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Baring Your Sole: Part 2

The Second Installment on the Goods and Bads of Barefoot Running


Forget barefoot running — 75 percent of people in Santa Barbara who are “running to get in shape” should just stop running. Why?

First and foremost, many people are simply not made well for running. (See a related article by renowned strength coach Michael Boyle here.) There are a variety of affecting factors here, but leading the concerns are Q-angle, ankle and foot structure, and joint integrity.

Chris Ecklund

Q-angle is the angle that exists at the knee between your femur (thigh) and tibia (shin). Generally, a Q angle of less than 15 degrees is considered normal and at less risk for knee injuries such as patellar subluxation/dislocation, patellar tracking problems, and chonrdomalacia (uneven wear and tear between the patella, or kneecap, and femur). Many people running around Santa Barbara have Q angles greater than 15 percent, so from the get-go, they have a greater risk of knee problems.

What’s more, if an individual has pronated/supinated feet or an ankle structure other than neutral, the action of running can create chronic wear or overuse patterns that feed into plantarfasciitis, stress fractures, shin splints (a generic term for a plethora of lower leg problems), or even go all the way up the chain to knee, hip and spine problems.

Finally, some people just have joints that break down quickly. Blame genetics, poor nutrition, poor fitness, or poor running mechanics, but throwing yourself into an activity that asks for thousands upon thousands of joint impact repetitions will break down joints faster.

The other big players in my advice to stop running are fitness level and running mechanics. Ironically, we’ve been programmed since the 1970s in the fitness/performance industries to instruct our clients to “run to get in shape” or “run to train” when the reverse is probably more appropriate: We should be “training to run.” In a conversation with performance expert Steve Plisk, he pointed out that jogging generally increases ground reaction forces up to six times bodyweight during poor running — and it’s even worse when heel-striking occurs. (See this video of an efficient runner.)

If a body is not strong enough to handle those loads or to minimize them, jogging causes significant trauma. Running is a skill that is much more technical than most realize. (Click here for an overview.) It involves appropriate foot/knee/hip position at toe off and a high enough swing phase to allow the foot time to move posteriorly at ground strike and land “on the ball” or “flat foot” contact on the ground. (Here’s a video.) It can take years to perfect yet we often think going out for a jog should be fine having never practiced or learned appropriate running technique.

Back to barefoot running, then. If 75 percent of people shouldn’t be jogging, then how many shouldn’t be jogging barefoot? Even more. The risks may be even higher for injury in barefoot jogging.

So are there benefits of barefoot running or exercise then? Yes. We can still make some good arguments that gradual introduction of barefoot running (perhaps sprinting or short distance jogging initially) may improve running mechanics/efficiency and even strengthen weak feet or ankles. Think about this, if you ran barefoot down the street, would you run on the ball or the heel of your foot? The ball, of course. It would be incredibly painful to ground strike on the heel. Your body will most likely make that adjustment “naturally” if running barefooted whereas it won’t if shod. This alone can aid several common jogging mechanics errors. Another example: if you wear a weight lifting belt to stabilize your spine when lifting weights, will your “core” get stronger? Of course not. The belt is stabilizing your core so your core won’t have to. Not a great practice. Similarly, shoes with arch supports and motion control won’t allow your intrinsic foot musculature to get stronger as it does the work for you.

What other benefits exist for barefoot training? As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, utilizing barefoot training for sprinting, acceleration (often called first step quickness) work, cutting or change of direction/agility drills, and even warm-up prior to training sessions can be of great value. They all offer the possibility of safer, more progressive introduction of barefoot training into one’s program that allow for foot/ankle complex strengthening, muscle activation, and improved tactile sense of ground force. We work with our athletes and clients to learn how to land before we really train them to jump. Landing softly is a key determinant to increased power production and decreased injury. It’s much easier to teach how to land softly with bare feet than with shoes on as, again, it hurts to land hard in bare feet!

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