Improve posture, form, and strength
By Jennifer Olson
It feels like you’re doing something naughty at first, like you’re running around naked,” said Tamara Gerken, President and Co-Founder of the 16,050-member-strong Barefoot Runners Society, when we asked her about the minimalist shoe trends hitting running store shelves this spring. With her calloused feet already well-tuned to barefoot running, Gerken makes sense of the buzz and offers tips for runners who want to try running au naturel.
Barefoot running’s key benefits: more efficient form, plus strengthened and lengthened muscles. According to Gerken, and most barefoot running enthusiasts, we’re born with good running technique but adopt poor posture and bad habits as a result of wearing cushioned and rigid shoes that decrease running efficiency and contribute to injury. “Even a 2-centimeter heel-like that on most trainers-tilts your body forward, altering your weight bearing joints and, in the long run, damaging ligaments and joints through weakened muscles,” said Dr. Michael Nirenberg, a pro-barefoot-activity podiatrist. Without slight heels, he says, you’re more apt to have good posture and land on your midfoot, propelling you forward rather than slowing you down.
In addition to efficiency, a midfoot landing (as opposed to a heel strike) distributes shock more gently. With a typical shoe, all the impact of running-three to seven times your body weight with every step-transfers from the heel, through the knees, and all the way up to the spine. But without a cushioned shoe, your body naturally adapts to different surfaces to minimize the force of impact to weight bearing joints. According to Dr. Nirenberg, barefoot runners or runners in minimalist shoes also get better sensory feedback and can more easily determine how and where to distribute weight in their next step.
While it’s not for everyone, namely runners with diabetes or neuropathy who have decreased feeling in their feet, for most runners barefoot activity strengthens the weaknesses that overbuilt shoes have allowed. “Use common sense about where you go barefoot,” says Dr. Nirenberg, “but the more you use your feet and muscles, the healthier they’ll be in the long run.”
Barefoot runner (and blogger) Angie Bee says: “The shorter your steps, the better. And don’t reach with your feet. Take more steps.” Aim for a cadence of 180 steps-per-minute.
Barely-there runners for road and trail are all the rage this spring. Four to try:
- Merrell Pace Glove ($100; merrell.com) Win a pair of Pace Gloves here on Women’s Adventure
- Terra Plana EVO II ($120; terraplana.com)
- New Balance Minimus ($100; newbalance.com)
- Vibram Komodo Sport ($100; vibramfivefingers.com)
Break into barefoot running slowly, warns Gerken, as transitioning too fast between cushioned and minimalist styles may lead to injury. To start, begin or end your standard run with short stretches-quarter- to half-mile lengths-barefoot or with minimalist shoes. Carry your running shoes (one in each hand) to maintain balance and good form until you’re able to manage your entire run without them.
- Go barefoot at home and on walks before attempting short runs.
- Gradually decrease the amount of cushion and padding your feet need. “Simply remove the insoles from your current shoes for a couple hours each day,” Dr. Nirenberg suggests.
- Maintain a slow pace to adjust to your improved gait. Strive for a mid-foot landing and avoid landing too far on the ball of the foot-unless you’re a sprinter. Most importantly, listen to your feet.
- Rest if you get injured. Gerken suggests thinking about what you did wrong so you can correct your form.
- If you have blisters, keep the skin clean and trimmed closely.
- Ease soreness with dynamic stretches and cool downs, a foam roller, and compression socks.
- Transition on grass or sand. Starting to run barefoot in solid, even surfaces teaches runners where to place their weight, while soft surfaces hide debris and holes. “You cannot learn a lesson where the answer changes with each footfall,” says Gerken.
- Run too much too soon. “If you’re a seasoned runner, you cannot go in with the mindset that you can go as fast or far as you did in traditional running shoes. You will be injured,” Gerken warns. The danger: tearing tissue that’s been shortened by the elevated heel of most running shoes.