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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to start Running and Walking barefoot and stay injury-free

Photo: Yes, yes, I know it - you think I’m
crazy being barefoot in a hail storm! 
Last year, I read a book about the legendary Tarahumara Indians who run up to 30 miles a day barefoot. This book, “Born to Run” has sparked a craze for barefoot running and walking. 

Is barefoot the way to go? Should you discard your walking and running shoes in favour of minimalistic footwear such as worn by the Tarahumara Indians? While I think going barefoot as much as possible is great for foot health, I am not about to tell every body to do so. The main problem is that most people nowadays do not have feet tough enough to handle being barefoot, nor do they have the running and walking technique for safe and efficient barefooting. (Modern shoes soften the feet and encourage stomping heel-first).

Photo: Lorraine and Gary Moller circa 1958 -
Raised bare foot from birth. 
My favourite pair of shoes is Vibram Five Fingers. These minimalistic shoes are the closest to being barefoot as you can get. I wear them everywhere, including during adventure holidays and when doing light-weight hiking. These shoes are extremely light and agile and easliy carried as back-ups to heavier-duty footwear. Still, I am very careful where I run barefoot and how far I go when wearing them.

Barefoot running is not for everyone
If you weigh more than about 80Kg I suggest you think twice before taking up running for the first time or after a long break. You would be better off doing a low-impact activity such as swimming paddling,cycling or walking. The injury risk of running is inherently high and it increases as weight increases. 

Running and walking in bare foot shoes is different to running or walking in conventional shoes and you need lots of time to safely transition. The most important rule in shifting to barefoot running is to take your time, doing a little bit of barefoot running at a time while sticking mostly to barefoot walking.

Note: While I am talking about walking and running in the same breath in this article, this message of caution applies mostly to running which has a much higher risk of injury. If you stick to walking then barefoot simulation should be perfect for most - so long as you take your time getting used to it!

Just about every athlete in this photo, other than me, would win 
a national champion ship if they were competing today - 
such was the depth of talent!

Other than the odd pair of Skellerups, we all ran barefoot 
in the "Good Old Days". Sadly, feet are not quite like they 
used to be, so take care if you decide to become a barefoot runner. 
Take your time making the transition to running or walking bare foot
Most people are raised from birth wearing some kind of protective footwear. Few people walk further than what it takes to get to the car or the fridge. Further than that and it is done on a treadmill or cross-trainer. If walking the outdoors it is on a manicured trail in heavy footwear. So, feet nowadays are very different to those of our ancestors, or present day Tarahumara Indians who were raised wearing little more than a pair of beat-up jandals - if that.

Unless you are a Tarahumara then your soft feet are going to require months, if not years, to strengthen to withstand the stresses and strains of running - with, or without shoes! In my job I am kept busy with stress fractures and strained foot tendons - and these are hardened runners - not newbies!

Start Slow - Keep the Miles Low

Get about the house and environs barefoot
Begin to toughen your feet, including the soles and skin, by taking every opportunity to be bare foot. As your soles harden, walk on grass and sand until the skin feels tender. The sinews of the feet will respond by getting stronger and the soles thicker and harder. Once that is comfortable, shift to walking on hard pavement, asphalt and even gravel - bare foot of course! this process may take several weeks of daily application.

Do two minutes of barefoot running or walking at the end of each of your runs/walks
Run or walk in your trainers but carry your bare foot shoes with you, or have them waiting at the end. Swap shoes and do a few minutes warm-down in your bare foots, including stretching. As the weeks pass, very gradually increase the distance you do in your bare foots.

Run only every 2nd or 3rd day
My three older children, Myra, Mary-Ann and
Kelvin, posing with Rod Dixon after competing
in a track race - Barefoot of course! 
Whether in cushioned trainers or bare foot shoes, sensible runners always schedule every 2nd day as a relative rest. This injury-prevention rule is most important when transitioning to bare foot running - and continued once the transition is complete. If you stick to walking, you can train daily because of the lower injury risk.

Run and walk mostly off-road
The best way to avoid injury is to make 80% of all your running and walking off-road, bare foot or not. The feet are best served by favouring surfaces that require continuous adjustment of the muscles, ligaments and joints of the feet. Monotonous ambulating on hard, flat pavement is a sure guarantee for eventually suffering an over-use injury. Your feet love the constant variation that is inherent of natural terrain.

Get a massage of the calf muscles and feet once a week
Massage kept the Roman Legions on their feet when marching a thousand miles and more in full battle-kit from Rome to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire, to do battle and then return victorious. They managed this in little more than leather sandals. If massage was good enough for them then it is good enough for you.

Get a thorough massage of the legs, including the feet, once week. It is the best investment you'll ever make to ensure your running and walking remain enjoyable and injury-free.

You might find this article an interesting read:
About this website
The advice in these articles is given freely without promise or obligation.  Its all about giving you and your family the tools and information to take control of your health and fitness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good advice. simple and thorough from a time served professional.