You may have noticed brave runners in the park sporting a strange form of footwear. They are called Vbrams, and they are a sleek, toe hugging shoe designed for a more natural foot strike. They give the feel of barefoot running…Something that seemed appealing to me at first. (The word “natural” always seems to get my attention)…But as I began to do some research, I realized that making the switch from sneakers to Vibrams is not as easy as buying a new pair of kicks. There is an ongoing debate on barefoot running vs. shod running, and I can understand the pros and cons of both sides.
The concept of running shoes, complete with cushion and arch/ankle support, is relatively new. About 30 years ago people turned in their Converse for Nikes, and with that came new comfort and stability. Having extra cushion in a shoe creates a foot strike pattern that starts at the heel and rolls through to the toe. This is the way I was taught to run, and for me it feels comfortable and natural.
Running barefoot or with little support changes how we run. Studies have shown that running barefoot alters both the foot strike pattern and the flexion of the ankle. Barefoot runners tend to land on the middle to front part of the foot which creates a greater plantar flexion (toes are pointed further away from the body). So, what effects do these changes have on the overall quality of the run? It suggests that the impact of the foot hitting the ground is diminished with front foot running, and therefore injury is less likely to occur. When we roll heel to toe the impact on the foot is greater, and the work of the knee joint is increased. This can lead to injury.
Sounds like front foot running is the way to go, right? BUT there is a catch- most of us have been running for years from heel to toe, so making an abrupt change can be more harmful than helpful. Certain muscles in the lower leg which we use in front foot running are underdeveloped. Yes, the work of our sensitive knee joint is decreased, but the work of the ankle is increased. Try jumping into a barefoot run without proper training, and you could be setting yourself up for injuries in the ankles, calves, and Achilles tendon.
So the choice is yours! If you are comfortable running in your cushioned sneakers stick with it. If you feel sensitivity in your joints, especially the knees, you may want to make a gradual switch.
Here are some tips on how to safely transition to barefoot running:
Proper form - gently let the forefoot hit the ground followed by the heel. Make sure you are not using thick soled shoes when you are working on form. A thicker heel can cause you to over point your foot.
Start slow - start by running only a quarter or half mile barefoot and then slowly increase the distance by 10% every week.
Stretch - make sure you properly stretch your calves and hamstrings after your run. You may even need to add massage or a foam roller to the routine.
Read your body - if something hurts—stop! Don't power through. It seems like common sense, but you would be surprised how many people have a “no pain, no gain” mentality.