Integrating barefoot running into a running routine can be very beneficial to your foot and leg strength and will also help improve your running form. Take a look at barefoot running and how to integrate it into your weekly routine.
To give yourself some perspective about what I will talk about, take a moment to think about how you land when you are running with shoes. In general, you will tend to land on your heel. Now think for a second about how your stride is different when you run barefoot – what do you feel? How does your foot land? How do you push off of the ground? Modern running shoes have been engineered to accommodate for runners to land on their heels by heavily cushioning the heel of the shoe. The cushioning in the heel of the shoe bypasses the arch in your foot which naturally cushions your stride. That said, how you are ‘supposed’ to run is generally relative to what is comfortable to you as a runner. Therefore, although a heel strike stride can lead to stress injuries, if it has worked for you and is comfortable, continue with this method.
If you focus on the way your foot lands and takes off of the ground when you are using modern running shoes, you will notice a couple of things:
1) Your body automatically tries to land on its heel
2) You develop a “crunched” running style where you generally sit back
3) You will feel as if you have to put in more work to push off of your toes
All of this is related to the excess padding and cushioning in your shoes. When you run barefoot, your body automatically corrects itself and absorbs a lot of the impact and shock. With a largely cushioned shoe, you have to train yourself to keep good form and not sit back.
The Benefits of Barefoot Running
In my mind, there are two main benefits to running barefoot:
1) Strengthening of your foot and ankle
Running barefoot strengthens core muscles in your feet and ankles that are normally not worked. You will notice very quickly after a barefoot run that your feet are sore. This is exactly what you want. This will make you a better runner by keeping you from tiring quickly and by strengthening the muscles you need to push off aggressively from your toes.
The cushioned heel, featured in many modern running shoes, works to dampen the impact shock upon landing on the ground. In general, this shock will resonate through your leg and towards your lower back which can cause injuries related to stress, as well as a sore lower back. A more appropriate strike, to avoid some potential injuries, involves landing on the ball of your foot and allowing your foot and ankle to absorb the impact force. This form is much more easily achieved by running barefoot simply because there is no cushion to fall back on.
Where to integrate Barefoot Running
Barefoot running can be integrated as a full length run or as a warm-up or cool-down. If you plan on replacing your shod runs with barefoot runs, I would recommend looking into a shoe that replicates a barefoot feel. Companies such as Vibram have developed barefoot running shoes that protect your feet and give you an exact feel of running barefoot. If you are not used to running barefoot, though, you will notice that you become very sore in your feet and your calf muscle. If this is the case, do not stop running barefoot, but rather cut back a little bit in order to steadily strengthen muscles generally not utilized with shoes.
Running barefoot can also be used as a way to strengthen your feet and legs while regularly running in shoes. As a warm-up, running with no shoes on a patch of grass for a couple of tenths of a mile can replace ankle and foot exercises that you may otherwise do. As a cool-down, though, getting in the habit of running 50 meter strides while barefoot is very good for stretching your legs and feet out after a run.