It takes a moment to register exactly what you’re looking at when a barefoot runner trots by. Instead of bounding toward you with a normal air-cushioned spring, their feet, sometimes slipped into those flat, flipper-like sock things, slap lightly on the concrete, appearing small and delicate below the body they support. Look beyond the rarity, however, and what is revealed is a picture of the human form, running naturally as it was designed to.
The barefoot running movement, largely propelled by the success of the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, is taking root among the international athletic community and runners are throwing away their pricey running shoes in growing numbers in the hope of achieving a more natural running style, and saying farewell to injury.
But surely we need that double-sprung-air-lifted-foam-padded-gel-filled support? Surely our weak ankles and sensitive knees would be destroyed were they to be deprived of this essential aid? Apparently not. McDougall credits the invention of the modern running shoe with the widely accepted reality that running leads to injury. Indeed, the rate of injury among runners has increased greatly since we did away with those light little sand slippers that our grandfathers used to wear.
The idea is that a built-up heel encourages heel-striking in which the runner lands on the heel with a straight, extended leg, sending shock waves up through the ankles, shins and knees and then rolls forward onto the front of the foot. A bulked-up heel not only makes heel striking nearly unavoidable, but also masks the pain we would otherwise feel were we to adopt this style barefoot. Try taking off your shoes and heel striking; it is quickly recognised as a painful and unsustainable practice.
Jog a little further, McDougall says, and your body will self correct to a quick, light stride with a mid or forefoot strike, your legs flicking back behind you. It is the style he observed in the Tarahumara, a native tribe in Mexico famous for their incredible running ability, a style, he says, we are born with but deny in our thinking that the human anatomy is flawed and needs fixing.
Having long experienced shin and knee problems as a result of running, I was quick to identify my heel-striking habit and make changes to my style. Within a few weeks I was a convert and advocate, and bought myself a pair of Vibrams FiveFingers, one of the most popular light-weight ‘barefoot shoes’ on the market. Two months of slow training later and I’m now running further and faster than ever and with a new lightness and ease.
A Warning: Changes to your running style affect the whole muscular skeletal system and should be made gradually. To avoid injury, it is highly recommended that you build your foot muscles up slowly by starting short exercises and returning to your normal running distance over the course of a few months.