We continue with the topic of Barefoot and Natural Running, focusing on injury prevention as well as the process of transitioning to a more natural style of running.
In the previous article, we looked at the concept of Natural Running, the evolution of the human being as an endurance animal, and our structural differences compared to other animals.
- 1 Recovering the Proprioception of our Feet
- 2 What happens with Running Shoes?
- 3 Heel: a high risk of injury
- 4 Minimalist Footwear VS Footwear with Cushioning
- 5 Running Injuries
- 6 Risk of Injury and Natural Running
- 7 Transition to Natural Running
- 8 How to make the transition to Natural Running and Minimalist Footwear
- 9 Benefits of Running with Your Forefoot
- 10 Natural Running Starter Routine
- 11 Conclusions
- 12 Bibliographic Sources
- 13 Related Entries
Recovering the Proprioception of our Feet
As I said before, the feet are one of the main sensory sources of our body.
It is irrigated by an infinite number of nerve endings that provide information to the rest of the body and brain so that it can move and behave according to the information received.
Like our hands, our feet can tell us if the surface is soft, rough, uneven, whether the ground is cold or warm, for example.
Numerous studies have looked at the issue of running biomechanics in relation to the type of footwear worn by the runner.
A good example
With boxing gloves, you can hit a surface hard and feel no pain, and there’s hardly any freedom of movement of the hands.
But if the punch isn’t properly delivered, even if you don’t feel any pain or injury, the wrong punch could likely lead to a wrist to a wrist, elbow or even shoulder injury or ailment.
What am I trying to show with this? Well, even if you wear protection, if your movement isn’t properly executed, the absorption of impact forces will be distributed elsewhere incorrectly.
And this can lead to a fracture, injury, or other ailment, for example.
Working on foot mobility
The foot, at a structural level, is one of the fundamental axes on which to work on the biomechanics of skilful running and its importance in terms of proprioceptive sense.
What happens with Running Shoes?
We’re subtracting valuable information…
The same goes for our type of footwear and the way we walk and/or run.
As mentioned in the previous article, the heel of the foot is not made for cushioning, but the sole of the foot with its tissues, fascia and muscles does function as a trampoline.
Heel: a high risk of injury
The most common among popular runners is a form of running in which the first contact with the ground is made by the heel, “heel-strikers”.
However, natural and skilful biomechanics lead the human body to run with a forefoot entry, a slight pronation and a toe-off phase in which the big toe is the last to be in contact with the ground.
Hence, studies conclude that heel strike running is not the most natural and is a risk factor for possible injury.
On contact with the ground, this impact and the forces of braking, gravity, instead of being distributed along an imaginary axis – ankle, hip, centre of mass and nuchal point – are mostly received by the knee joint;
Minimalist Footwear VS Footwear with Cushioning
One of the studies carried out by Lieberman and collaborators was to measure the effect of a minimalist shoe (Merrell and New Balance Minimus shoes), compared to conventional shoes with cushioning.
Among the various conclusions of the study, the authors confirmed that the use of minimalist shoes had modified the kinematics of running in those who used minimalist shoes (the study sample consisted of 33 popular runners).
Thus, they question conventional cushioned shoes on the grounds that they don’t significantly improve the intrinsic musculature of the foot, as well as favouring heel strike running, thus increasing impact forces and a possible cause of lower limb injuries.
Heel Entry VS Forefoot Entry
Here we found another study on the muscle activity and kinematics of the running pattern of heel strike versus forefoot strike runners and the change in the movement pattern and per-activation of the gastrocnemius and ankle dorsiflexion musculature when running barefoot versus running in conventional running shoes.
Half of the runners in this study showed differences in their pattern of movement and muscle activation when running barefoot compared to running with cushioned shoes.
On the one hand, runners, when barefoot, minimise their stride length and increase their running cadence, which is very similar between them.
The number of injuries continues to grow exponentially and many factors contribute to this:
- Lack of prior preparation and fitness levels,
- Lack of rest and inadequate nutrition,
- Excess training volume (overoworking injuries),
- Incorrect movement patterns and postures,
- Type of footwear, among many others.
Risk of Injury and Natural Running
In the study conducted by David Hryvniak and colleagues, presented in the Journal of Sport and Health Science in 2014, by the University of Virginia Center for Endurance Sports, the following conclusions were drawn after surveying a total of 509 runners.
In order to assess the reduced risk of injury for those who ran barefoot in some of their sessions and/or ran in minimalist shoes; as well as the factors related to performance and injury in this type of runner.
Half of them see these types of sessions as another tool to improve specific aspects of the running.
Injury-free barefoot running
One of the most revealing findings is that 68% of those who participated in the study experienced no new injuries after starting barefoot running.
In fact, the majority of respondents (69%) actually had their injuries disappear after they started running barefoot.
The runners responded that their previous knee (46%), foot (19%), ankle (17%), hip (14%), and lower back (14%) injuries all proceeded to improve after starting to run barefoot.
This document reports the result of a survey of 509 runners. The results suggest that a large percentage of this sample of runners experienced benefits or no serious damage when running barefoot or with minimal footwear.
Although I can confirm that the vast majority of the popular runners I have treated, and whose running technique has been analysed, experienced great improvements in their running economy and a reduction in discomfort and injuries, we should take a break and stop and look at the PROCESS.
Transition to Natural Running
A few years ago, coinciding with the rise of these studies on the advantages of Barefoot Running and/or minimalist shoes, brands went on the hunt for runners eager to try and experience these promising changes.
The surprise was that within a few months, a large proportion of these converted runners were suffering from injuries, ailments that didn’t match the results promised by the sports industry at all.
We have to do it progressively
From a biomechanical point of view, the running pattern of a runner wearing modern cushioned shoes is immediately modified when running barefoot on a treadmill;
but the change must follow a logical and adequate progression to avoid overworking.
Not only when it comes to running
If you’ve been wearing modern footwear that over-protects the foot and therefore impairs the proprioceptive system, not only for running but for everyday use too, the intrinsic musculature of the foot will be impaired and your posture will be inadequate.
How to make the transition to Natural Running and Minimalist Footwear
Prepare the musculature
- Ankle mobility work;
- Specific plantar fascia work;
- Soleus and gastrocnemius stretches;
This should be the focus during the first part of this process, which can take months.
Minimalist footwear for everyday use
We should also start paying attention to a couple of key points to help us transition from running with conventional shoes to other less cushioned models, with a low or no drop.
The brain builds complex patterns from simple patterns, so a good way to start is to wear more minimalist shoes for your everyday, for training at the gym, for walking, and even walking barefoot at home.
Giving freedom of movement to the foot.
The quality of complex movements will only be as good as the quality of simple movements; these are the foundations for a successful movement-based training model.
Strength and Power
We’ll continue with basic exercises that will help improve the feet and ankle strength and mobility:
Deep squat barefoot work
In order to increase ankle mobility, learn to use the whole sole of the foot and big toe in support and push off, and work on spinal alignment.
Barefoot skipping or small, quick jumps on the spot
The idea is to recover the elasticity of the bones and calf muscles, which usually suffer a shortening after prolonged use of shoes with heel-cushioning and are the areas that suffer the most in this transition process.
Skipping barefoot involves a further step in the running process.
In this case, we’re looking for reactivity and to recover the elasticity of soleus and calf muscles that have been shortened for too long due to the prolonged use of shoes with high heel or cushioning.
This type of work does not seek power or muscular action, but rather the opposite, as well as incorporating optimal cadence and rhythm.
Why is Skipping a perfect ally to runners?
Skipping involves more strength in the process and requires skill.
Learning to skip will further develop the strength, balance and flexibility that has been acquired through the previous changes.
It will also improve tendon elasticity, and another incredibly important factor is the rhythm of movement.
The tendons act as rubber bands.
When stretched, these “rubber bands” tend to quickly snap back into place, providing energy that in some ways can be considered free.
This is called the “stretch-shortening cycle”.
The way we run affects this cycle because our tendons stretch and contract more efficiently when running at a specific “cadence” (steps per minute).
Benefits of Running with Your Forefoot
In a study published in the Journal of Sports and Health Science by Ahn et al, they concluded that there is an earlier and longer relative activation of the plantar flexors in runners who enter on the forefoot (up to 11% more than those who enter on the heel).
It is likely to increase the ability of passive structures in the foot and ankle to store elastic energy, and may also improve active muscle performance by increasing the storage of elastic strain energy in the cross-bridges.
As has been proven in different studies, and can be observed in elite runners of different types of distances, an optimal cadence to take advantage of this “free elastic energy” is around 180 steps per minute.
Natural Running Starter Routine
These types of preliminary exercises are highly recommended for incorporating the appropriate patterns and rhythms.
Start by incorporating a couple of minutes of barefoot running after a normal running session; in the garden, for example.
Over time, increase the minutes slightly or do your warm-up with minimalist footwear and then proceed with your usual shoes.
The global musculature is unprepared for sudden transitions and overloads can occur leading to discomfort, injuries and abandonment of the process.
- Start incorporating barefoot walking into daily scenarios;
- Do part of your gym workout barefoot or with minimalist footwear;
- Gradually introduce it to your running.
Keep in mind that this process usually takes months, or even years.
- Ahn A.N., Brayton C., Bhatia T., Martin P. Muscle activity and kinematics of forefoot and rear foot strike runners. (2014). Journal of Sport and Health Science. 102-112.
- Bramble, Dm y Lierberman, DE (2004) Endurace Runnig and the Evolution of the genus Homo.
- Bramble DM, Lieberman DE (2004) Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature.
- Daniels J. (2005) Daniels’ running formula. Human kinetics.
- Horak F.B. (2006). Postural orientation and equilibrium: what do we need to know about neural control of balance to prevent falls? Age and Ageing.
- Hryvniak D., Dicharry J., Wilder R. Barefoot running survey: Evidence from the field (2014). Journal of Sport and Health Science 131-135.
- Romanov, N and Fletcher, G (2007). Runners do not push off the ground but fall forwards via a gravitational torque. Sports Biomechanics.
- Lieberman et al (2011). Foot strike patters and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463: 531-536.
- Miller Elizabeth, Lieberman Daniel et al (2014). The effect of minimal shoes on arch structure and intrinsic foot muscle strength. Journal of Sport and Health Science, volumen 3 , 74-85.
- We give you some Top Tips to Improve Your Running Technique, check them out here
- Why is Warming-Up So Important? We tell you in this post.
Proprioception of our feet - 100%
Running shoes - 100%
Minimalist Footwear VS Footwear with Cushioning - 100%
Injuries - 100%