stride or gait, even if it used to be the most natural thing in the world (just watch a little child run before he/she is forced to wear shoes), takes time and requires patience. If not, it’s too easy to go too far too fast and get injured. Instead, baby-step in, listening to your body and focusing on the fun. If you’re smiling, your doing something right and if not, then stop, rest, and recollect.
Have fun out there and remember to Run Bare!!!