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Natural born runners

BodyFit magazine
Thinking of going barefoot on your next run? It may be time to ditch your trainers.

“When you take your shoes off, something changes,” says runner Anna Toombs. She’s been going barefoot through the streets of London for more than a year. “There are physical benefits, but that’s only half of it. Run barefoot and you become a kid again. Speed becomes irrelevant. You don’t just go in straight lines – you’re having fun.”

A quiet revolution is taking place in the world of recreational runners. They’re losing their shoes – or at least wearing thin-soled minimal shoes that mimic a barefoot feel. Why? They want to run as nature intended. Often they’re making the change because they’ve been injured – a result of poor technique and inappropriate footwear, say barefoot running coaches.

Run Forrest!

Supporters say naked feet are perfectly equipped to run longer distances, and question whether we really need highly engineered trainers on our feet before we step out the door. Current research suggests modern running shoes don’t do much to improve a runner’s performance or prevent injuries.

“By relying on footwear to control and protect the foot, we’ve allowed the foot to become weak and de-conditioned,” says Gerard Hartmann, former triathlete and physiotherapist to Olympic medal winners such Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes. He’s a leading advocate of minimal footwear, and during his competitive career he ran a weekly 10 miles a week barefoot.

Running shoes as we know them today, with thick spongy heels and moulded insteps, have only been around since the 1970s. Before then, runners wore thinner soled shoes with minimal support.

“You’re looking at two million years of evolution against thirty years of technology,” says Lee Saxby, a leading barefoot running coach. “I’ve never met anybody who couldn’t learn to run barefoot. For some it takes longer than others. We spend up to 10 hours a day slumped in front of a computer, so we have to relearn our natural posture.”

Feet First

Some 60-80 percent of recreational runners quit because they become injured, says Saxby. They’re the ones who adapt best to a barefoot style, he says, because they have no other option. Thick heeled trainers allow you to land heel first – impossible to do barefoot because it’s just too painful. Instead, you must land first on

your mid or forefoot – as you do, for instance, when you run uphill. Your foot spends less time on the ground, rolls less and your stride feels lighter. “These kinds of strike lead to lower impact forces which may lead to lower rates of injury,” says evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman. He says anecdotal evidence points to lower rates of stress injuries, plantar fasciitis and runner’s knee, although is at pains to stress research hasn’t proven this definitively. It also costs about five percent less energy to run without shoes.

“Running becomes less serious when it’s barefoot,” says Toombs. “Contrary to

popular belief, the streets of London aren’t filled with dog poo and glass. You don’t get shredded soles. My feet have even changed shape – they’re more toned.”

But, resist the romantic notion to ditch your shoes and run regardless, warn experts; shod feet just aren’t up to the job at first. They need weeks, if not months of strengthening. If you can’t walk a mile barefoot without feeling pain, don’t try running yet.

New Techniques

There are several methods of learning; the Pose method – arguably the most “scientific”; Chi Running and the Alexander technique. “Good posture and rhythm are essential,” says

Saxby. Where most runners will struggle, he says, is cutting back on distance initially. Don’t mix running shoes and going barefoot; it confuses your muscle memory and slows your learning, he adds. Initially your calves and Achilles tendons may suffer, so stretch these after each run. Joggers classically bend at the hip with head bent forwards. “In the natural world, there’s no such thing as jogging,” says Saxby. “You either run or you walk.”

Instead, aim to pivot on your ankles with your feet landing lightly under you, taking shorter strides with your body aligned. And stick with it. “Initially your brain doesn’t like you going barefoot. Our feet are so sensory; suddenly you’re getting all this information. You have to acclimatise.”

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