On running ... barefoot

NICOLE ELPHICK
Last updated 05:00 12/11/2013
 running

PROS & CONS: Supporters say running without shoes can help people with knee and back problems; those less fond of the technique say it can harm your Achilles heel and ankles.

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Daring to go bare (barefoot that is...) has been gaining mainstream momentum for the past several years. The fitness trend was given a big boost in 2009 by the publication of Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, which criticised cushioned modern-day running shoes as contributing to injuries.

David Chamberlain, sports scientist and running coach at DC Run is also an advocate of barefoot running. "Since the introduction of cushioned, highly supportive, modern-day footwear, we have changed the way we run.  We've transitioned away from our 'hunter-gatherer' style to a less natural method of running," says Chamberlain.

"By running barefoot, we effectively 're-set' our style, bringing it closer to the way we are naturally designed to run." Chamberlain also points out that scientific studies have also increased acceptance of the running style. "Evolutionary biologist Daniel E. Lieberman from Harvard University proposed that it's the shoes that are the fad and barefoot or minimalist running is the evolutionary norm," he explains. 

So why go bare? "Running barefoot increases the amount of feedback that we receive from the ground and enables us to optimise our running form according to the terrain we are on," says Chamberlain. "Our feet have evolved into incredible structures that are designed to absorb shock, produce motion, flex and bend. By giving them constant support and cushioning, we weaken them and inhibit them from doing what they are designed to do." 

There have been some criticisms however that the running style is dangerous with a Taiwanese study earlier this year finding that some runners have trouble adjusting to the forefoot first running style that is best for barefoot running (as opposed to hitting the ground heel first) and therefore risk injury.

"I would respond to the proposition that it's 'dangerous' by saying that a lot of things in life are dangerous if you don't do them properly," says Chamberlain. "You wouldn't jump into a swimming pool if you didn't know how to swim and running barefoot is not any different. It's a skill and as such, it needs to be learned and practised." He does say however that barefoot running can reduce the risk of lower back or knee injuries if practised properly. 

Chamberlain stresses the importance of taking time to transition slowly and sensibly - don't just throw your shoes in the bin and take off! "If you have a history of Achilles tendon and calf injuries then be very cautious in your approach," recommends Chamberlain. "I advise that anyone looking to transition to running barefoot goes through a basic assessment to determine if it's appropriate for them. Any progression to barefoot running should include a number of specific strength, balance, mobility and conditioning drills. Once you've mastered the basics, you should start by practicing deep squats, jumping rope, walking and running short distances on different terrain, gradually increasing your run duration over time."

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For those starting out he also recommends sticking to softer surfaces like grass and hard-packed sand to provide some natural cushioning. The running style isn't for everyone and Chamberlain says that if a person is completely happy and injury-free in their running shoes then the time and work taken to transition to a barefoot running style might not be worth it.

The other option is to check out minimalist running shoes - Inov-8, Vibram FiveFingers and Vivobarefoot are a few of the most successful brands. "Unless someone has extremely well developed strength, mobility and balance, I tend to advise that, in conjunction with transition exercises and drills, they start with a slightly more supportive and cushioned minimalist shoe and progressively move down the scale," says Chamberlain.   

- Daily Life

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