I finally read a book highly recommended to me called Born to Run1 by Christopher McDougall. In this bestseller, the author documents his travels to Mexico to learn about the Tarahumara Indians who run ultramarathon distances in sandals on death-defying terrain as a normal way of life. McDougall’s writing style is unique and exciting. I loved how he illustrated the characters, the harsh terrain and environment, as well as his own personal adventure. While reading the book, I felt I was there myself, experiencing the rugged terrain, the heat, and a body that could fly on the trail and race up and down mountains. By the end, I wanted to learn barefoot running and become a vegetarian.
While completing a degree in physical therapy in the early 1990s, we studied the foot quite extensively. As part of the program, we explored all of its bones and muscles, some of the ligaments (as well as blood and nerve supply). There are at least three layers of muscles. The foot is a work of art and it seems logical that we underuse its potential power by imprisoning them in supportive shoes.
In the book, it was described this way: “Just look at the architecture. Blue print your feet, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure. Buttressing the foot’s arch from all sides is a high-tensile web of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons, and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like an earthquake-resistant suspension bridge. Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast”.
Basically, the foot’s job is to read the ground, react efficiently and effectively, with the body coordinating with it. In a supportive shoe, blocked from both sides and below, the foot cannot move naturally. In addition, with the many layers wedged between it and the ground, the surface cannot be accurately interpreted. Consequently, the running form is altered, losing its efficiency, not only because of the changed running form, but also because the foot cannot contribute effectively. Heelstriking, as explained in the book, is a phenomenon that arrived on the scene as shoes became more supportive. Previously, midfoot and forefoot landing was the predominant form.
When I began running in the early 80s, I decided that a very supportive shoe was worth the money to protect my feet and my joints. Little did I know that this might have been backwards thinking.
In Born to Run, the author described studies that revealed that the more expensive the shoe, injury was 123% more probable compared to using lower quality less expensive shoes2. Furthermore, the investigators determined that it was the price of the shoe, not the body weight, previous injury, running surface, speed nor weekly mileage that determined the rate of injury. I found their results surprising, yet it made total sense, if you acknowledged the structure of the foot.
As is described in the book, barefoot running isn’t something we convert to overnight. Most of us have developed some really bad habits as time went on with our super supportive foot gear; also, our feet have become extremely weak and lazy. If you consider making the transition, it would be best to start with very short distances e.g. ¼ mile, if that, and slowly allowing your foot and the remainder your structure to adapt with time. Careful attention must be taken to body alignment. If something is hurting e.g. the joints, muscles (strain), ligament or bone, back off, try to correct the problem or even consider getting a coach or taking a running workshop where techniques are taught; in the book, they refer to three possible options: ChiRunning, Pose Running and Evolution Running.
For more information, you can go online and google “Barefoot Running”. The book is a good place to start too. It may not be possible for everyone to get down to the barefoot level. There is a shoe out described by McDougall called the Vibram Fivefingers, offered in both men and women’s sizes, which is like a sleeve with a thin sole serving as a protective layer between the foot and the ground. According to the book, only 25% of people that attempt the transition to barefoot running succeed. I think, for most people including myself, simply moving towards a less supportive shoe, might be more realistic and a safer way to go. Ultimately, whichever path you choose, very supportive shoe vs. barefoot or something in between, injury-free running and the joy of running are the important goals. It’s not worth running barefoot if your body won’t adapt safely.
1. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
2. The American Journal of Sports Medicine (1989), study by Bernard Marti, MD