Friday, August 23, 2013

Barefoot Running (Love Your Feet)

Barefoot runningLet me ask you a personal question.  When was the last time you looked at your feet?  I mean when was the last time you really looked at your feet?
As it turns out, those fleshy little nubs at the end of your legs are actually marvels of bio-mechanics.  How about this for a stat sheet?  Each foot has:
  • 26 bones
  • 33 joints
  • over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments
  • over 7000 nerve endings
Think about it:  your feet make up 25% of all 206 bones in your body.  These fascinating machines are responsible for balance, locomotion and occasionally kicking people in the head (if you’re Chuck Norris), and are truly masterpieces that deserve to be pampered and appreciated.  Yet we ignore them and hide them away, imprisoned in leather and rubber every single day as if we were ashamed for the rest of the world to see.
If you’re wondering, no, I haven’t just recently developed a foot fetish.  I bring it up because I’ve taken my feet for granted for my entire life and only within the last year or so came to realize that I never learned how to use them properly in the first place.  So I’d like to share a bit of my personal enlightenment with you and hopefully you’ll get to learn something new, as well.

Taking the first step
Running lion
Watch out...he looks hungry!
 - Photo by
I’ve always hated running.  It seemed like a pointless endeavor unless you were being chased by something trying to eat you and, honestly, how often do you get chased by hungry lions in this day and age?  But it was about this time last year I decided that if I was going to get fit and maintain a healthy, active lifestyle, I would have to learn to like running.  With that, I bought myself some new, fancy-looking running shoes and fashionable workout attire and took to the treadmill.
I started out slowly, but after a few months I was running for a couple of miles in a sitting – nothing too terribly impressive, but I was definitely losing weight and feeling less like a tubby office slug every day.  But there was also a downside to this newly-found aerobic prowess:  my joints hurt all the time.  Knees, hips, ankles – everything ached.
When I mentioned this to a friend, he told me he had been having similar issues and talked about a video he found preaching the benefits of barefoot running.  The video talked about a super race of runners down in the Copper Canyons of Mexico who regularly got hopped up on corn beer and ran for hundreds of miles wearing nothing but rudimentary sandals.  But it wasn't just the young, strapping men of the tribe running these mega-marathons, it was everyone, including women and children, regardless of age.
Curious, I did some research and found the video that would forever change the way I thought about running:

This is Christopher McDougall, the author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Vintage).  He is one of the world’s leading authorities on barefoot running and is also the man who inspired me to go “barefoot” and abandon my traditional running shoes.

My feet are killing me!

I have a little experiment I’d like you to try.  You won’t need much:  just you, your shoes and a hard floor.  It’s easy...I promise!
  1. Walk around on the hard floor for a few minutes with your shoes on and take very careful notice of how you step.
  2. Now take your shoes off and walk around for a few minutes on the same hard floor, again noticing how you step.
If you’re like most people, you’ll find yourself walking in a heel-toe motion when you’re wearing shoes.  It’s normal – that’s the way we’ve been taught to walk since we were kids.  Land on your heel, then roll off to your toes.  Simple.
Bare feet
Photo by Nicholas_T
Did you notice anything different when you took your shoes off?  You should find that after a while you begin to do more of a “fox walk” (i.e., landing with your forefoot/midfoot first).  Landing on your heel is painful and sends a jolt all the way up your leg, through your joints and even into your spine, but it’s what we do every day.  Shoes are designed to cushion the impact, but there’s still a significant force when you land on your heel – especially when running.
“Fox walking”, on the other hand, is the natural human gait and has been shown to greatly reduce the impact on your body.  Your legs are designed to be natural shock absorbers, gradually dissipating the downward force through the balls of your feet, arches, Achilles tendons and calf muscles.  When you walk or run in this more natural fashion, the impact to your knees, hips and back becomes minimal.  The issue then becomes, as Dr. William Rossi says in this 1999 article, that “[The] natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person”.  Bummer.  But why?
Most shoes are designed with a thick, cushioned heel, creating a constant downward angle in your foot, which poses a couple of problems:
  1. It impedes you from landing on the ball of your foot when taking a step.
  2. It shortens your Achilles tendon over time.
You’ll also notice that when your bare foot is resting on the floor, your toes are pressed flat, gripping the ground and ready to assist when you want to propel yourself forward.  Most shoes, however, have a slight upward slant at the toes to help you roll forward through your step, accommodating for the stiff nature of the sole.  Again, this is very conducive to running in a heel-striking style, which is bad for your bones.
Still not convinced?  Check this out (and pay attention to the force graph all you physics geeks)...

Just me and my Vibrams

Vibram FiveFingers
Wow...look at the funky toe shoes!
Okay, so when I said I ended up going barefoot, that was only partially true.  Much like you’re probably thinking right now, the idea of running around on the street with nothing to protect my feet didn’t sound like fun.  Luckily, a lot of companies are coming out with some pretty awesome “barefoot” shoes; most notably, the Vibram FiveFingers.  I invested in my first pair about a year ago after seeing some friends wear them to work.  Of course my first impression was  “wow...look at those funky toe shoes”, but after hearing my friends rave about the more natural feel, I broke down and bought a pair of Bikilas.
Ho.  Lee.  Crap.  I absolutely fell in love with them the first time out.  You really don’t notice how intricate and dynamic your feet are until you ditch those monster shoes you've been wearing your whole life.  With that first run I worked out muscles in my feet and calves that I had no idea were even there!  It was really a freeing experience and I will never go back.
That said, if you’re interested in getting started, here are some things you need to know...

Start slow

When your feet spend their entire lives bound up and unable to move, they atrophy and, like I mentioned before, your Achilles tendon may have shortened.  Running barefoot will make your feet move in ways they are not used to and put pressure on your tendons that they are not ready for – it’s very easy to overdo it for the first couple of months.  Take your time!

People are going to look at you funny

It seems odd, but people are not used to seeing feet.  They are taboo to some degree so for some people it’s unnatural to see another person’s toes in public.  You get used to it and (if you’re kinda weird like me) actually start to relish the attention after a while, but it’s definitely a little unnerving at first.

Stretch often

I cannot stress this point enough.  You’ll be starting to use muscles that have not been used much before.  Do some dynamic stretching before your run and some static stretching afterwards, and make sure to pay special attention to your calves and feet.  I know it sounds weird, but I make a point of stretching my feet after every run.

Barefoot shoes smell like feet

Wash them often.  It also helps to use some odor-eating spray on those bad boys after your workout.  Seriously...putting stinky shoes in your gym bag makes for a less-than-pleasant running experience, unless you like your clothes smelling like dirty feet.

Make sure you get the right fit

That first pair of Bakilas I bought were awesome, but also a half size too small.  After the first 20 minutes or so, my feet would start cramping.  I also ended up with a bruised toe for a few months after a run where my pinky toenail was a bit too long and repeatedly rammed into the fleshy part.  Not fun.  Having the right fit makes a huge difference.

Go get ‘em, Tiger!

So that’s it...if you have feet, you’re ready to start running (apologies to anyone reading this blog who doesn’t have feet)!  I would definitely recommend getting yourself some good barefoot shoes, but if you’re not into the FiveFinger look there are plenty of other great options out there.  Merrell makes a bunch of highly rated barefoot shoes, then there are these cool ninja-looking things, and even the new VivoBarefoot shoes from TerraPlana and Galahad Clark (of the Clarks shoe family).
More and more people are starting to realize the benefits of the barefoot movement.  It’s a bit intimidating at first, ditching the padded comfort of your designer running shoes, but just try it – you’ll never want to go back.  You might even start to enjoy running!
- Nate

Have you tried barefoot running?  Leave a comment below and let us know what you think...

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