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Could Your Shoes be Working Against You?

by Lisa H.

Two years ago, after reading other’s success of overcoming and preventing foot, knee and other injuries by running in less or no shoes, I ditched my motion control shoes and orthotics to give it a go. I had enough evidence from sites like  Barefoot Ted and Barefoot Ken Bob, that shoes with built up midsoles and heels, which proclaimed to offer support and cushion, could instead be offering instability. The foam, gel, air, waves, wedges, plastic and grids, that were designed to move my feet this way and that, were doing just that, and in my opinion were causing more harm than good in the process.

According to Arthur Lydiard (legendary running coach from New Zealand), shoes with high cushioned midsoles don’t encourage runners to develop strong feet and ankles. They act like casts and don’t allow the muscles of the lower leg and feet to develop. Lydiard also stated that they introduce instability into the running gait that could potentially lead to all kinds of injuries including plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis and shin splints.

If you have been plagued by injuries for years while running in shoes with built up midsoles, and heels, you may want to consider a more minimalist approach to it. I am not saying that minimalist or barefoot running is for everyone; some people try it and it doesn’t work for them, and then others try it, and haven’t had an injury since. Camille Herron, a 2008 Olympic Trials marathon contender was one of those persons who was plagued by injuries for years, traded the motion control shoes and orthotics for minimalist shoes and barefoot running, and has been injury free.

In an interview for the 2008 Boston Olympic trials marathon by the Boston Athletic Association, she said the following: “I was intrigued reading about the Africans growing up barefoot, training in worn out shoes, and the lower incidence of injuries. I was taking physics and biomechanics at the time, and it made perfect sense that our own ‘ideal state’ is what exists while barefoot. Four years ago, I decided to go back to the basics and work on strengthening my so-called flat, weak feet. I tossed out the orthotics and heavy trainers I had been wearing for four years and began training from scratch in flats and barefoot. It was experimental and I had no idea it would actually work. It required an incredible amount of patience and very easy running—I put the faith back in my own body. I have been healthy the past four years and FINALLY been able to achieve consistency in my training.”

Also, according to a January 2010 article in Science Daily, the results of a study indicated that running shoes exert more stress/torque on the knees, hips and ankles compared to running barefoot. And this article does not stand alone. Wiggling their toes at the shoe giants and Loose your shoes: Is barefoot better? are other articles that advocate hitting the roads barefoot.

You see, when you run barefoot, you run differently. Take a look at the video below of the same person running with shoes and then without them. See the difference? Try it for yourself. Run 20 seconds with shoes and then without them. Does your running gait change?

How to transition to barefoot running

Transitioning to barefoot running should be a very sloooowwwww process. Rushing it could potentially lead to injury. Your feet  will need to adapt to moving in a new way. The tendons and muscles in your lower legs that have been asleep, possibly for years, will now have to wake up and start doing some work. This will cause more stress to be put on your achilles tendon, calves, ankles and arches than they have been used to.

One of the things I noticed after kicking my high-heeled trainers off, was how close to the ground I felt, and how hard it actually was. I also noticed how even and flat the ground felt; not only had the height of the shoes been propping me up, but it was making me lean forward; sort of like I was going down a low grade hill.

Walk before you run
Start by walking around the house barefoot. This will begin to strengthen the muscles of your feet, and get you used to being closer to the ground. Do this until you can go a full day without any discomfort.

Start Slowly
Go out for a short barefoot run; no longer than 5 minutes. I know that this does not seem like a lot, but remember the objective here is to transition without injury. If you do less, that is fine. This first run is really to become aware of how your body feels while running without shoes. After the run, answer the following questions:

1. Does anything hurt
2. Were your landings soft and light or hard and heavy
3. How was your form

Take days off
Take the next day off. The following day, do another run, and after the run, answer the above again. If your soreness feels like it could potentially lead to injury, then stop, take time off, and start back again even more slowly. You will have to be very patient during this transition period. Everyone will respond differently.

The 10% rule
Increase the amount of time you run by no more than 10% per week. Continue to assess how your body feels, and adjust your workouts.

Ditching my built up trainers was one of the best things I have done with regards to my running. I now train exclusively in light-weight racing flats or other minimalist footwear. I also walk barefoot several times a week from 15-45 minutes and have been running consistently for almost a year. The longest stretch since I picked up the sport.

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