I’ve noticed in the physiotherapy clinic that barefoot running and its reported benefits is getting a lot of press again recently in main stream media. The proponents of bare foot running argue that present day running trainers with their inbuilt supports significantly alter the mechanics of how you run thereby increasing the risk of injury. Trainers which rely heavily on support and comfort as their selling point are argued to facilitate running with a heal strike while the more natural way to run is on the balls of your foot. Test this out by running in your bare feet the next time you are in the garden, do you land on your heal or stay on the balls of your feet. They make the point that the heal or calcaneus being mostly bone has no capacity for shock absorption and so transmits all the forces of running further up into your knees, hips and lower back. Running on the ball of your foot however takes advantage of the foot’s mechanics designed for shock absorption and the full capacity of the Achilles Tendon to transmit and absorb shock.
All of this argument makes perfect sense to me but a word of caution before you discard the trainers for barefoot running. The intrinsic muscles of the foot work to provide support and shape to the foot, when too much strain is placed through these muscles too quickly we can develop mechanical foot problems such as shin splints and plantar fasciitis. This is a common problem during the summer months when people limp into our physiotherapy clinic after switching from shoes in the office to flip flops at the beach for two weeks. The problem lies in the fact that as a generation we have become used to wearing shoes/ trainers which provide support and our intrinsic muscles have in effect become de-conditioned. As a means of decreasing injuries and increasing the strength of the intrinsic muscles in your feet starting with some barefoot running drills is a great idea but you need to gradually introduce your feet to the concept.
Clients often ask what the best pair of trainers are for their feet. In the absence of any structural problems the answer is the next pair you buy. Wearing the same trainers continuously can result in your feet becoming accustomed to the type of support provided by your trainer and result in a de-conditioning of the intrinsic muscles in your feet. By purchasing different brands or models or having two pairs that you switch between prevents the same load and pressure being placed through your feet repeatedly and challenges the intrinsic muscles by providing different levels of support and preventing de-conditioning.
On a personal note I haven’t yet tested the Nike Frees (which promise to strength train feet by imitating barefoot movement” or the Vibram Fivefingers which have been coined “gloves for your feet” but I am starting to decrease the amount of support and cushioning I now look for in my trainers..