Running for the Injured Man—How Barefoot Running Techniques Turned My Body Around

barefoot running techniquesMan has been trekking fast on his feet since the dawn of his time. Whether walking, jogging or running, hoofing it on foot is a millennia old pastime. Whether getting away from predators or chasing down the little ones before they roll off a prehistoric cliff, moving on feet has been crucial to man’s survival, as well as his daily living. Let me pose to you this curious question: how long has man been wearing his homemade (or sweatshop produced) shoes compared to how long he’s been barefoot running?

I’m about to embark on retraining for my first Half Marathon. I actually started ramping up last spring, and got all the way up to running 12 miles. I never tacked down a race, so after I hit 12 miles I soon got bored of running and started playing basketball again on the weekends instead of distance runs.

For my 30th birthday my cousin bought me my ticket into a San Diego Half Marathon. So after a month of spotty running, it’s time for me to regain my barefoot running technique and ramp up to this race.

Update: I ended up writing a lot more on this subject! Check out these related posts leading up to and after my Half Marathon:

Training For Your First Half Marathon
Long Distance Run Recovery
Injury Recovery: Bouncing Back From Injury

Why Barefoot Running

I know it’s a little intimidating and outright preposterous to some. But exploring barefoot running techniques was for me a saving grace in terms of getting back in shape.

A few years ago, fall 2008 if I remember correctly, I was playing basketball in running shoes–one of the worst mistakes of my life. While coming down from a rebound I landed on someone’s foot and absolutely ruptured my ligaments. It was horrible. After six weeks I was still injured and its never fully healed. And it never will return to uninjured ankle status.

Just this February I was lifting weights and was doing T-Bar Rows. Nothing super heavy. Maybe 135 lbs. I’ve done the weight before and was on my third set. After dropping the weights I walked away to catch my breath–and after what amounted to a brief cerebral delay–I collapsed in searing spinal pain on a nearby bench.

With a now subluxated spine, tightly wound ankle combined with meniscus and other damage to my knee, I could only run about 1.5 miles on the pavement in my neighborhood before topping out.

I was extremely discouraged. Lifting weights was tough, I was gaining weight, and I was just plain sore and tired. My lungs weren’t the same without hitting the cardio. But I just couldn’t go very far without ankle, knee, and more than anything, back pain.

Where did the barefoot running technique idea come from?

barefoot running techniques

I sometimes get to capture the end of my runs on my iPhone.

Years ago an avid runner roommate of mine introduced me to the idea of barefoot running. He said some hardcore runners were getting into it. It sounded like a “new” thing.

Here’s what is wrong with thinking of barefoot running technique as a new fad: it’s been around for thousands of years. Sure people have been wearing leather sandals and other types of footwear for centuries, but padded shoes that conform to our feet are an absolutely new thing.

Man has been barefoot running for a long time, and we might take a cue from our ancestors and consider what they might have been doing right.

How marketers have duped us

I’m not writing to convince everyone to start barefoot running. But I do encourage you to take a good hard look at your shoes, and what makes you comfortable or uncomfortable.

Nike, Reebok, Sketchers and more have tried to sell people on the idea that they need support inside of their shoes. What’s wrong with this idea is having thick padding to stand on in your shoes actually lessens the use of the muscles in your feet. And that makes your feet weaker.

Think of wearing thick-padded gloves all day long. You’re fingers are constrained and barely used. You’re hands would get weak and would lose dexterity right? So do our feet. The less they touch the ground and the more they are contained within shoes the weaker the muscles in our feet get.

Padding might actually be killing your knees

The biggest difference with utilizing barefoot running technique is that your form changes significantly. While wearing heavily padded shoes, we are more willing to pound our less sensitive feet hard into the ground. That may not hurt the soles of your feet, but that impact is reverberating up through your ankle, knee, and spine.

This is the crux of the difference for me. One day in March this year I took the plunge and went to the beach gave running barefoot on sand a shot. I ran 4 miles on my first try. And that was compared to topping our at 1.5 miles when I wasn’t using a barefoot running technique.

What was the major difference? I was no longer pounding my feet into a hard surface, but onto sand. With the change of form and shorter gait/stride, I wasn’t jamming my knees with every single step. The pain in my spine and lower back was alleviated by this change in technique.

Another way to avoid injury is to invest in some of these great running products, such as comfortable shoes from Simply Feet.

Is barefoot running for everyone?

I’m no expert and I can’t say what’s best for your body. Meeting with a sports doctor is going to give you great insight if that’s an option for you. I imagine most readers don’t have a sandy beach to run on. Here’s an excellent article on how a person can transition slowly into running barefoot. It tells the story of Abebe Bikila who prepared for, and won, the 1960 Olympics Marathon.

barefoot running techniques

A look at the feet you wear.

Coming from a guy who had (and has) spine and ankle problems, I believe that billions of people over millennia were doing something right. We were created to run without shoes, and I believe that we still today can do so. I’m not opposed to shoes, but I actually think they allow people to be rougher on their body than they should, and produce poor running technique. Just as your dog at home would change his form if you slapped shoes on him, so does man.

If you’re afraid to scrape up your soles, this article explains how that doesn’t have to happen. But you can also check out Vibram Five Fingers as a great alternative.

In the coming weeks I’ll be putting something together on my experience ramping up for a Half Marathon. If you’re a runner, please give me your feedback! I’m always looking for more insight on the right eating, timing and anything else regarding training or barefoot running technique.

About Todd Mayfield

He's a lover, not a fighter. But he's also a fighter, so don't get any ideas.

He works for a series of private schools to advance innovative education to combat ballooning classroom sizes and challenge the status quo of the current public and private education format.

Comments

  1. It’s amazing what marketers can make us believe, isn’t it? And I run an advertising business with my wife! 😉 That said, I know my wife has tried this on and off when she runs and I have a few times. I am not much of a runner, so it’s not really an issue for me in the long run.

    • Todd Mayfield says:

      It’s definitely something that has to be pursued slowly as we’ve been doing “shoed” running and walking for so long. I didn’t really details the risks, pros, and cons in this article. The article I refer to at the end of the post really dives into that. Maybe I will on my own down the road!

  2. If you haven’t already, read the book Born to Run – by Chris McDougall.

    I’ve done a LOT of “barefoot” running, and it’s a feeling of freedom that is so completely different from when you have giant clunky weights on your feet.

    • Todd Mayfield says:

      I haven’t read Born to Run although I know it’s a major influence on many runners that have had the same realization. I agree–I’m much more “aware” and have quicker reflexes when I run barefoot. I have never rolled my ankle or twisted anything while barefoot b/c the moment your foot touches the ground the sensors when don’t use when we’re wearing shoes let’s us know something is wrong!

  3. I’m not a runner and I don’t have any plans to be. That said, I do like to go on long walks.

    When I was a kid, I was barefoot all the time. If I wasn’t at school, church, or the store, my shoes were off. To this day, the first thing I do after coming home is take my shoes off.

    I have trouble believing that people actually where those toe shoes. There is no way my toes would fit in those things.

    • Todd Mayfield says:

      Ha, I haven’t tried them myself since I have the luxury of running on sand. But I am thinking about buying some to run the half marathon in.

  4. “Is barefoot running or waliking for everyone???”
    “In unshod countries 3% of the population seek medical help for foot,knee and back problems compared to 85% in shod countries.”
    I have a company that produces proprioceptive insoles. After working with researchers ,Olympic athletes, doctors and muscle and gait technology companies for seven years I realize how incredible simple the answer to that question is.We have long known that as soon as we introduced prorioceptive feed back to the feet that there is an average increase in stability and balance of 50%. It does not matter if you introduce this feed back by walking barefoot in the grass or sand or wearing our product.Our work with Noraxon over the last year has detailed the “Why” behind this phenomenon. Turning the foots proprioceptive system on is like flipping the breaker switch to all of the gait related muscles. Dave Lemke is the countries top SEMG expert and his comments were that “it literally completes the upright posture circuit and brings about posture without effort.” Research grade technology consistently records an instant increase in efficiency of the two lower leg muscles groups( peroneus longus/Anterior tibialis), the hamstrings, the gluts and the paraspinals.
    Hmmmm, who might benefit from an increase in strength and efficiency in all of their gait related musculature ,a 50% increase in balance/stability and a body that is working in symmetry???

    • Todd Mayfield says:

      Wow, what a startling statistic–that in unshod countries only 3% of the population seek medical help for foot, knee, and back problems. I’m assuming part of that may lie in the poverty level of those countries. But still very eye opening. Where did you find this statistic?

  5. Makes good sense, man. But what about pavement? Dudes have been running for a bazillion years barefoot, but they haven’t been running on concrete, right? I think barefoot running makes more sense if you’re talking about running on grass, beaches, dirt and stuff…but concrete? Let me know what you think about that, I’m interested to know.

    • Todd Mayfield says:

      That’s a good question, b/c concrete is the worst surface to run on. Pavement follows that closely. With little give, your joints are going to absorb even more of the reverberating shock. That’s where the argument comes in that pounding on pavement with bad form–while “shod”–only exacerbates the problem. That’s why there’s a small market for the Vibram Five Finger shoes.

      The barefoot running on the beach has helped strengthen me enough that I can do about 4 miles on pavement in my neighborhood once a week. I would like to work back into it b/c the fact of the matter is when live in a paved world. But I can tell my form is worse while wearing shoes–my meniscus and other stuff hurts worse and I overpronate.

      So, I AM considering the Vibram shoes so i can continue to use them for barefoot running technique while not on the beach.

      • Lizette Rodriguez says:

        I’ve had numerous transitions when it came to running. I went from wearing shoes to switching to minimalist shoes, when I made the transition I felt like I was actually doing something right, but then as I did more research I felt that I was being mislead because of all the advertisements that minimalist shoes are the way to go until I recently came across this blog that I felt taught me the proper way to run barefoot. So now when I have friends that are interested in running and I see them buy minimalist shoes, I feel like their being cheated from the actual experience of running barefoot, so I tell them what I’ve found and hoping that with that they decide to transition completely into barefoot running. :) I hope that it can help you as well or anyone really.

        http://teamdoctorsblog.com/2012/04/13/video-tutorial-172-sticks-and-stones-wont-break-my-barefoot-running-bones/

        • Thanks for the link! I’m on it right now and will need to browse around it for a bit!

          I still haven’t bought minimalist shoes. I’m hesitant to spend $100 and end up drawing the same conclusion you did. I’m fortunate to have a beach to run on, but when I run in my neighborhood, I wear normal shoes and my form is poorer. Resulting in sorer knees, etc.

  6. Dude, that sounds like the most painful injury of all time. I can’t imagine what a spinal injury even feels like.

    I was going to say what Mrs. PoP said….Born to Run covers this ground really well. It’s amazing how much we’ve “bought” into more and more cushion for our runs.

    • Todd Mayfield says:

      Yeah it was pretty bad, and shocking. Apparently I already lacked enough room between vertebrae, and that just made it worse. I don’t really believe in chiropractors though (I went to one for 6 weeks), and my new medical insurance doesn’t cover a sports doctor anymore, so I’m still searching for answers on that front.

      With that said, I better finally read this Born To Run book!!

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