For serious runners, running shoes are essential-or are they? The earliest humans were built to run, and none of them had the technology that goes into modern shoes. Research has shown that going back to our ancestral roots might significantly improve how we run. Of course, ditching your shoes immediately might not be a good idea, as barefoot running has its own disadvantages.
Running Shoes and Injuries
Modern shoes with thick pads are not optimal for serious runners. They provide a little too much comfort and protection, limiting feedback for the brain to process and adjust accordingly. The thicker padding on the heels is suitable for walking, but it can be detrimental to runners. Almost half of all runners are injured at any given time, particularly on the knees, ankles, shins, and feet. Most injuries involve connecting tissue between bones.
When a person runs, their body is constantly rising and slamming into the ground, putting stress on the feet, ankles, and knees. Running shoes offer a bit of protection in the form of cushioning. But the cushions of shoes are close to insignificant compared to the force of impacting the ground with up to seven times your weight in force on one leg. The cushioning on the heels also encourages heel-striking or landing on one’s heels with every stride. Heel-striking puts enormous stress on your knees and makes your running formless efficient.
Foot to Pavement
The earliest humans ran barefoot or with minimal protection. When your foot touches the ground as it lands, your brain receives tons of information. It can then modify your running form to minimize impact and damage or to adjust efficiency. Most runners who go barefoot will immediately switch to a forefoot strike, both for protection and to reduce impact. Running with a forefoot strike allows for high speeds. Sprinters in the Olympics will almost exclusively run with a forefoot strike. Running with a forefoot strike with the feet landing near or below the torso is instinctual.
Most kids will run this way, making use of gravity to push themselves forward. Eventually, years of wearing shoes with heel cushioning will change their running form to strides with leading heel strikes. Switching back to a forefoot strike will relieve significant amounts of stress on your knees and provide you with extra aerobic efficiency. Running barefoot will also strengthen the muscles on your foot and calves while strengthening the ligaments of your ankles and knees. A month or two of walking or running barefoot will fortify your ligaments to the degree that you won’t experience the usual ankle sprains again.
Starting Your Journey
In every journey, the first steps are crucial. This is especially (and literally) true for barefoot running. Years of using shoes have weakened specific muscles in your feet and calves. However, just 1-2 weeks of walking barefoot or with minimalist shoes are enough to strengthen them and prime them for running. While some runners opt to go barefoot on the get-go, most will choose to wear a bit of protection.
Opt for zero-drop shoes with minimal padding. Shoes by Altra, for instance, are excellent options. They provide enough protection to go out running on trails and rough roads while still allowing your feet to feel the impact of the ground and the pebbles underneath your feet. Start with 20 to 30 minutes of walking. Your feet have grown used to shoes-going barefoot will be akin to a boxer punching concrete without gloves. If you want to go running immediately, find a track with rubber floors or do your running on grass. You should be ready to hit the pavements and go on long runs within a month or two.
Barefoot running has its problems, particularly if you don’t adapt your running stride. Stones, sticks, nails, and other small hazards on the road become quite dangerous if you’re not paying attention, and stepping on excrement is not something you would want to experience. Don’t overdo your first few runs. You might find the lightness and freedom of running barefoot exhilarating. But your feet are still adjusting, and they can get injured if you run a few too many miles.
If you’re unsure of your route and the environment or if you’re running on a trail, wear minimalist shoes. Save your barefoot runs for tracks and places you’re already familiar with.
Getting rid of your usual running shoes can help you run better. Rediscover the ways of the earliest humans and start running with minimalist shoes or just your bare feet.