It may seem like running shoes will protect your feet and legs from injuries, and running shoes certainly do a better job of that than they did in years past. They control the movement of your foot, thereby reducing the impact of your legs on hard surfaces. But let’s put some more thought into running injuries and why we get them in the first place.
Some runners are prone to injuries because they have serious biomechanical or degenerative conditions, but most runners get injuries from the way they run and how they train. The desire to build up miles leads many runners to add too much too fast – they train for a long time and they run far, but eventually they stop getting faster.
Other runners spend hundreds of dollars on running shoes, making the most of all that science and technology can offer, but injuries still occur. They restrict the natural movement of their feet and ankles in the hope that they are avoiding the ‘wrong’ movement, and in turn they restrict the natural balancing and shock absorbing capabilities of their feet.
How barefoot running helps
Barefoot running gives your feet and ankles the chance to work with you in a natural way to prevent injuries. Chances are you’ll start your barefoot running with limited mileage, maybe even walking, increasing your mileage and pace slowly. This in itself will go a long way to prevent you missing runs because of injuries.
Once you are running without shoes (or with a minimal running shoe), your running technique will naturally change. Barefoot runners adopt a ‘forefoot strike’, where they land more on their toes and lean forward a little. This creates more flexion in the ankle, which absorbs impact better than any running shoe.
Finally, the bones of the foot, unrestricted by a running shoe, can flex and move to help you balance, and find more stability on your step naturally. Many runners find that the very same conditions they were trying to correct with running shoes go away once the structures of their foot can move freely and as they were meant to.
Conditions that can be eased by barefoot running
Shin splints are a result of inflammation of the tissues covering the front of the shin bone. The heel strike of runners, increasing training too fast, and the willingness to run fast on hard surfaces are the leading causes of shin splints. Barefoot runners step more softly, are less likely to run too far or too hard, and are much more aware of the surfaces they run on, all of which avoids shin splints. Reducing impact also eases the concussive injuries that can create chronic knee pain in runners.
Chronic compartment syndrome is different from acute compartment syndrome in that the chronic version manifests itself in shin pain and foot numbness. Often mistaken for shin splints, compartment syndrome is not an impact injury. It occurs when the muscle on the front of the leg expands on ‘dorsiflexion’ or raising the top of the foot, and the muscle tears and damages the fascia, or muscle casing. The forefoot strike of barefoot running can go a long way to ease the chronic discomfort of runners with compartment syndrome, and maybe reduce the need for the only other solution, which is surgery. The lack of significant dorsiflexion in barefoot running also reduces the occurrence of calf pain.
Achilles tendonitis is caused by running shoes with too high of a heel, meaning this is an injury very much related to wearing the wrong shoe. A heel strike technique combined with a steep heel, however well cushioned, prevents the Achilles tendon from expanding and contracting as it is designed to do. Instead, it is compressed and then pulled into extension rapidly, eventually leading to tendonitis. The forefoot strike and the complete lack of an abnormal heel height for the barefoot runner, vastly reduces the likelihood of Achilles tendonitis.
Ankle sprains in runners are almost always caused by ‘rolling over’ on the ankle, due to a trip or misstep, or stepping on an unnoticed root or other hazard. Barefoot runners are much more aware of where they put their feet, and less likely to step on a hazard. If they do, their foot, unrestricted by shoes, can bend and flex to absorb more of the shape of the obstacle than in a shoe. Add to that how the ankle has less far to ‘fall’, not being perched on a stiff or stacked up sole, and the barefoot runner will find they are far more surefooted and stable.
The medical case is clear; if you are suffering from chronic or recurrent running injuries, give barefoot running a try. If you start slowly, and build up gradually, you may find that your running injuries are significantly reduced, or even disappear altogether!
Photo Credit: Mr. T in DC on Flickr