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Barefoot Running: Can Barefoot Running Improve Performance?

  • By Super Administrator
  • Published Jul 27, 2010
  • Updated Oct 1, 2013 at 12:07 PM UTC

Developing Better Running

If one were to consider the optimal path to better running in light of the current discussion, then, what would be “optimal”?

Besides developing the fitness side of performance through increased VO2 and thresholds, we must aim at the most efficient technique and the equipment that gives the least reduction in this efficiency. Unless, that is, we can actually improve performance through a spring-like system that gives a better energy return than the tendons in the body or the shoe. Such a system is yet to be invented, even though the prosthetics of the double amputee South African Oscar Pretorius definitely stirred discussion on this topic.

Ideally we can look at the running elite, who are the result of a long, fiercely competitive selection. They all land on the forefoot, striking under the center of mass with a long powerful back kick, while keeping torsos stable and upright. They are often small in size and have run since childhood. They wear very light shoes and would most likely do equally well without shoes, as history has demonstrated.

Obviously, the rest of us have not run for miles each day on our bare feet since early childhood, we often weigh a lot more than 100 pounds and we have far from the adequate muscle and tissue strength, control or flexibility to run with optimal technique. In fact, we often find that we are best at what we are adapted to. So if you have been heel striking in shoes for 15 years, you might be most efficient and injury resistant in that pattern. You will mostly likely know your exact spots of weaknesses, and you can then try to assess and correct these. Over time, you can work toward a better technique or improving your body function, but it’s a very long process and will test your patience.

For each little step you take forward, it will take a long adaptation period for you to see the effect, so to repeat the mantra: There is no easy way.

Five Steps to Injury-free Running and Improved Performance

1. Always adjust training load to the feedback from your body.  If you at any time feel soreness that occurs during, directly after or the morning after any training session, you must take a step back, assess and build back up. Training soreness in muscles can be accepted to some degree, but any dull pains, stiffness or irritation near any of your joints or ligaments should be a big, red warning light. Remain relaxed about your plan and never train with pain.

2. Improve body function. In the last issue of Inside Triathlon I wrote a piece on the importance of strength, flexibility and motor control in the ability to execute perfect form. This is probably your most secure shortcut toward injury-free running as you address your specific weak links. Short barefoot runs can be a great way to do this, but specific foot, lower limb, core stabilizer and balance training is a necessary component as well.

3. Find the minimal shoe solution that works for you and avoid heavy tech shoes. Your personal history will tell you what you are accustomed to and where you can start in terms of judging your need for shoes or no shoes. Runners who are used to minimalist shoes will have strong feet, but others should aim at moving away from shoes with too much support and high-profile soles over time, as they might hurt rather than help. Always adjust in gradual steps and look many months—or even years—ahead in your planning. Remember, your connective tissue adapts in upwards of nine-month cycles. If you want to try the barefoot option, expect a long adaptation period before you can perform at your peak in bare feet. Start with one- to three-minute easy runs and build very slowly from there. If you have anatomical abnormalities in your feet, orthotics can be used, but they will not reduce your need for strengthening and balance.

4. Reduce weight of shoes (and body). Shoes are constantly put through deceleration and acceleration during running. Therefore, lowering the mass of shoes is very important for performance and optimal mechanics. Over time you should aim to run in very light flats or no shoes at all when you are strong enough. The lighter and stronger you are, the better mechanics you have and the more you can work toward minimalist shoes or no shoes at all.

5. Work on optimal form. Building optimal body function is the first step, but as you extend your range of motion, become stronger and can control leg and spine alignment while running, you can start improving your form in the image of running legends such as Haile Gebrselassie. Moving toward high-frequency steps, striking on your forefoot under your center of mass while maintaining spine control and upright stable torso could be a few key points to work on, but remember to take it one step at the time. The hard part is the patience.

This article appeared in the May/June issue of Inside Triathlon. To subscribe to Inside Triathlon click here.

Sindballe is a former ITU long course world champion and podium finisher at Kona.

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