Running Shoes And Barefoot Running:
Musings from a coach
Author : Coach Al Lyman, CSCS
The shoes and socks worn by Stefan Albinsson, the winner of the 2009 Muddy Marathon. Photo - Rick McNulty
Among the most common questions I receive from runners are those asking about different brands and types of running shoes, and how differences in design affect form and function. With the increasing popularity of minimalist lightweight designs including Vibram’s 5-finger shoes (which mimic the feeling of being barefooted), as well as actual barefoot running, now is a good time to share some thoughts on shoes, form, and function. While I am not a biomechanist or shoe expert, I hope these musings that come from my own practical experience and study, are helpful. The questions I get usually follow similar themes: Is one shoe type or brand better than another? Should I try to change the way I run by changing to a different type of shoe? Should I be doing more barefoot running?
From my earliest days as both a runner and coach, I’ve always attempted to learn as much as possible about how shoe design and shoe fit relate to form, injury, and performance, especially for the average runner. Fast forward to this year’s National Strength and Conditioning Association’s conference in Las Vegas, where among the speakers I heard was well known PT and author, Gray Cook. Gray mentioned that after reading the book “Born to Run,” he was telling every runner he met to run barefooted exclusively. I sat there, somewhat stunned, at what I felt was a broad and perhaps haphazard recommendation, because I believed that while some runners could do well with barefooted running if they progressed smartly, many others who took his comments to heart might end up having more injuries, not less. They would inevitably try to do too much too soon, or suffer issues due to either a lack of running-specific functional / core strength or because of less-than “perfect” natural biomechanics.
That being said, I do believe many runners can benefit from integrating barefoot walking and running into their routine, as long as it is done in a controlled manner. I often program progressive barefoot workouts on the treadmill for athletes I coach, to help build lower-leg strength and dynamic flexibility. These sessions involve subtle and progressive increases in grade, as well as backward walking and running to build balanced strength. The ultimate benefit to these kinds of workouts is something we could all use more of: increased dynamic strength and flexibility, mobility, and resiliency of the lower leg and ankle, along with increased proprioceptive awareness and stronger intrinsic foot muscles.
Should you change the type of shoe you wear, or make wholesale changes to your run form based in part on shoe type?
While the book, “Born to Run,” inspired Gray Cook to tell everyone they should immediately start running barefooted, I do NOT believe it is smart to do anything that results in an instant and/ or arbitrary change in the way you run or the way your foot hits the ground, especially exclusively. Yes, there are things that each of us can do to improve or “tweak” our form, all of which could help us to become faster and more efficient, such as improving our posture, quickening our cadence, or driving our knee forward more while we drive our elbows back, to create more horizontal (not vertical) movements. Wholesale arbitrary changes however, are almost always a mistake, especially if done exclusively. The reason is simple and important: the way we move and run is a function of how we are uniquely put together as well as how our bodies have adapted to our daily lifestyle. Do we sit a lot and rarely stretch? Have we become immobile around the hips, lumber spine, and trunk? All of these factors dramatically impact how we move and function, and thus run.
TIP: In my opinion, the single best way to improve running form is to improve your hip and ankle mobility, and develop a stronger core and run specific functional strength. These attributes will lead to shorter ground contact time (desirable), a natural, not forced increase in stride length (desirable), and a more stabile pelvis during stance (desirable), all of which will improve your form and can reduce injury risk and improve efficiency and speed.
While it could be argued that a midfoot strike is optimal for efficient and fast running, and that more of the world’s best runners do land with a mid-foot strike, as of yet I know of no objective scientific evidence that says unequivocally that a mid-foot strike is “better” for ALL of us.
TIP: When you run, focus on loading your legs and body UNDER your hips, which will result in better posture, balance and less braking action. When you do this, inevitably you will land more mid-foot. The key is how you get there, and how you define a heel vs. a mid-foot strike, as notice I used the word “load”. Very often we see good runners whose heel touches first, but they are not “loading” the stance leg at that point. The best way to learn how to avoid loading the foot early is to work on gradually increasing cadence to 85- 95 stride cycles-per-minute, as well as improving hip mobility and strength.
Be extremely cautious if you decide to go out and buy a minimalist shoe thinking you can change the way you run, just by wearing that shoe. Doing that may shock your body into moving a vastly different way, resulting in compensatory changes and increased stress on tissues that may not be ready to handle that stress. That could lead to a much higher risk of injury if you progress too quickly. The same is true for barefoot running: a little can be beneficial – but a lot, especially progressed too fast, can end up causing injury, not preventing it. Most experts agree: only about 20% of the world’s running population have near ideal biomechanics and a neutral gait and can run barefooted or with a minimalist shoe without increased risk of injury. The remaining 80% fall somewhere off of that “ideal” baseline. Recently, in a conversation I had with chiropractic sports physician and injury expert, Kurt A. Strecker, DC, CCSP, he said: “minimalist shoes can often be a shock to the system. Most of us don't spend our entire lives barefoot. We've worn shoes, often not good ones, our entire lives. I wouldn't run 26.2 miles without training and I don't think it's a good idea to ask the kinetic chain of the lower extremities and lumbar spine to absorb the loads imparted by running with minimal support or cushioning, without significant preparation.”
Here are a few more TIPS that I hope help you in your search for the perfect shoe and stride.
How our feet impact the ground when we run involves different factors that are unique for each of us:
Poor posture, which leads to poor skeletal stacking and muscular stress.
Hip mobility or lack thereof, which greatly increases compensatory patterns and reduces your body’s ability to absorb and transfer energy via the stretch / shortening cycle.
Lack of frontal plane (glute medius/ hip rotator) balance and strength, which results in loss of stability and energy leaks.
Poor flexibility or elasticity in the quads and hip flexors, which puts the pelvis out of neutral and creates compensations elsewhere which reduce efficiency.
The point being, a change in foot wear or any other arbitrary change, without first addressing how strong and mobile your foundation is, is short sighted and may end up resulting in injury.
If you use orthotics due to a biomechanical issue that was identified by a foot doctor or PT, you should continue to wear them, but at the same time continue strengthening your legs and feet and improve your hip mobility, with an eye toward hopefully needing less support from these devices as time goes on.
Seek out a high quality running shoe store to purchase your shoes: My personal favorite is FLEET FEET SPORTS. Their staff is well trained and I like their approach to shoe fit. Remember, you usually get what you pay for.
The road to faster, injury free running is paved with smart, diligent, progressive, patient, hard work. There is no easy way or quick fix to better running form, strength, mobility, or elasticity. Seek a path that avoids fads or quick fixes, and focus on established fundamentals. Become stronger, more mobile, more flexible, and train smart. In the end, you’ll run faster and be much happier.
Lastly, get feedback from an expert by way of a video running form / gait analysis. For information or recommendations on how I can help you with this valuable service, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading, and best of luck!