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Mike Antoniades – Barefoot Running, is it running technique? A fad? or is it a cult?

Here at The Running School, we frequently get asked the barefoot running “Question”. For those of you who are members of the Running School you will know that first and foremost we advocate developing a sound running technique that is right for you and we aim to work with you personally to help you achieve this.

Nevertheless, we have decided to enter the debate and in this posting Mike Antoniades sets out his thoughts on the subject of Barefoot Running. We hope you enjoy reading it and will welcome any comments you have!

Barefoot Running. Is it Running technique, is it a Fad, or is it a cult?

In 2009 a fantastic book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall was published and quickly became an international bestseller. Its core message (amongst many others) that barefoot running is an exhilarating experience seemed to touch a rich vein and the book, as well as being popular in its own right for its vivid writing, spawned an explosion in the promotion of barefoot running.

For anyone who has run barefoot on sand or through soft grass there is something exhilarating about running barefoot – the sense of freedom?

Nevertheless, from my vantage point of seeing thousands of runners of all ages and abilities, my fear is that we are facing a real danger that the joys of barefoot running are in danger of becoming a fad or worse almost a cult and a damaging one at that. For every barefoot runner on the beach there are a millions running in the city in their trainers and getting incredible pleasure from doing so. Similarly, my fear is that for every well-informed writer on this subject such as Mr McDougall and others, there are a growing number of coaches promoting barefoot running in the wrong way.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and ask why do a minority of people try to persuade /cajole/force the majority to follow their lead? And why do so many publications write about new things as if they are the panacea to everything?

So first things first – Running barefoot is not a new Running technique it’s a running choice. What do I mean by that?

You can’t just throw away your running shoes, take your socks off and automatically change your running technique- that just doesn’t happen! It also doesn’t work if you buy a new pair of minimalist shoes or Gorrilla feet and think that you are going to run better.

Why? Because running technique is not just the way your foot lands – and that is the only thing that will change when you throw away your running shoes and start running barefoot. For me, running technique is first and foremost about movement patterns. Your body learns through movement. If you practice correct movement the body learns correct movement. If you practice an inefficient movement, it will learn an inefficient movement and as soon as you try to increase the volume or the intensity of an inefficient movement your body starts to complain and break down.

Running technique is about the whole body, how the arms move determines how much balance and forward momentum you get and how long or short your stride length gets. How you use your torso and how good your dynamic core is determines how much time you spend on the ground and the amount of force that travels through the ankle, knee, hip and back. How your legs move – determines your stride frequency, stride length and how much force you hit the ground with. How your feet land, can determine how efficient you become in transitioning from one foot to another, how much you “break” when you land and how much force goes through the ankle, achilles or calf and then knee, hip and back!

An efficient or inefficient Running Technique equates to so much more than the way the foot lands – whether you’re wearing shoes or not.

The analogy I often make with people who are suffering from running injuries is that if your car breaks down you don’t just change the tyres on the wheels and hope that fixes the problem – you open up the bonnet to look at the fundamental problem.

Running is a skill and it can be learnt as a skill – it can be developed and perfected and the better you are at that skill, the more efficient you become and in this case the faster you will get!! Like with everything in life – the more you work at something the better you become at it.

So what happens when you run barefoot? Let’s explore.

Many people who move to barefoot running have a tendency to automatically run on the balls of the foot, Why?, because at some point in your life as a child or an adult you tried running heel-toe barefoot and it hurt your foot with the impact. It is less painful to run on the balls of the foot, you are staying on the ground less time and you take shorter, faster steps to avoid the pain.

BUT … and it’s a big BUT- if you haven’t been taught how to run or developed good movement from a young age you will have a tendency to land ahead of your centre of gravity and put a lot of stress on the front part of the foot, Achilles, or calf and the chances are you will get injured!

Humans like to be inspired to do things that they didn’t think were possible and on many occasions they have life changing experiences . We see it frequently in awe-inspiring movies like Rocky and Forest Gump where people get inspired to achieve and then go on to win the world boxing championship, or run coast to coast inspiring a generation of joggers and some great t-shirt designs and bumper stickers in the process!

But, and I am sorry to be the one to let the cat out of the bag- this is not the movies and you don’t have a body double! This is real life and you can’t read a fantastic book like “Born to Run” and then want to go out and run a marathon barefoot like the Mexican Indians. This is real life and you need to prepare your body for it and…. I have more bad news – Barefoot running is not for everyone!

Ladies, you wouldn’t buy a set of high heels and wear them all night would you? Oh yes you would!! Yes, we know that it happens for special occasions! But then how much do you suffer? – blisters, sore ankles, achy back, hip and knees. Imagine what would happen if you did it every day! So the same applies with running barefoot. If you do it without being conditioned to do it you will get hurt!

Let’s give the barefoot runners and promoters and evangelists who say that barefoot running is the only way to run a lot of credit. They do say that it takes between 6-12 months to transition from wear training shoes to running barefoot. But as always people are impatient, don’t have time and want everything today! So they rush everything and get hurt and then can’t run all.

There is also a large proportion of the population that doesn’t have the time or the patience to transition to a completely new running style yet derive huge benefit from running 2-3 times per week, to de-stress, keep their sanity from everyday life and keep the fat from engulfing the body.

We had a lady in her 40,s come into the Running School a couple of weeks ago and said she wanted to learn how to run efficiently because she wanted to start running regularly. So far nothing unusual, she also said that she just finished reading the book “Born to Run” and wanted to do all the training barefoot! We explained all the advantages and disadvantages of running barefoot and suggested she transition from trainers to barefoot after we looked at the rest of her running movement.

She declined and went to find someone who would coach her running barefoot. She found a “clown” with little coaching knowledge and a big mouth who trained her for two hours running barefoot. She couldn’t walk for a week and still had foot pain 3 weeks later!

NOTE: Beware of trainers with very little knowledge and experience in coaching, who steal other people’s ideas, pick-up information on the internet and claim to be experts.

Another case of an elite Ironman tri-athlete, who decided in January 2011 to transition to running forefoot ( from heel-toe) and to minimalist running and bought a pair of Five Finger Vibrams. He then proceeded to do that week’s scheduled running programme running forefoot. He missed the whole racing season with Achilles problems in both legs and 10 months later is still struggling to run.

Modern running shoes and particularly running shoe manufacturers have taken a real bashing from minimalist and barefoot running supporters in recent months. There is a lot that is wrong with “some” modern trainers with big, bulky heavy running shoes and the way they are sold by some shops. (more on that in another blog). But with over 100 million pairs of trainers sold every year, they can’t ALL be that bad for those millions who bought them, who grew-up, live and work in concrete cities and just want to run and get incredible enjoyment from doing so!

So to summarise and come back to what I think is the heart of the matter. Barefoot running is an interesting and exciting development which no doubt will continue to grasp the imagination of many. Nevertheless, for me the KEY to happy and fulfilling running whatever your level is to have a good movement technique.

Running Technique is how the whole body moves over ground. That includes from the top: Head-Arms-Torso-legs-feet.

The body works in synergy, so any movement at the top of the body will affect what happens in the middle and at the base and vice versa. We don’t run with our feet alone, we run on our feet.

Most non-contact running injuries are due to overuse and are caused because runners are ignoring the messages from their body, stubbornly trying to push through pain and working off a limited knowledge base.

The great thing about running is that we have options. So if someone chooses to improve their running technique they can do that through a coach, or through reading a book or viewing a DVD. If someone chooses to wear their old army boots to go running on a Sunday morning (my neighbour by the way does this every Sunday- shorts, vest and army boots for a one hour run , whatever the weather!) and if they choose to run barefoot in the park or on the road without any clothes on they can do that as well . Although I am pretty sure they will regret the running without any clothes on!

To conclude, developing a sound running technique is key to enjoyable running whether you go barefoot or not – whichever you choose may you maximize your enjoyment from doing so and stay injury-free.”

Mike Antoniades

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