When you break a bone it is common practice to protect the area surrounding the injury by placing it in a cast. Also, when the cast comes off and your musculature surrounding that broken bone has atrophied due to disuse, you take it easy on that area for a while, slowly building up strength and stability until your body understands that you’d like to function without pain and agony, thank you very much.
Now apply this same concept to your feet, starting at around the age of one when your ability to walk upright became your sole purpose of being. Those plump, hearty feet of yours got shoved into itty bitty shoes, didn’t they? Essentially, right when you started to build the muscles required to hold you steady and stable for running, jumping and playing, someone casted your feet and made you a lifelong shoe-slave. There was good reason for this, however; no one wants to see a little kid cut her foot on a rusty nail, and with everyone else wearing shoes, what if someone in high heels stepped on her toe?
Fast forward thirty years later and you’ve got the workings of a great idea… you want to join the folks at work who are training for a half-marathon in three months and it’s time to think about buying new running shoes. Those funky, anemone-like Vibrams are all the rage right now and although you agree they are an aesthetic insult, hey if all those elite runners from Kenya and Ethiopia set world-records while running barefoot, won’t you run longer, faster, stronger in a shoe that mimics the barefoot experience but protects you from stubbing your big toe?
Athletes such as Tegla Loroupe and Abebe Bikila may have completed and won many a race in their bare feet, but consider that these people come from countries and cultures in which running barefoot is a practical method of travel. Zola Budd may have grown up running barefoot in South Africa, but you, my friend, have been wearing Nikes since you were knee-high, and while constant shoe-wear may have kept you from breaking a toe or two over the years, it has also sincerely reduced your foot brawn potential. Take a look at your feet right now – buff and toned?
The good news is that the human body has the ability to adapt fabulously to the stresses placed upon it; however, the caveat here is to follow the principles of exercise science when placing new demands on your body or you will end up doing more harm than good. Setting a goal to run a half-marathon in three months may be reasonable for someone with a running background, but a new runner may need six or nine months training-time. The same is true for changing up your footwear regimen – if you have spent most of your life wearing shoes, running in a shoe with little support only makes sense if you are first willing to take the time to adapt to using your feet as they were designed to be used. Here’s a general timeline of how to prepare for barefoot running:
- Do your research. Educate yourself about the basic anatomy of the foot and how it biomechanically relates to the rest of your body in general. Once you’ve developed a degree of appreciation for the wonders of the foot, learn more about how to condition yourself for running with less support.
- Attend a Good Form Running Clinic. Runners of all levels can benefit from learning the basics of good running form. The Fit Right NW running stores in Oregon and Washington hold these clinics on a regular basis; attending a clinic will get you the principles of proper running technique regarding stride, lean, cadence, and midfoot strike.
- Practice going barefoot in other activities besides running. Walking, dancing, or simply puttering around the house for short periods of time without shoes will help to start building foot strength. Take a barefoot walk on the beach or wear your flip flops as the weather allows, but keep your supportive shoes handy to change back into when you feel as if your feet have worked hard enough.
- Try a minimalist shoe first. Most well-known shoe brands now offer a minimalist running shoe which looks similar to a traditional running shoe without the built-up heel. These shoes provide just enough support to transition you out of a traditional running shoe and are also fairly decent-looking because let’s face it – Vibrams look weird.
- Embrace the five-finger goodness. Vibram took a good idea and made it better by creating a ‘shoe’ that gives you the protection from sharp rocks while allowing your feet to act as the shock absorbers that nature intended them to be. Wearing Vibrams is the closest you will get to going barefoot, but if you just can’t bear those separate toe compartments…
- Connect to the earth by going completely barefoot. Proponents of the concept of ‘chi’ running state that barefoot running strengthens not only the musculature of your feet but also your sense of proprioception, which refers to your ability to sense external changes in pressure and tension and to adjust your body accordingly.
Your parents had your best interest in mind when they bought your first pair of shoes, but you’re an adult now and times have changed. While it may seem comfortable to squeeze your feet into the same type of shoe you’ve been wearing your whole life, are you fully convinced that your feet can take you where you need to go in your life? If this question disrupts your inner serenity, you have the choice to take the appropriate measures to improve your circumstances – all it takes is that first step.