Thanks to all those who came to the talk last Thursday night at Maine Running Company on ‘Natural Running,’ and thanks to John Rogers for hosting us. It felt a little surreal to be up there speaking. A year ago I was that wacky sports chiropractor telling people to try some barefoot running and now I’m an ‘expert’ (or ‘noted expert’ as I tell my wife.). I learned a lot from my fellow presenters, and they helped to explain the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this new movement. Danny A. from Newton really has the form piece down, and I realized how much thought and experience goes into Newton shoes. Kirsten Buchanan has a great perspective, coming from a more conventional background but now being able to shed light on the emerging science behind minimalism. She showed me a stack of recent studies that are demonstrating how running barefoot and in minimalist footwear leads to lower impact forces and is associated with a decreased risk of things like runners’ knee and plantar fascitis. I wish we had had the time to hear more from them.
I thought I would post a few follow-up thoughts of my own, things I woke up the next morning thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say this?!’ As you may have seen from prior posts I was very zealous about minimalist running last year. To be honest I haven’t been thinking about it as much lately. I’ve just accepted it now with my own running and feel fully acclimated. Also this time of year in the office is more about trying to patch up runners getting ready for the fall marathons and halfs, and discussing changing gait isn’t what someone needs to hear weeks before their race.
At a minimum, barefoot running on grass is the easiest way to find your best form and also ensures that your feet and ankles are strong enough. The form piece comes easiest on grass; since it’s immediately comfortable, you can open up your stride without the skin sensitivity factor. Many of the elements of good form, including an upright posture and shorter strides tend to happen more naturally and intuitively when running without shoes. As far as injury prevention, it makes sense (to me at least) that any given runner should be able to do their longest run barefoot on grass. This implies that your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are strong enough to support you, regardless of what shoe you wear.
From this starting point it then becomes more about your goals. If ‘Born to Run’ was a religious experience for you and you are intent on running like the Tarahumara, then it’s a matter of finding the right covering for your feet when conditions prevent going sans shoes. In this case Vibram Five Fingers are probably your best bet.
For me, after spending last season finding my best form and rehabbing weak ankles with a lot of barefoot and Vibram running, I started this season looking to train harder to go faster. By springtime all my hard earned calluses from last year were gone and I was back to being a tender-foot. My natural progression, and the direction that I think most runners would follow, was to find shoes that didn’t interfere with my new stride. On the road this meant racing flats or Newtons, and on trails New Balance 100’s and Inov-8’s. Due to my experience with a stress fracture Vibrams have become mainly my Pineland shoe (soft surface without many roots or rocks), although at some point I’ll probably use them more often again. I still utilize barefoot running on grass for speedwork or if I just feel the need to get back in touch with my best form.
To be honest, I didn’t wind up running much this season. One thing that I found, and have seen repeatedly in the office, is that when you improve upon one area of the body (in this case my form and foot strength) whatever your next tight or weak link is will be revealed as your training increases. For me it was a balky hip that started to manifest in the knee. Right around that time I was lucky to score a sweet used bike, so I took all that as a sign to bike more this summer and work on rehabbing the hip before the knee became a true injury. However, putting aside my own sob story, I have worked with a number of injury-prone runners who have utilized the minimalist approach to great success.
If you are thinking about trying the minimalist approach, this is a good time of year to start. It takes time to change your form and to acclimate your body, and is not something you want to attempt in the midst of race training. Obviously the barefoot season is rapidly waning, but, depending on your starting point, injury status and goals, there are many options to get started. The most important thing is to take it slow.