Barefoot – The Idea
Over the past few years, a new craze has started in the running world – barefoot running. Vibram Five Fingers, commonly referred to as “crazy toe shoes,” have been appearing in numerous athletic stores. As odd as the idea of barefoot running is, research shows that it may be beneficial, for we were in fact, born to run. Humans have been engineered over thousands of years to be running machines, and that engineering didn’t happen while wearing Reeboks.
The argument to run barefoot emphasizes that the evolution of our anatomy and physiology has already perfected our natural mode of transportation and accessorizing our feet with shoes is unnecessary. What is more, in this day and age, very few people can run without contracting some form of sports-related injury; some experts believe that our shoes may be the problem.
The theory is that the forefoot strike has a more natural roll, allowing the knees to stay bent and runners to propel themselves forward, rather than transferring pressure into their joints. The soles of conventional running shoes impede this natural movement. Also, keeping the feet directly planted on a hard running surface without rubber or cushion beneath them allows for better neurological communication between the muscles of the feet and the brain.
What We Know
Recent clinical research has supported this theory as well. Individuals who run barefoot tend to run with a modified forefoot strike that, in some trials, reduced impact on joints and prevented injury. Other trials have shown that athletic shoes may increase the likelihood of injury.
Unfortunately, we cannot definitively see the benefit of barefoot running. The articles that exist only look at the evolutionary physiology of barefoot running and do not have the patient oriented data to make evidence-based decisions.
We do know that there is a difference in how you run, based on what you wear on your feet. An article published in the British Medical Journal found the modes of running barefoot, with minimalist sneakers and with traditional athletic shoes have different physiological effects on the body. Some healthcare settings have shown the benefit of barefoot therapies in treating individuals with a lack of arch in their feet.
If you do decide to become a barefoot runner, the cardinal rule is to take it slow. Whether you can run a marathon, or just started running, it is extremely important that you ease yourself into this new method of exercise. The muscles used while running barefoot are very different from those used while wearing sneakers. If one pushes too hard too soon, serious injury can occur.
The first step is achieving proper form and muscle strength. For a first run, take one slow lap around a nice soft running track, completely barefoot, to clarify where you are with your form. The outer part of the ball of your foot should make contact with the ground first, and you should keep your knees slightly bent. Do not strike the ground with your heel. You will quickly learn where to plant your foot to distribute your weight evenly.
While being completely barefoot may be the best way to gain potential health benefits, it may be best to utilize barefoot or minimalist shoes instead. The thin barrier provided by minimalist shoes can protect the soles of the feet from injury that could be inflicted by stones, broken glass and other sharp objects that may be on a running trail.
The second step is extremely important: have fun. Go outside on a sunny day, play some music, and enjoy the experience. I promise you will not be disappointed.
Treating Running Aliments
Any runner may rack up blisters, aches and pains; many treatment options exist to help these ailments.
Blisters are common after a long run, especially barefoot runs. It is not advisable to drain a blister as it may increase risk of infection. Should a blister rupture, be sure to wash it thoroughly with soap and water. Then, cover the open blister with a topical antibiotic, such as Neosporin, and an adhesive bandage.
Aches and pains can be treated by pharmaceutical or non-pharmaceutical means. Drugs such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen, all can help soothe muscle and joint aches, but make sure to take them as recommended. Never exceed the recommended daily dose unless instructed by a doctor.
You should also consult your doctor or pharmacist before using these products with any other medications or if you have medical problems such as kidney disease or high blood pressure.
Also, be sure to take all of these pain medications with a meal, as they may cause heartburn or an upset stomach. If your pain continues, it may be best to talk to your doctor about whether you could have a more serious exercise-related injury.
Non-drug treatments include icing or heating a sore area. The rule of thumb is 20 minutes of heat or cold, followed by a 20-minute break. Ice may be more beneficial, as it can reduce swelling, but heat may help reduce pain and tightness in muscles after icing. Remember to always keep a barrier, such as a towel or a blanket, between the treatment and your skin to prevent burns or minor frost bite.
If you are interested in more information, I recommend reading either “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall or the website maintained by Dr. Lieberman at http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/5BarefootRunning&TrainingTips.html.