Barefoot Running – The Why and the How

“WHY & HOW” of Barefoot Running

by Hamid L. Sadri, DC, CCSP, ICSSD, CSCS, CKTP, CES, PES

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics thus far in the world of running is the recent buzz about running barefoot. The topic has received much attention with shoe manufacturers introducing a variety of footwear into the market, capitalizing on the what has become somewhat of a fad with experts and non-experts making claims about the benefits and or hazards of this style of running. Good, bad, true or false, barefoot running is gaining an increasing rate of popularity as the curious athletes explore the wide range of available footwear in today’s athletic shoes.

This article is an attempt to take another look at this topic to provide the reader with some information and tools to aid in the decision as to whether they should incorporate this style of running into their exercise regimen. It must be noted that there are many unfounded claims when it comes to going barefoot as the research on the subject leaves many unanswered questions.

Body movement results from force production and force dissipation, which are complex neurological and biomechanical processes especially when it comes to walking or running. When the body is in motion, it utilizes a “feed-forward” system as opposed to a “feedback” system. This simply means that much of what happens during movement with muscle contractions is a process by which the brain anticipates what is about to happen and accordingly contracts or relaxes respective muscle groups in order to properly accommodate the movement that is taking place. The act of walking is a series of repeated cycles of our bodies being displaced from a position of stability into an unstable one, otherwise “falling forward”. The “fall”, its rate, speed and force are elements that our brain tries to calculate, anticipate and finally accommodate by a precise activation or deactivation of related muscle groups with the end result being the gait cycle.

The gait cycle is a complicated process and its complete details are beyond the scope of this article. However, for the purposes of our discussion, we can simplify it by dividing it into 3 phases: the ground contact (heel strike), the mid stance (stance phase), and the toe off (propulsive phase). During the walking gait we normally strike the ground with our heel (heel strike), transfer our body weight on top of the front foot/leg (stance phase) and finally toe off (propulsive phase). In running however, this may not be the same. Our natural running gaits differ from one individual to the next with three basic foot strike patterns: heel strike, mid-foot strike, and forefoot strike.

The average individual (let’s say he or she weighs about 160 pounds) goes through approximately 5000 foot strikes per day. This translates to approximately 640 tons of force traveling through our bodies with speeds of up to 200 miles per hour or more which our body has to absorb and manage daily. When walking, our body generally has to deal with about 110% of its weight in “ground reactive forces” while running (depending on the speed and the inclination angle) these forces can increase to about 300%-700% of our body weight. One mile is approximately 2000-plus steps and a marathon an average of about 55000 steps! You can do the math.

Taking some of these factors into consideration, shoe manufacturers began to produce shoes that were intended to aid and accommodate the body in managing these forces, hence the creation of the highly engineered athletic shoes entering the market in the past 2-3 decades. These shoes have thick cushioned heel pads, a graduated heel-to-toe angle, various types of mid sole rigidity, and toe boxes of all shapes and types. This modern shoe type attempted to assist the lower extremity in much of the work that our feet and lower extremities were designed to do for us while running. Although well intentioned, the resulting long term effects included a reduction of lower limb functionality, which some authors have contributed to the increased rate of various types of repetitive stress injuries (RSI) seen in today’s runners.

The “WHY”

There are many differences between a barefoot versus a shod runner. The most noticeable difference is the strike pattern of the foot. In the shod runner the most common foot strike pattern is one of heel striking whereas the barefoot runner is forced to have a mid-foot or forefoot strike pattern. This change in strike pattern results in a reduction of vertical impact forces to the bones as the heel is no longer the first point of ground contact. The result is a reduced amount of “shock” being absorbed by the bones, hence reducing the frequency of injuries to these parts typically caused by a heel first strike pattern (stress fractures are one example). Other noted changes when transitioning to a barefoot style of running include lowered heart rate, lowered relative perceived exertion, decreased associated oxygen costs, increased step frequency (cadence), shorter stride length, lower peak torques at the ankle, knee and hip, decreased ground contact time, flight time and stride duration. These are some of the reasons why many have come to believe that going barefoot is the better option for runners.

Needless to say, the forces created upon ground contact are still present and must be dealt with by the body. This work load is transferred to the muscles and tendons of the barefoot runner. Although there is no current literature confirming that this style of running causes increased injury rates to the soft tissues, we have seen an increasing number of RSI’s involving the lower limb muscles and tendons in our practice as a result of running barefoot. This is not necessarily a result of transitioning from shod to barefoot running but perhaps the faulty process by which the athletes have chosen to make this change. It is this author’s belief that many of the injuries that are related to or considered to be a result of barefoot running may possibly be avoided, certainly reduced, if a sensible preparation, transition, and training program is followed.

The “HOW”

First and foremost, it should be noted that not all individuals are candidates for running barefoot. Those with structural deficiencies such as leg length differences, flat feet, bow legged, knock knee, high and rigid longitudinal foot arches to name a few, should reconsider this undertaking as they are at a disadvantage for accommodating the demands of this style of running. It is highly recommended that any athlete considering making this transition have a structural and functional evaluation done by a trained professional to help rule out these and many other structural elements that may predispose them to injuries. Furthermore, functional imbalances must be properly addressed prior to the start of any exercise routine, especially when making this particular transition. These include muscular length and/or strength imbalances, proprioceptive (sense of position in space) deficiencies, decreased joint ranges of motion, namely ankle, knee and hip flexion, extension and rotation, as well as core activation and stabilization deficiencies including pelvis and spine stabilization.

Once these factors have been properly evaluated and clinically addressed as appropriate, the athlete can begin the training and transition process. The following are some basic recommendations for those who are considering making the change to a barefoot style of running. Please note that these are suggestions made based upon clinical experience and not ones that have been proven or disproven by current research.

Assuming that there are no functional imbalances or core deficiencies, begin by considering a transition period of at least 2 to as long as 12 months, depending upon where your current training and conditioning level is. Start by walking barefoot to help gradually improve the lower body muscle strength and proprioception. Do this for shorter periods and increase to 30-60 minutes per day. Incorporate daily calf stretches to help improve ankle flexibility. We recommend progressive sustained stretches of 30 seconds where you increase the stretch of the tissue at 10 second intervals. Use balance exercises such as single leg stands with eyes open and then closed for 15-30 seconds at a time. Use wobble boards, air discs or BOSU balls to help improve foot, ankle and general lower limb strength and balance. Strengthen calf muscles by doing resistance exercises with the knee extended and bent. Remember that your calf muscles will have a much greater work demand placed upon them when running barefoot. Use toe-crunch exercises to build up the intrinsic foot muscle strength. Some examples include toe tapping exercises or marble pick-ups using your toes. Take 20 marbles and pick them up one at a time with your toes and drop them into a Dixie cup and then repeat with the opposite foot. Use the “short foot” exercise to help strengthen the muscles in the front of the leg. This is done by placing the foot on the ground and attempting to draw the metatarsal heads (not the toes) toward the heel. This will help improve the functionality of the longitudinal arch of the foot. General strengthening of hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteals and hip stabilizers are strongly recommended and must not be overlooked. Do these exercises for a minimum of 4-6 weeks (8 weeks is preferred) before transitioning to the next series of exercises which will include a lower body plyometrics routine. This can consist of double leg jumps/hops, jump roping, single leg jumps/hops, squat jumps, box jumps and alternate leg bounding drills to name a few. Be sure to allow for proper recovery after each bout of exercise, especially when doing plyometric exercises as they place a much higher eccentric demand on the muscles and tendons.

Once the balance and strengthening phase has been completed begin your barefoot running with shorter distances (30 minutes or less to start) and on softer surfaces such as grass. Do this for 2 days per week to start and gradually increase the frequency of the days and the length of the runs. Be sure to stretch you calves after each and every run. Start the process by using “minimalist” type running shoes rather than “barefoot” style shoes until your body has become accustomed to the new demands being placed upon it.

We feel that following the above suggested routine should properly prepare the athlete for the transition to a barefoot running style. Until further research provides us with reliable information we suggest that barefoot running be used more as a training tool rather than a complete running style.

Dr. Hamid Sadri, sports chiropractor, has been practicing in Decatur, GA for 25 years and specializes in athletic injuries and rehab. The clinic, 1st Choice Sports Rehab, was named “The Best Sports Injury Center in the Southeast” by Competitor Magazine. To subscribe to our newsletter click here. To schedule an evaluation, call 404-377-0011.