Barefoot running, yes or no?
Saul Yudelowitz BSc (Hons)
This type of running has been around
for a very long time. From time to time it gets a lot of attention from popular
media. For the last few years this is exactly what has occurred. While there is
a lot of advice about barefoot running most is poor! After the 1984 Olympics in
which Zola Budd the South African runner and the American runner Mary Decker
collided, barefoot running has been heavily marketed. Primarily the athletes
from African countries used barefoot running long before this.
To begin, it is actually correct biomechanically to run off the forefoot. This
has been evident for many years and all professional athletes that compete are
taught this. A sprinter will run off the ball of the foot while a marathon
runner typically runs with the mid foot/ball of the foot striking the ground
first. Put simply the longer a lever the more torque it will produce from the
applied power. This is easily explained by the following example. If you try
opening a heavy safe door by pushing very close to the hinged side compared to pushing,
as far away from the hinged side, you will require significantly less energy to
move the same heavy safe door from the non-hinge side.
There are many other reasons that we should run on the forefoot however I shall
not cover them here. He reason for this is that while barefoot running is
promoted the manner in which it is taught by the vast majority is incorrect.
This is the main reason that many injuries have developed from forefoot
running. It is not advisable to get onto a treadmill and just begin running off
the forefoot if you havenít addressed the biomechanics of the hips, knees,
ankles and feet at the very minimum. The key to allowing the feet to work
correctly is how the pelvis is controlled. From the feet everything else has
its foundation of function.
How do you know if you have poor foot biomechanics? Go for a walk that is of
medium distance for your fitness level. During the walk, spend 10-20% of this
time equally divided up walking off the balls of your feet. If you feel your
gastrocnemius (calf) muscles tighten up significantly you have poor foot
If the above test is positive, going for even a short run off the balls of your
feet will not be advisable. Common sense advice. If you have spent the majority
of your life using running shoes that are very well padded, as the typical shoe
has been for the last 30+ years then the sudden change to running barefoot on
the balls of your feet is not advisable. Slowly working your way to a goal
allows for the body to adapt.
How do I know if my pelvic biomechanics are working? This easy non-invasive
test is an accurate way of understanding where imbalances lie. Walk up a fairly
steep hill relative to your fitness level. This test canít be done accurately
on a treadmill. If you feel your quadriceps (upper thighs) working harder than
your gluteus maximums (backside) then you have poor pelvic biomechanics. Please
do not that there is a significant difference between running on a treadmill
and on the earth. All Olympic athletes, when training on a treadmill use a non-motorised
treadmill. For the very same reason, many of the exercises seen in a
commercialised gym are also wrong.
Walking correctly is an extremely important exercise to achieve in life as core
function has its foundation in this. If you donít walk correctly then your core
is not optimal. Any therapist who you hire for rehabilitation that doesnít
understand this doesnít understand how the core functions.
Walking correctly has many important aspects. One of them is how the viscera
(internal organs) are affected. This is what traditional Chinese medicine is
based on however treatments like acupuncture are used to address how energy
moves through the body. Walking correctly will resolve around 70% of lower back
Another good reason to learn how to walk is that all movement is based on
walking. If you look at the postural development babies go through to learn how
to walk, you will see that only once walking has been achieved do other
movement patterns developed; however there are very important phases that occur
before this. The reptilian phase is usually too short and ultimately results in
poor motor patterns later in life. Note when a child has toilet control, this
is core control; it only develops after the child has learnt to walk.
It is also interesting to note that some pregnant women, especially those that
are heavily pregnant change their walking biomechanics to a more correct
pattern with no cognitive thought. This allows for the pelvic floor to work
better. First teaching women to walk correctly and second placing them in the
correct birthing position can avoid the majority of episiotomies. Lying on your
back with lower limbs in a strip is so that the doctor can see as opposed to
allowing correct biomechanics to assist in the delivery.
While the reason are many that we should learn to walk correctly before taking
on a gym program and many other things functionality only becomes important in
our life when things donít work. Until then aesthetics rules and unfortunately
this is a flawed method.
I have taken many non-Olympic athletes and non-athletes from shod running to
barefoot running with no injuries. They have never looked back and have all
been amazed at the significant improvement in efficiency and power and then
later at this effect on aesthetics. Forefoot running is correct however first
correcting your biomechanics is essential.