Michael Sandler has perhaps the best way of explaining barefoot running I have come across: “When you are barefoot, you are forced to run the way ancient man ran, which is a soft dance.” (His own amazing recovery from massive injuries to even run again, let alone barefoot, is itself inspiring).
So how do you make that soft dance? From the many blogs and forums I’ve visited, it seems that for most people, making the transition from cushioned, supported running shoes to barefoot running, Vibrams, or even minimalist running gear is difficult. As Barefoot Ted so nicely puts it: ”For many, the foot has atrophied and become weak from years of wearing shoe casts. Constantly supporting the foot leads to weakness. Strengthening the foot requires patience and care, but the results are so well worth it. Your foot is an amazing and beautiful piece of magical equipment that you’ve inherited from a long line of successful movement. Self-healing and self-nourishing, your feet get stronger with use…the best shoes you’ll ever own.”
More and more runners are experimenting with barefoot running and we are figuring out that we don’t have to run with a heel strike just because we’ve been told to do so. Studies have shown that heel striking is linked to injury and actually puts more stress on the body. It limits the “rebound” effect. Landing on the heel also serves more as a brake to running – if you land with straight knees on your heel, your balance behind you, where is your forward progress? You are fighting your own momentum.
I began running races in junior high and was coached to run on my toes for short distances (100 yard dashes) and my heels for everything else. It’s been ingrained in me. Yet when running barefoot, it’s almost impossible to land on your heel. Why would we do something that is not natural unless we strap things to our feet? I was also amazed at how much better you can feel the ground beneath you without shoes. They really do impede running, more than help, and I can’t wait to make my slow progression to only barefoot.
After my runs barefoot and with Vibrams, I found that I no longer heel strike even in regular shoes. However, due to doing too much, too fast barefoot I have had to back off a bit. I’m running mostly in my “running” shoes but they are an old pair, the inserts are gone, and I’m not striking with my heel. Is it as free as running in Vibrams or barefoot? No. Am I slowly going to build up to running barefoot (hopefully entirely, so I can toss the running shoes) – YES! I have a few major runs coming up (at least one marathon, one or two half marathons) so I am taking it easy so my foot injury does not reoccur. From everything I’ve heard from others, the key is to make the transition slowly!
So now that I’m looking more closely at my form, I’m trying to find more resources on foot strike, where to land when running, how it relates to the rest of your body, etc.
Below is an interesting video from watzzupsport that shows one take on where you should be striking with your foot during barefoot running.
There are two running methods that many runners use to assist them with barefoot running: Chi Running (Danny Dreyer) and the Pose Method (Nicholas Romanov). They share many similarities and both advise against heel striking.
Here’s my quick review of Chi Running’s take on foot strike: Avoid heel strikes. Let the feet swing to the rear, not out in front of your body. Avoid picking up your knees. Let the heels float up behind you instead. Keep your knees bent and your feet straight. Mr. Dreyer states that striking with the ball of the foot or mid-foot can depend on the purpose of running. As a paleo example, the difference would be running from a tiger (ball of foot) versus chasing down a deer for food (mid-foot).
Here’s my quick review of Pose Method’s take on foot strike: Land on the ball of your foot under your body. Keep the knees bent, lean forward from the ankles. Lift the feet up under the hips.
I also keep replaying in my head as I run the advice Caballo Blanco (aka Micah True) gave to Christopher McDougall and others in Born to Run: Run on the front of your feet, not your heels. Run light with quick steps, like you’re riding a unicyle. The speed will come later.
For further reading, here are some great sites: