How to take the plunge into barefoot running
By Grant Molyneux
Photos by Tanya Ramirez
As infants we learned to walk and run barefoot. We learned to communicate with the ground at an early age and then, at some point, we messed it all up by sticking shoes on our feet. We’re the only animals on the planet that insist on shoeing our feet. It’s a big experiment and some would say it’s not working out that well.
In fact, if you understand basic physics, any material you place under your feet will decrease your efficiency, as there’s always a net energy loss or transfer into that material. Not only do you lose energy into the foam under your feet, but you lose valuable proprioceptive communication with the ground, which allows you to cheat on your running form. Lose this vital earth connection and you’re increasing your chance of injury through a double-whammy of lost energy and running form.
For decades I’ve encouraged athletes to run on a treadmill, track, or on the grass without anything on their feet. Why? To re-teach them how to run with good form, to reacquaint them with the feel of the ground again, and to rewire their biomechanics. Almost instantly they shorten their stride, improve their posture and land mid-foot. Since they can feel the ground again they intuitively run smarter. There’s an old Chinese saying that states: “shoes make your feet dumb.”
In addition to improved running, barefoot therapy remains an effective choice for injury rehabilitation. When someone tells me they have battled plantar fasciitis, I’ll have them start by walking around the house barefoot. Most of the time they report feeling better; if that happens, I start weaning them off over-protective, built-up shoes.
I remember one client who suffered with plantar pain for years when I started coaching her. She had a long and painful journey through every kind of shoe and orthotic possible. The one thing she hadn’t explored was going back to nature. So we tried just that, going barefoot around the house. She immediately reported
She progressed to a 10-minute barefoot walk on a treadmill - no problems. A few days later we added a minute, then two, and then we tried a one-minute jog in the middle. This progression led to half-marathons and triathlons run in minimalist shoes, with no pain and great running form. In fact, she had a pair of leather moccasins made for her before the new barefoot shoes were even on the market, and the moccasins worked well.
So you might be wondering if this “back to nature” philosophy is for you. The answer lies with your body. If you feel better without shoes, or better in your slippers around the house, then you’ll probably gravitate to barefoot running and benefit from minimalism without any issues. If, on the other hand, your feet hurt when going barefoot for even the slightest amount of time, it’s best to stick with the shoes and system you have.
If you feel fine barefoot, or even better than in shoes of any kind, here are a few common-sense steps and pitfalls to avoid in your transition to barefoot bliss:
■ First, make a slow transition. After all, most people reading this are Canadians, eh, and our feet have been coddled in snow boots for years. You can’t expect them to toughen up overnight. It usually takes about three weeks for your body to adapt to any new level of training. Most people find they have tighter calves for the first while as their calves adapt to the added workload of landing mid-foot. This fades with time and patience.
■ Second, if you want to move toward barefoot running but are hesitant to make a full leap-of-faith, try a reverse shoe progression. For example, if you have been running in orthotics and built-up control shoes, try some short runs without your orthotics or try your orthotics in a neutral shoe. In this way, you take one small step in the barefoot direction. If you sense no problems, stick with that system for a few weeks and then try the next step, as outlined below.
Barefoot running progression away from built-up shoes looks like this:
A. orthotics with control running shoes;
B. orthotics with neutral running shoes or no orthotics with control running shoes;
C. basic neutral running shoes;
D. racing flats;
E. minimal running shoes; and
F. protective foot covering or barefoot on treadmills or grass.
■ Third, try inserting some very short runs (one to two minutes) on a treadmill or on grass a couple of times a week. Even if you never intend on changing your footwear, this exercise goes a long way toward improving your running form by naturally teaching you the right stride length and how to land mid-foot. You can simply take your shoes off in the middle of a run if you’re near a field, or start on a treadmill before you shoe-up and head outside.
■ Fourth, in conjunction with your new shoe philosophy and progression I recommend enrolling in a running technique class. There are classes in natural posture running: the pose method or the method I prefer called Chi running.
Regardless of the class you take, from proper form comes sound function. You can’t ignore your technique in any sport. Tune up your running skills and learn
the basics of fluid, efficient running from a professional.
Finally, don’t be overly concerned with the “experts” (myself included): if your body feels healthy, continue what you’re doing. If you feel better without shoes, take them off. I always default to my client’s inner body wisdom before I use any outside template or high-tech solution. I remember chatting with a client who told me the minute he came home from work he would flip off his dress shoes and socks and live barefoot around the house. He had pain when running in his built-up shoes and orthotics. Now after tossing them, he’s pain free and loving the experience.
Grant Molyneux is an endurance coach from Calgary with 30 years experience, specializing in his unique system of effortless exercise. He can be reached through www.vitalize.ca.
Meditation in Motion
By Grant Molyneux
Chi runner Charles Miron is living proof that barefoot running can take you high places. Miron, 33, a Calgary running coach and endurance athlete, turned to barefoot running to try to relieve some of the strain and pain built up over 18 years of running. He soon found his performance soaring.
A top 10 finisher at the Canadian Death Race, Miron won last year’s Sinister 7 ultra — a gruelling seven-stage, 146K trail race through the mountains near Blairmore, Alta. — by an incredible hour and 45 minutes over second place!
“The training I’ve put on and abilities I’ve developed give me a faster back half of a race,” says Miron. “The longer the run, the more comfortable I get. It’s like meditation in motion.”
Miron has taken his training regimen back to basics; no weights, no stretching, and only aerobic running. He took up Chi running, became a certified instructor and started to teach others the technique. Chi running uses a forward leaning technique that allows gravity to propel you forward more efficiently.
With two years of aerobic training, Miron’s speed at a heart rate of 150 has fallen from 8:15 minutes per miles to 6:30 minutes per miles, and he was feeling better than ever. At the same time, his shoes were getting thinner. He runs on all surfaces with nothing more than a thin slice of rubber under his feet.
“I can feel the ground better and make adjustments in my stride on the go,” says Miron. “Out on the trails in flat shoes, you get in contact with Mother Nature. The minimalist approach awakens you to what’s out there.”
Miron runs 80 to 200K a week at an easy aerobic pace, most of the time with clients. At the heart of his transformation, Miron emphasizes three key elements to a lifetime of effortless, injury-free running:
1. Run slower to get faster and healthier;
2. Learn how to run properly and focus on impeccable form; and
3. Train on shoes that are closer to the ground, to stay in touch with the earth under your feet.
Ultra-runner Charles Miron races in minimalist shoes and has trimmed almost two minutes per mile off his race pace.
May/June 2011 Issue