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Cure all Running Injuries (and Pain) with One Simple Fix….Barefoot Running

Posted Sep 10 2009 10:00pm

barefoot-running

Are Running Injuries natural or just Man-Made?

Running is more popular than ever nowadays with 5-10ks/marathons happening all the time, not too mention how many recreational people go for a run before or after work (nothing like just getting outside and connecting with our primal self in nature!)

Does this really look like a natural way we were meant to run....with springs?

Does this really look like a natural way we were meant to run....with springs?

But what are we also seeing? Running injuries on the rise (especially knee pain) ….so much that there is whole industry that just caters to those running injuries including 100s of special running shoes, all sorts of knee braces, expensive custom shoe inserts, and what seems to be an orthopedic surgeon on every corner.

Seriously, if running is naturally this destructive then why aren’t some other nations that spend their life running daily in wheelchairs for life?

Doctors and other people treating runners with injuries are quick to blame muscle imbalances, inflexibility issues, or even some “genetic” (the biggest cop out in modern medical treatment) disorder to your foot. While some of the issues may be true, the question becomes how do you fix or prevent them.

The biggest question however may just be what if our modern attempts at making a “better way to run” was in fact just taking us in the other direction? What if we are doing this to ourselves?

One Simple Solution…Barefoot Running

Maybe it’s time to just “forget everything we know”….maybe it’s time to realize what is really ruining running ….maybe it’s time to wipe the slate clean and get back to basics.

I’d been plagued by running injuries my entire adult life. I’d seen the best sports-medicine physicians and podiatrists in the country, and they’d all prescribed the same fruitless formula of orthotics, ice, and injections. Nothing and no one could cure me. So a few years ago, I looked elsewhere: to a tiny tribe of super-athletes in Mexico, who taught me that it’s not running that’s dangerous — it’s running shoes.

Some researchers suggest that running shoes actually cause the very injuries they’re supposed to prevent. That idea has been out there for more than a decade, but it’s gaining force, thanks to the work of Daniel Lieberman, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University who’s been studying the biomechanics of the foot and the evolution of human running. Before the invention of the modern running shoe, runners couldn’t land on their heels — it was simply too painful. Doing so in today’s shoes leads to excessive foot rolling, known as overpronation.

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to overpronate, give us knee problems,” Lieberman said on Australian radio last year. “Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and probably had much lower incidents of knee injuries.”

So how do the Tarahumara, running in shoes that barely qualify as shoes, do it? Three years ago, I trekked into the Copper Canyons of Mexico in search of the secret. And once I learned how to run barefoot-style — landing on the balls of the feet, while keeping my feet directly under my hips — like the Tarahumara, my ailments suddenly disappeared. Plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, sore knees — all gone.

from an article in the Wall Street journal comes this tidbit:

There isn’t a lot of scientific study on barefoot training. Research has shown that wearing shoes to exercise takes more energy, and that barefoot runners use about 4% less oxygen than shod runners. Other studies suggest barefoot athletes naturally compensate for the lack of cushioning and land more softly than runners in shoes, putting less shock and strain on the rest of the body. Barefoot runners also tend to land in the middle of their foot, which can improve running form and reduce injury.

One series of studies from Canadian researchers concluded that heavily cushioned shoes were more likely to cause injury than simpler shoes. They also concluded that more expensive athletic shoes accounted for twice as many injuries as cheaper shoes.

Wired has this story about some Nike researchers looking for a better running shoe….and make a startling discovery:

During the course of their conversations with athletes and coaches, some Nike designers ended up talking to Vin Lananna, who was then the track coach at Stanford University. While discussing the Stanford program and his success there (Lananna’s 2002 men’s track and field team won the school’s first NCAA outdoor title since 1934), Lananna mentioned the unusual training he did with his athletes: He had them run on grass without shoes.

“He said that it kept his athletes stronger and healthier, and prevented injuries,” recalls Tobie Hatfield, senior engineer for advanced products at the Nike Innovation Kitchen. “And since they were injured less, they could train more. He was sure this training was giving them an edge.”

Nike researchers brought in 10 men and 10 women to run barefoot on grass to see exactly how the body reacts without shoes on. They were videotaped with high-speed cameras to capture their movements, they had reflective markers attached to their joints to allow easy calculation of joint angles during their stride, and they even had wafer-thin pressure sensors attached to the bottoms of their feet to measure their impact with the earth.

At the end of the experiment, Nike had the most comprehensive picture of the biomechanics of barefoot running ever developed.

“There was a very unique pressure pattern that came from running on grass,” says Jeff Pisciotta, a senior researcher and biomechanist at Nike’s Sports Research Lab. “Everything was happening at the ankle and the foot, that’s where we saw the changes. There was a much greater range of motion at the ankle and foot as well. It was like an airplane coming in for a smooth landing — they were using the whole foot, very naturally.”

(Above is a video of barefoot running by Erwan Le Corre, who some have called one of the fittest men in the world…and the founder of MovNat. Now that looks like fun!)

Stiff Shoes = Weak Feet = Injuries = Pain

It all boils down to the simple equation that if you put your feet in a stiff shoe, you are not going to use all the muscles in your feet. What happens when you don’t use muscles? They get weak. Add an addition unnatural stride (heel striking) with weak feet and you create instability at the base of your body (your feet hitting the ground). That translates up your knees, legs, back and creates compensary movements (such as overpronation) and injuries.

Put your arm in a cast for a couple months…take it out…and does it have the same muscle mass as your other arm? Nope.

Now look at stiff running shoes (and inserts) as a cast for your foot….don’t expect your feet muscles to be well developed compared to using nothing at all. I learned this personally from over 30 years of playing ice hockey (very stiff skates), and the result was weak ankles and feet that I am improving daily now by wearing flexible sandals and running barefoot.

If your foundation (feet) is weak, don’t expect the rest of the house (body) to be too sturdy either!

Get out and Play Pain Free!

Some people want long drawn out explanations or a series of complicated and time consuming rehab exercises to do daily….when all they need is a simple solution. You can start by walking more naturally and then let your feet start adjusting to the movement (even just switching to simple/flexible sandals to use daily instead of those stiff shoes).

Then you can move to small running sessions on grass at a local field/park/beach. Let the ground cushion your stride and let your natural built in running patterns emerge. Or just go out on your front yard and walk around barefoot…enjoy the movement and feeling of solid earth underneath your toes.

Start slow and enjoy what you do! Don’t just go run 10 miles for the first time barefoot. Like any workout for muscles, build the strength slowly…or you will be very sore for a long time after.

From there where and how often you run is up to you….but forget the complicated solutions that aren’t doing you any good (but fueling a huge industry built around them). Imagine how much money you can save if you never will need any special shoes, inserts, or treatment again! You don’t need to buy tons of books or attend expensive seminars to get back to your natural movement either….you just need to step outside and walk/run as you were meant to.

vibram-five-fingers While I am not going to probably run 100% barefoot on a trail or down the street, I can get as close as possible by getting a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers. Or for those needing more “dressier” looking shoes there is the Vivo Barefoot series. Or if you are on a budget just get the “cheapest” and most flexible shoes you can find with little cushioning on the soles (remember those Chuck Taylors we all loved?).

So the next time you see someone “hobbling” down the road with fancy running shoes, specially made inserts, knee braces and a painful look on their face….do them a favor and tell them to throw their sneakers in the trash and get back to basics.

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