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6 Tips for Barefoot Training and Minimal Running

By: Chris Jakubiak
6 Tips for Barefoot Training and Minimal Running

I’ve been living and working as a personal trainer in the Lakeview/Lincoln park area of Chicago since about 2005. One of the things I love most about the neighborhood is how close I live to the lakefront running path. It’s easy to get a quick run by the lake if I have limited time.

This luxury was briefly taken from me four years ago during a soccer game.

I was playing midfield on an unusually hot day when all of sudden the bottom of both my feet started burning. It felt as if both arches were cramping up. The pain went away after the game but returned each time I attempted a training run.

After dealing with this for a few days, I sought the advice of a chiropractor. The chiro told me I was suffering from plantar fasciitis. With his advice and treatment, I began a program to reduce the pain and inflammation in my feet and stretch and strengthen my ankle joint.

The pain went away after a few weeks and with regular maintenance, I was able to control the pain, but it would always return after long, grueling soccer games. This is when I started doing more research on plantar fascia issues and discovered barefoot training or minimal running.

What I learned changed my approach to running training.

1. A different approach to running training.

In the book Born to Run, Christopher MacDougall reveals an increase in running related injuries with the creation of fancy running shoes and orthotics. The reasoning behind this is the fact that shoes are perpetuating a dysfunctional learned movement pattern.

Natural running form dictates we land on the mid-foot, right under our body, but modern running shoe modifications taught us we could lengthen our stride by kicking out further and landing on our heel.

The shoes have a thicker heel to absorb shock from a heel strike which encourages more heel striking. Any running coach or soccer coach would teach the proper way to run by striking the ball of the foot directly under your body with an upright posture. Things change a bit while sprinting, but if you watch a child run, that’s how they do it, following the path of least resistance. But cushy running shoes, lack of knowledge, and poor technique training lead people to run hunched over striking with their heels.

2. What I learned from my running coach and how it can help you.

Switching to a more minimal shoe (less drop, less cushion) helped me to run with good form at all times (not getting sloppy when I was tired).

If you are a heel striker and try to run barefoot, then you know what I mean. I had good coaches who showed me correct running technique, but as with all fitness activities, form goes as fatigue sets in.

If you start to get lazy with a minimal shoe, your body will let you know. When I first started wearing minimal shoes, I walked in them for an hour-a-day the first week, two hrs the second, and started running in them for only 10% of my total mileage in my 3rd week.

This is what the research suggests, which is similar to increasing mileage in a marathon training program. I could tell the difference after running. I had to spend more time stretching and foam rolling my calves and Achilles at first, but stronger and more stable lower legs became the long term payoff.

3. Minimal running shoes can reinforce proper running technique.

What makes a shoe “minimal,” is a lower level of cushioning and a smaller heel to toe elevation ratio or drop. Minimal shoes have less sole so less foam between your foot and the ground.

You might think this means more shock when you land, but think of a gymnast landing on a mat. When the mat is thin, the gymnast has to land more softly to brace for landing. When the mat has more cushion, or is thinker, the gymnast has to land with more force to create stability within their body because it will be dissipated through more cushion. The same is true with a shoe.

The drop of a traditional running shoe is generally a 2:1 heel-to-toe difference. With a minimal shoe, the ratio is closer to 1:1 which makes it easier to strike with the mid-foot. The 1:1 ratio allows your Achilles to stretch through a greater range of motion.

If you were running in high heels, you wouldn’t be able to flex your foot toward your shin, so less shock absorption happens within your body. In this way, a more minimal shoe reinforces proper running technique.

4. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to starting barefoot running training.

Athletes come into trouble if they try to jump into barefoot training too fast. The Achilles isn’t used to being stretched to the lengths running barefoot after wearing high heel running shoes for so long.

This is why a 10% increase each week is important. Your foot needs time and rest, the fascia and joints need time to adapt and strengthen, and the foot’s support system of the lower (and even upper) leg need to build new strength to work up to your current mileage.

Just as you wouldn’t go into a gym your 1st day and bench press 300 lbs, you need to build up to the new forces placed on your body through minimal running.

5. Knowledge and proper form trump fancy foam padding and technology.

Studies seem to indicate that for pace, muscle recruitment, and impact reduction, runners should strike with the fore foot or mid-foot directly under the hip, using the glute to drive the foot to the ground, propelling them forward with an upright posture.

Taking the time and focus to perfect these details will help prevent injury and ultimately create an efficient and ultimately faster running style.

6. Take time to perfect barefoot running form; it will pay off.

Making the switch to a minimal and natural running style can help you become a better runner, but there are hurdles (please excuse the track pun) along the way for which you will need to prepare.

Should you choose to progress to a minimal shoe, take time early to perfect your from and technique, and make sure you feel confident before increasing speed or mileage.

Time spent working out kinks early on will save you time and energy, and maybe injury, down the road.

For more information on better running training, and barefoot running, contact our Lincoln Park, Chicago-based gym.

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