Barefoot running is a unique experience. You could call me a ‘late adopter’ as I only tried this out recently, using the Vibram Five Fingers barefoot running shoes. I had previously run in Nike Free, which are also a minimalist trainer, but still have enough rearfoot support to allow you to cheat and revert to your old habits of heel striking with every foot fall.
The Vibram’s on the other hand mould to your foot, increasing sensitivity to heel strike (a heavy heel strike would hurt after a bit), and encouraging a more forefoot contact with the ground with each foot landing whilst running.
This is associated with a more forward lean, a straighter spine posture throughout the running cycle, and clearly more ankle flexion with each contact. The more forward placement of the body’s centre of mass in this action, combined with the forefoot contact and greater range of ankle dorsiflexion all amount to a significantly greater load on the calf muscles during this method of propulsion. As a result, if you overdo it – like I did ( believe me it does not take much), you will experience a lot of calf pain the following few days and may limp about a lot.
That said, the forefoot running style does seem to greatly reduce the forces going up into the hips and low back and the stiff sore back often experienced after regular running seems to dissipate rapidly. It definitely feels like a more natural load to your spine, and once you get the hang of it, it is also a faster running style.
I spoke recently with a personal trainer who has trained in barefoot running about this and he recommended no more than 20 minutes, or roughly 3km per session to begin with and probably only 2-3 sessions per week for the first 4-6 weeks before increasing the distance. This allows time for the muscles to adapt to the new and different load during the running and will help avoid the development of an injury.
Some studies have shown that if you already have an injury in the foot and ankle region – i.e. plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis etc, then the barefoot training can often make things worse, so take it easy and make the right decision regarding trying barefoot running relative to your individual circumstances (if in doubt consult a specialist first).
You can still do other longer running sessions during the transition period in your ‘regular’ trainers using your ‘normal’ style of running, and can cross train by adding strength sessions in the gym, or other activities. The barefoot running does not need to be an all or nothing element in your training, but just a part of it to begin with, used intermittently as another tweak to your training regimen. Plus it is a lot of fun running around in those goofy shoes.
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