Should you train barefoot?
This concluding post on the barefoot vs. shoe debate will look at some of the practical applications to all the research that we’ve discussed. In part 1, I questioned whether cushioning or pronation even mattered. In part 2, I looked at the new study by Lieberman on barefoot running and footstrike, and finally in part 3 I discussed foot strike in relation to performance. With all of this information at your disposal, what do you do? Let’s look at some relevant conclusions that were established in the other parts of this series:
- -Cushioning may not matter for injury prevention as the body adjusts using feeback.
- Pronation may not be relevant for injury prevention.
- Your body has a complex system of adjusting for whatever surface you land on and whatever is on your foot.
- Footstrike matters for performance.
- Footstrike, not necessarily barefoot running, affects impact forces and energy storage.
- footstrike is more important than barefoot vs. shod in a number of conditions. In other words, it does little good to run barefoot if your footstrike does not also change.
Lastly, a new study yet to be published by Storen et al. (here) found that peak forces were inversely related to running economy. Meaning, the better running economy, the lower peak forces. In their paper, one of the key suggestions was to minimize horizontal braking forces. How do you do that? Forefoot striking.
Given these conclusions, what should you actually do with your own running?
Goal #1: Change Footstrike
The Lieberman studies demonstrated an important point. Barefoot runners can still hit heel first and when they do, their ground reaction force graph looks remarkably similar to if you had a 1 pound stability shoe on your foot. Thus, it doesn’t do us a lot of good to go run barefoot without changing the foot strike. Do not run barefoot hoping that it changes your footstrike. It may alter it slightly and maybe eventually change it, but for most unless you are doing a massive amount of barefoot running, the foot strike change needs to be helped along. For an example, here’s a blog that shows a runner running in shoes, vibrams, and barefoot who has done a decent amount of minimalist running, yet still lands heel first. (link here)
Step 1-Regain the feedback
Your body is so used having a heavy shoe on your foot that, heel striking has become second nature. The first step is to slowly regain the proprioception and feedback and let your body figure out how to interpret that data. What happens most of the time when you try and switch foot strikes is that the runner can’t feel what they are doing. They can’t really tell how their foot is striking.
To fix this, you need to see what you are doing. Grab a video camera and have someone film you doing easy strides. Take a look at how your foot is striking, then take the shoes off and do another short stride barefoot. Again, look at the video and see how you are striking.
If you strike more forefoot barefoot then the process is simple. Simply do some more easy strides barefoot trying to focus on the feeling you are getting and what your legs are actually doing. Then, put shoes on and try and mimic this feeling, being sure to video tape it to see if you are translating that barefoot feeling to running with shoes.
If you strike heel first barefoot then the process is a little longer. You need to try out a variety of cues running while barefoot. By cues, I mean things you think of doing while running. The best way to do it is try one cue out, then watch the video and see if anything changed. If it doesn’t work try another cue. Repeat the process until you find something that works.
Possible cues include:
-put your feet down sooner
-drop your foot as soon as knee comes through,
-feel like you’re striking behind you.
-Shorten your stride
Barefoot running should be used as an aid to learning how to change your footstrike initially. It’s easier to feel how you strike barefoot. Once you’ve got the feeling down, we move to the next step. It’s important that you periodically go through this video taping exercise throughout the process to see if the changes you are making are actually working.
Lastly, remember that footstrike is not only a result of what your lower leg is doing. The entire body is connected and works in a connected way. The lower leg does not act in isolation. Look at the entire body to see if something else might be throwing off your foot strike. Everything has an equal and opposite reaction
Some things to consider:
-Watch the opposite shoulder. If the opposite shoulder is turning inwards too much, that makes the lower leg extend out.
-Watch the oppposite side arm stroke. If the arms keep going (i.e. upwards too much or across the body), then the leg keeps going.
-Look at body position. Leaning back causes the lower leg to go out.
Step 2- Strengthen
The next step is to prepare your body for the foot strike changes its about to make. If you look at the different stress patterns of the foot strikes, the most problematic area will be the achilles tendon. We have to prepare it to take the stress that it’s supposed to take but hasn’t in years because of how you run.
We do this via two ways. First, the problem with the achilles is that it needs to handle a good deal of eccentric stress while running. Research has shown that the best way to actually strengthen and remodel the tendon itself is through eccentric calf lowering exercises. These exercises consists of basically the lowering portion of calf raises. The difference, obviously, is that we are concerned only with the lowering portion of that exercise. To do these, find a step, or use a calf raising machine, and raise up high with both feet. Once you’ve gotten up high, take one foot away and lower slowly all the way with only one foot. Then, come back up with both feet. Repeat this approximately 10-15 times for each foot. The goal is actually to do these with a good amount of weight. The high weight is partially what triggers the tendon remodelling. Start with body weight only, and progressively add weight, either by machine, or by holding dumbells or a barbell or any other technique you can think of.
The second way to prepare for the foot strike change is the obvious one, start doing some walking/jogging barefoot and/or start introducing a minimalist shoe to your training. Not much, just get used to being barefoot. Start with walking around and including barefoot running as part of a cool down after a run.
Step 3- Think about it and practice! Forget Drills!
This step is probably the most obvious but hardest to do. You have to actually practice changing your foot strike. Start with focusing it only on strides following runs. Then progress to thinking about it on cool downs. The next step is to think about your form during normal easy runs. It is impossible to focus on form for a whole run. You won’t accomplish anything. Instead, pick out certain time periods during the run in which you REALLY focus on it. Start with maybe 30sec every mile spent concentrating on it. The goal is to extend these periods of focus until it starts to translate into being automatic.
Forget about drills. Running form drills don’t change foot strike. Forget them.
SPRINT!- Most people will change their foot strike to at least a bit more forefoot when sprinting. You’d be surprised on how much actually sprinting helps change foot strike. In particular spring uphill. Why? Because it’s almost impossible to sprint uphill and land heel first. Use these uphill sprints to get the feeling right on how to land and then progress to getting that same landing on the flat ground.
Step 4- Go minimalist
The fun part is finally here. Go minimalist!
At this point, your body should be prepared mechanically to deal with the change in foot strike. So, start introducing actually minimalist running. How much will depend on your background. Most high level runners already do some minimalist running on a regular basis. They run faster workouts in flats or spikes. This is a great way to transition. If you haven’t already done so, do your faster runs each week in flats.
If you are already at that step, then steadily increase the amount of mileage done in a minimalist shoe. Keep track of it in your log and make sure it’s progressive and steady. The best ways to do this are if you run once per day, then alternate a minimal shoe and your old shoes every other day.
Step 5- Extend barefoot running
The last step is to extend the amount of barefoot running you do. If you are at this step, you should have already been doing strides and/or cool down jogs barefoot. Now, the goal is to extend these.
Once again, steady progression is the key.
I suggest, and did, the following:
-Think of your barefoot running as if it were hard interval training. That means start with a relatively small amount (1mi) and progressively increase that as you adapt. Also, this means that you need recovery after this “hard training”. Start with 2-3 days ‘recovery’ where you run in flats or regular shoes before you attempt your next barefoot running session. Then cut the recovery to one day, and so on, for however long you want to go.
-Have a mileage limit. Have a mileage cap on how much barefoot running you can do per day and per week. This can progressively increase but should start relatively low.
-It’s best to start with including a short amount of barefoot running at the end of regular runs. Meaning if you have a 9 mile run, then run 8 miles of it and then throw off the shoes and do an easy 1mi barefoot. Progress this to where now you are doing 1.5mi, then 2mi, then 3mi barefoot at the end of that run.
-Barefoot running is done to support the foot strike
There you have, that’s my quick guide to transitioning to a fore foot strike and some barefoot running. How far you want to go is up to you.
Just remember that going barefoot without the foot strike change is pretty much pointless. They have to compliment each other.