Free your feet!

What is with this barefoot running people are talking about and this barefoot footwear you’ve probably heard of? Isn’t the term itself an oxymoron? Here’s some thoughts on the matter!

You may have noticed the odd person wearing barefoot shoes; they’re like gloves for feet and they’re really funny looking. Another gimmick you thought, perhaps a dare from one shoe company to another to create the ugliest shoe known to man and then try and sell it for $150 a pop. Unbelievably it worked and that is the great irony about barefoot running; shoe companies have managed to edge themselves into the market in a big way.

Here’s a bit of history for you first: In 1972 Nike invented the “modern” running shoe with huge cushioning under the sole and arch support. Prior to this running shoes were those really old school, thinly soled, flexible things. Someone had the idea, a non runner would you believe, that if you had a big cushion under your heel when running, you could land with a heel strike (which is painful without padding), thus increasing the length of your stride and making you more efficient and therefore faster!

Unfortunately what was overlooked was that landing on your heel when running puts a huge “break” on your stride, a massive impact hits your heel and shock waves of 2-3 times your body weight ricochet through all your joints. Click here for the Harvard study if you’re interested. Do this a few hundred times a week and you’re going to feel this impact through your feet, ankles, knees, hips or lower back at some stage. These feelings will be given fancy names like shin splints, stress fractures, achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, ITB syndrome, and patella tracking disorder just to name a few. Sound familiar?

In 2002 Nike reps in the US went to a prominent athletics club to watch professional track athletes train and to ask them about which Nike shoes they prefer to run in. Unfortunately for Nike they preferred nothing, claiming they ran faster and suffered fewer injuries without shoes. Their coach always made sure that they did part of their training barefoot so their feet would be strong come competition time. The mainstream barefoot running fad was born.

Weakened muscular structure in your feet is the greatest causative factor that leads to injury. “Pronation” (flat feet) and “over-pronation” have become dirty words in regards to running yet you are supposed to pronate! It’s nature’s way of designing a shock absorber for the human foot. When you run barefoot you naturally land on the forefoot close to the 4th and 5th little toes then gently roll diagonally towards the arch until the foot flattens out. The foot is engineered in this brilliant way so that it softens your landing each time you hit the ground.

The beauty of the arch is that the harder you push down the stronger it gets under stress, the tighter its joining parts mesh together. The arch of the foot is formed by the tarsal and metatarsal bones and is strengthened by ligaments and tendons that enable the foot to correctly support the weight of the body. The underside of the foot is made up of four layers of muscle tissue as well as a length of thick connective tissue called the plantar fascia, which supports the arch. If the surrounding muscles weaken, the plantar fascia will drop and the arch will collapse.

If you put a support (orthotics) under an arch the whole structure is weakened. This is not to encourage you to throw out your orthotics or remove the arch support in your sneakers – that would be reckless as the muscles in your feet would be too weak without them, having always relied on the arch support in the past. I merely want you to consider whether what I am saying seems logical.

This is the primary reason as to why we conduct our strengthening programs in the gym barefoot, so that the muscular structure of the foot can get really strong, really quickly. If you’ve been lucky enough to take part in our lifting program throughout your sessions at MMT you’ve already made massive gains to getting your feet (and the rest of your body) back on track.

So, are there other ways to strengthen the muscles in your feet I hear you ask? Hell yes! Firstly, take your shoes off! Allow your feet to get use to walking on their own again, even if it’s only an hour each day after you get home from work. Secondly, ask your practitioner about sprint club. These are sessions that we run to retrain the biomechanics of your foot to a healthy state after having lived a lifetime in shoes. They are conducted barefoot on grass so your toes can flex (dig into the dirt) and extend (point up to the sky) and rotate the way nature intended.

So take the shackles off your feet. Don’t take my word for it, test it. Take yourself out to an oval and time yourself over the same short distance, one with shoes and one without. And realise there was a reason why we weren’t born with a little pair of Nikes on our feet.