Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thinking Outside the Shoe: A Conversation About the Barefoot/Minimalist Movement


 Extracted from
Jenny Hadfield, Co-Author, Marathoning for Mortals and Running for Mortals


Barefoot Tom wrote: (Twitter Name: @RunNaturally) In your article, you mention that one might start in a barefoot or minimalist running shoe before going barefoot. However, this goes against anecdotal evidence that we have learned over the years. It seems the best way to learn to better your form and become stronger is to go purely barefoot first. This does not mean that you cannot utilize minimal footwear, but it does mean that the foot-to-ground connection can teach you more in a week than wearing even the thinnest soles around can do, which we outline in the barefoot running book co-authored with Dr. Craig Richards. Once you have built up your strength (especially in the core and in regard to foot and ankle stability), then you can throw on a pair to get you through a run, to go a bit faster, or to simply have some protection.

Coach Jenny wrote:
Great information Tom.  You’ve highlighted what I believe to be one of the most overlooked benefits of running barefoot, the body’s subconscious ability to immediately adapt to running with less impact and with authentic form.  It’s not something you think about, it just happens and it is a truly amazing process.   Once learned, it can be repeated in shoes structured or minimalist with practice.  It is less about running barefoot 100% of the time and more about tapping into the benefits and improving your running performance by learning to move with less under foot.
I believe if runners start with stationary strengthening (exercises in place), it will reduce the risk of injury that can happen when even walking barefoot (happens a lot this time of year as it gets warm).  I'm passionate about starting from this place (developing strength before you move) as I've seen so many people start off with too much barefoot movement (walking or running) at once and get hurt.  Then they blame the movement, rather than the rate of progression.  Although some can progress fairly rapidly, the rate of progression from living in a supportive shoe world to moving with less is directly related to foot/body strength, balance and environment.  Meaning, some who start by walking barefoot can still get hurt because they lack the strength in their feet to support their body in movement.
The disconnect, I believe happens in the translation of what “slow transition” means.  Like running, moving into barefoot movement will be faster for some and slower for others, yet either way success depends greatly on your ability to practice patience, invest in developing the strength so you’re starting from a point of strength and awareness that although it is a natural form of movement of our body, we don’t live in a barefoot culture.  Once the foundation is firmly in place, a runner can move to walking barefoot and eventually running.  When I speak to starting with shoes, then progressing to less shoe and then barefoot I am only referring to performing strengthening exercises.  I think we're talking around the chicken and egg here…


runandbikeinboise Wrote:
With due respect to Huarache Maker's sprint training, I can't help but think that a lot of folks are jumping on the proverbial bandwagon here. Every time I step on a partially exposed ROCK, embedded in the trail I'm running on, or see broken glass on the street in front of me, I think that, however wonderful it feels to run barefoot (frisbee on the beach, anyone?) that barefoot running just isn't a very practical concept! At the risk of sounding like an idea resistant old fogey — almost every story I hear from running friends having to do with new shoes is a story about getting hurt, with a lesson embedded in the story about how unnecessary that shoe was. I'll stay healthy, and running, in my regular ol' (Mizunos), thank you very much.
Coach Jenny wrote:
Great point and a very valid one indeed!  I too have had my share of emails from folks who have ended up hurt from running in minimalist shoes or barefoot.  However, I don’t believe that means it is an all or nothing movement.   It’s less about the product, more about the user error and you don't need to run barefoot to benefit.
Like the automobile, the invention of shoes made life easier (and prettier).   However, innovation can also breed dependency and weakness in other areas.  Driving allows us to move quickly and safely to a destination, but if it means you move less during the day, it creates a weakness in health.  Shoes allow us to move more safely, quickly and with less thought.   However, it also allows the stabilizing muscles to go on hiatus making them dependent to a degree on the protection and support they provide (like a back brace).  Is this a bad thing?  Not if that is the world you want to live in and if it works for you.  But many still have injuries in shoes and much of that can be prevented with a strong base of support (foot, ankle, core) which is much harder to develop inside the supportive environment that the shoe provides.   Sure, running barefoot on a trail may not be for everyone, but what about performing barefoot strengthening exercises post run to decrease the dependency on the synthetic support system?  This can be an incredibly valuable asset for trail running in terms of balance and strength to reduce ankle injuries.  You can leave it there or progress on to weaving in short barefoot running drills.  The choice is yours and it doesn't mean you have to run on glass.
Barefoot Tom Wrote:
I think we are really talking about the same thing, but perhaps from different angles. I think that what you have outlined (structure –> less structure –> no structure) makes perfect sense. Many minimal footwear practitioners would agree (and I too) that this has merit and would work for many. However, it is important to simply starting walking around barefoot (we have a program of several weeks of doing this), then (as you mention) jog lightly and gently in place, and then slowly working in different surfaces (namely hard ones first to get feedback). We definitely relay the importance of taking it slow to build strengths before just taking off barefoot. That's why we have drills for beginners and then later, more advanced drills to build upon those (as you also mention) aspects of core strength that are so important to having efficient technique. I am going against what one might call practical wisdom, however, to argue that there is a greater risk of injury if you take off in minimalist shoes for a run than doing so barefoot. In bare feet, one is much less likely to push past the comfort zone. For the beginner who is completely barefoot, she or he might only be able to run for 3 minutes before the pads feel toasty or before the calf muscles begin locking up. In minimalist shoes, you can more easily push past that initial pain because the sensory feedback is blocked and there is still some support for the arch and achilles. I have connected with countless newbies who have bruised or hurt an area of their foot, or really hurt their calf muscles, because they went, for example, trail running in a new pair of minimal shoes without getting used to them first. That is not to say that one would not easily bruise or hurt themselves barefoot, but imagine how much more carefully, lightly, and more aware they would run without anything 'falsely' protecting their feet (I say falsely because the ventral skin is really the only thing being protected in most minimal shoes. Most people do not know how quickly the skin of the feet adapt, much, much quicker than what's inside. Such footwear does not truly protect the metatarsals, or internal tendons and ligaments (nor should they), but does make it easier to maintain old, poor habits–such as heel striking, over striding, or losing awareness (or mindfulness). It is the internal tissue which must also get used to increased barefoot activity and it can take a very long time to do so. If one can cover a distance or a certain terrain purely 'naked' or barefoot, then one knows it can be done in minimal shoes. Barefoot running is really about learning to run all over again. Why not get the feet used to the world first and use minimal shoes when most needed (races, varied terrain, etc). We do talk about mixing techniques in the book, but the initial transition is truly where re-learning running happens and matters most. A transition to barefoot or even minimal footwear running is much more likely to succeed without major setbacks if runners first develop the new habits that barefoot running brings rather than try to ween themselves from bad habits by wearing a 'transition' shoe. While I understand the 'nicotine patch' theory presented, going 'cold turkey' (but very slowly) is one way to ensure that you are replacing good running habits with those of old. (And, while I do not want to keep pitching the book, I would be thrilled to send you a copy for review! I think we'd find our common ground within its pages.) So, in closing, I think both of our premises are based on the same ideas: start slowly, build up gradually, and devote time to drills that are going to help you engage the core of the body proficiently in forward movement. The only difference is: no structure (done smartly, slowly, carefully, mindfully, with a plan) –> less structure (for those who wish to run less 'naked'). I am not a purest and do believe (like you) that each runner can and will find their own balance, but discovering one's true 'natural' running self is best done without the aid of shoes. Only without them can you learn to run with them. Thanks again for such an engaging conversation!
Coach Jenny Wrote:
Start from where you are rather than where you want to be.  This is a philosophy that has worked for me both personally and professionally.  That is, get real with your current level of fitness and strength and start from that point and progress at the rate your body adapts versus what is on paper.
In an experiment of one, I started weaving in strengthening exercises over two years ago and have progressed slowly (months) to doing them barefoot and on unstable objects (BOSU, balance pad, half foam roller).  In that time, I was also able to progress to walking around the house barefoot (6 months) and now working on 30-45 seconds of barefoot running four to six times within two of my weekly runs.  I wanted to see how long it took me, if the exercises would make an impact on my form and quite frankly what it felt like to run barefoot too. For me, I've found it quite fun and playful and believe it has made a significant impact on my running efficiency (using less energy stride for stride).  Overall, I am able to cover more ground and use less energy.  And that's pretty cool.  I may try to progress to running barefoot and I may not.  More importantly, I value the many benefits of re-learning how to move authentically again.
Thanks again for your information, for being open to this conversation and bridging the gap between what is believed to be a cult (not so) to something that is so natural we can't even see it:)
Jung Wrote:
Very interesting. Wondering if I could still make the transition over to minimalist running, even with my history of ankle sprains. It sounds so freeing.
Coach Jenny Wrote:
The stronger your feet, ankles and core, the less likely to sprain an ankle or re-injure an area.  You can absolutely make your way slowly into the minimalist movement world. Build the strength move around with less structure and go from there. You'll never know unless…at the very least, you will build a solid core strength in that ankle that will better stabilize in a shoe world.
Designertoast Wrote:
I'm a flat footed over-pronator with weak ankles (at least, that's what the podiatrist said but I've never once had a problem with them). Despite that, I've wanted to run barefoot ever since I first heard of people doing so. Are my feet just going to make training to run barefoot harder, or is it something I shouldn't consider trying for? I have been doing barefoot walks on the treadmill (still too cold where I live to go outside without shoes!) and some balance exercises which have noticeably helped my balance/strength but I'm wondering if the way my foot just "is" makes trying to fully transition a bad idea.  I guess what I'm trying to ask is, can a flat footed person ever run barefoot without expecting problems? If you have any input, I'd greatly appreciate it!

SpencerRuns says:
I don't believe in the whole transition shoe thing. I think its dangerous. I was a flat footed over pronating person, that every doctor told me to "get orthotics", which I never did, because I didn't believe in the concept. I started running barefoot about this time last year. I did this first by walking barefoot as much as I could as far as six miles on asphalt, before I started running. The whole idea is to go slowly. I'm a barefooter in general life, so people just need to start walking barefoot everywhere, as much as they can, before they start running. You don't run before you walk.
Coach Jenny Wrote:
Great point and highlights the importance of the art of slow, methodical progression to moving with less.  It also illustrates the differences and similarities we share.  It is important to note that some may need the support that comes from an orthotic, especially if there is significant pain and no interest in performing exercises to improve strength.  Thanks for sharing your story.
Suzanne Kirk Wrote:
I just bought some minimalist shoes (the new NB 101 Trail) and love them. I got them a week before a trail half and wore them even though I knew it wasn't my best idea ever, but they worked really well. And while I had some ankle, foot and calf pain after, it wasn't crippling and has gotten better with every use afterward. There's a definite difference in my stride now, and while I was always a mid-foot striker, now I'm more centered over my strides and watchful of how I run in general.
It's wonderful that people live in places where they can run barefoot, but I live in Phoenix. There's cactus and very hot pavement everywhere. You step on something like that barefoot even just walking and you're just asking for infections, puncture wounds and 2nd degree burns. So for some people, I think minimalist shoes as an end in themselves are a great way to go.
I'm a barefoot kinda gal on a regular basis, and otherwise mostly wear flats or flip-flops so that I don't get thrown out of restaurants and stores, so I maybe my leg/foot strength is better than people who wear trainers or heels everywhere. The transition has been very easy for me so far, although it's impossible to tell yet if it will reduce/eliminate my injuries over time.
Coach Jenny wrote:
I love your story Suzanne as it demonstrates that although you aren’t barefoot running due to the hot climate/elements in your neighborhood, you do move around generally low to the ground in your lifestyle and there is great benefit to this in your running performance.  Thanks for sharing and congrats on your half marathon!
runnergirl131262 wrote:
The whole barefoot running has greatly interested me since reading Christopher McDougall's Born To Run. I have been plagued with plantar fasciitis for quite awhile. By the end of the day if I have not been wearing shoes my feet begin to hurt and also experience heel pain. As a previous person commented, the podiatrist has Rx'd orthotics. What I want to know is that if I slowly try to convert over to a barefoot lifestyle would the plantar fasciitis (pain in feet) subside once my feet strengthened over time? This is a problem that I would love to get rid of. Thanks.
Coach Jenny wrote:
I’m no doctor (nor do I play one on TV) and by no means am I trying to tell people what to do.  I can’t tell you whether moving with less under your feet can get rid of your foot issues, but I can tell you that strengthening your feet, ankles and core (total body) will make a difference in reducing the aches and pains that stem from muscular weakness and joint instability.  Perhaps you can work with your doctor on ways to first strengthen your feet and see if that helps and take it from there.  The key is to listen along the way, avoid making too many changes at once (stimulus overload) and if something hurts, ease back on the throttle and take it more slowly.

You have officially received a Big e-High Five for finishing this ultra-marathon blog.  Well done!  I'd love to know what you are thinking now…

Happy Trails.


HappyFeet - Be Happy. Just Run

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