On Barefoot Running

On Barefoot Running

Running is a most inherent human activity, and over longer distances it’s something humans are better at than most animals. Our two-legged strides allow us to run differently than animals that run on four legs, freeing our hands to do the widely dextrous things that humans are capable of. But things have been changing over the last few years. The way humans once ran and the way we usually run today differ in terms of technique and equipment; the difference being the modern running shoe.

It may seem ironic, but despite all the fuss, runners using expensive well padded shoes actually experienced a higher rate of running related injury than those using inexpensive, lesser padded shoes. When people run with thickly padded shoes, they are encouraged to land on their heels. This, even with impressive cushioning, does over time lead to wears and tears within the knees of most folks. In fact, stress increase upon the knee due to heel strikes has been calculated as high as 38%. That is a significant amount of increase in pressure which can add up to as high as three times a person’s bodyweight!

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Running as a recreational activity or form of deliberate exercise has largely become popular since the latter half of the twentieth century. Modern running shoes hit the market as a way to cash in on this trend. But the hailed, highly padded, gel cushioned and what not, modern running shoe splashed upon billboards and imaginations of endurance and speed is a relative recent phenomenon. In fact, the running shoes that we’re familiar with today were invented as late as the 1970s; that’s barely two generations ago, certainly not enough time to offer evolutionary changes! The answer may lie in simplifying.

When asked to run barefooted, even folks typically used to running with running shoes tend to adjust their strides and alter the way they land. The body inherently seems to find the best way to absorb the impact that such running generates. Barefoot runners usually take slightly shorter strides and recruit more muscle during their running than heel strikers. The human foot is designed as an efficient absorber of shock and is able to transfer spring for a new stride with ease. Experienced barefoot runners accordingly tend to land fluidly with the forefoot or mid-foot, rather than the heel, with great comfort.

Flow of pressure on a chimp foot as compared to a human foot during a barefoot run.

Flow of pressure on a chimp foot as compared to a human foot during a barefoot run.

For scores of millennia, during our evolution, humans ran barefooted, or with minimal protective wear forged from things like animal hide. Barefoot running, or running with thinly soled shoes, is thus a style of running more in tune with the natural manner of running that humans have evolved and can be practiced on the hardest of surfaces as long as ones technique is right. There is a wave of acceptance of running in this manner and increasing numbers of people are experiencing more comfort in running along with a great increase in the amount of distances they’re able to cover.

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There are tribes in Africa and the Americas, great runners by tradition, that run in this manner as a cultural inheritance. Perhaps most remarkable of these is a Mexican tribe of people known as the Tarahumara people who have been documented in the past exhibiting the ability to run remarkable distances of up to 320 kilometres over two days across their native homeland for a variety of purposes including hunting and communication. Such distances seem inhuman, and what’s just as remarkable is that they typically cover these long distances using simple, thinly soled sandals. What differentiates them from the typical modern runner is that they land with the forefoot.

Note that the suggestion to run barefooted should not be looked at from a purely performance angle, going by the logic that if you’re willing to mess your shoulders up a little you’ll probably lift a heavier weight doing the bench press; rather this is to be looked at from a health and sustainability angle. Considering that regular folks are recreational runners, not seeking medals, it’s an idea to consider seriously. The running shoe industry has recognised this opportunity and several companies now manufacture thinly soled running shoes. This sort of running is termed minimalist running, and could be a good alternative to either end of the spectrum, especially considering clean, gravel free surfaces are not always easy to find.

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There is of course the idea that one should do what comes naturally, and considering this it is up to each individual to see what works best. But this would also entail giving both styles of running a serious go. High chances are that minimalist or barefoot running will come out on top for most folks after a proper adjustment and understanding of the method. One may find a great deal of comfortable alteration, or altogether an introduction to a timeless human activity that could increase ones health and state of well-being.

Written by Abhih Singh

Abhih Singh