I find that I spend a lot of time talking to people about how to barefoot run. But I bumped into a friend over the weekend who asked me the question “why should I wear barefoot shoes?” It made me realise that I talk to a lot of people who have already decided that they want to barefoot run.
So let me give my reasons why I think people wear barefoot shoes. Maybe I should start with reasons that I won’t be proposing. I am not going to claim that barefoot running will enable you to run faster. Barefoot running is not about performance. It may enable you to run further but even then only after you have worked hard on your technique.
In my opinion there are two keys reasons why you should wear barefoot shoes, the experience and reduced running injuries. So let me go through each of them.
The human foot has the next most dense collection of nerves after our hands. Our brain originally developed to receive and process the information from these nerves as part of the process of walking and running. To me taking up wearing barefoot shoes was largely about the pleasure that is to be derived from restoring this information flow. Put simply, being able to feel the surface you are walking or running on is fun and rewarding and makes me feel good.
Most of our feet have been compressed into narrow shoes and their shape has been changed accordingly to a narrower profile. Most barefoot shoes have a wide forefoot section that allows the wearer feet to sprawl and spread back to their natural shape over a period of time. In the process of this the gaps between their toes widen too. The experience of naturally splayed feet in an unconstrained shoe is pleasant too and in my case returning to conventional tight shoes has proved unacceptable.
Reduced Running Injuries
You can quite happily wear barefoot shoes and never run, but it seems to me that most people do. Many people take up barefoot running shoes because they want to try out fore-foot striking instead of heel-striking. So what do you get from wearing barefoot shoes when running compared to conventional trainers? Well the answer is nothing unless you make the effort to change your running technique. The benefits come from the running technique and barefoot shoes are tools that enable you to make this transition. The improved running technique entails:
- Forefoot striking
- A heel plant shortly after the forefoot strike
- Landing on a foot that is below your centre of gravity or ever so slightly ahead of it
- A quick cadence of 180 steps per minute
- A relaxed upper body with soft shoulders and open palms
- Arm movement infront of your body but not extending behind
If you can learn to successfully run in this manner you will find that you experience
The benefits of this style of running are ultimately about running more efficiently and in a manner that is gentler on your body. The impact of your foot landing is reduced substantially which lowers shock passing through your feet and up your legs. The feedback of students when they first experience this style of running is that it feels effortless in comparison with conventional running. You are actually making better use of gravity and your bodies natural elasticity and avoiding the braking effect that each stride involves in heel striking. Whilst heel striking involves a lot of “pounding the pavement” this style of running feels more like rolling along the pavement. It is much less “percussive” and you can tell this by listening to your feet, if all is well they will be significantly quieter.
The reason why you can expect lower injury rates is that you are using your body the way it was designed to operate and putting it under much lower levels of stress. This is why some people refer to it as natural running. If I had to choose a term I would be inclined to choose “gentle running”.