The appealing thought of running as nature intended is a hot topic in the running community these days. Articles, blogs and websites about barefoot running are published every day, and the possibility that we have been misled by a calculating shoe industry to believe that dual density mid-soles, plastic bridges, gels and air bags were the truthful answer to our prayers of injury-free running are an intriguing story to many.
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.
These tips appeared as part of the article Can Barefoot Running Improve Performance? in the May/June issue of Inside Triathlon.