Last week, Coach Rick wrote to me with what I can only describe as an interesting conundrum. He is a highly experienced marathoner and inspirational running coach, whom I can only presume has spent a majority of his days under the reign of the puffy, cushioned-up running sneaker. But now he is starting to see some of his runners take an interest in the ever-growing barefoot running movement.
Being that I am a barefoot and minimalist runner, I think this is great! But I imagine that Rick might feel he is entering a sort of crossroads. As a running coach, what stance should he take on this whole barefoot thing? How educated does he need to be on the subject? Should he let this paradigm shift inform his way of teaching next year’s runners, or should he stick with what’s always worked in the past?
Even though I am neither a coach, nor a marathoner (well…not yet anyway), I think I know a little bit about where Coach Rick is coming from. I make myself quite visible in the barefoot world, so I have had a lot of friends, family and strangers ask me about barefoot running. Naturally, I am thrilled to pass on my knowledge. But the problem is everyone asks me the same…damn…question.
“Which shoes should I buy?”
These five words perfectly describe the crux of the most damaging problem to the barefoot running movement. We are such a bunch of consumers that the first thing we think about barefoot running is what shoes we should buy. So it doesn’t surprise me even one bit that when a new minimalist runner becomes injured right away, the first thing he blames is…yep, you guessed it, the shoes. What I call “the blaming of the shoes” is what gives the barefoot running movement a bad name, and there’s nothing more irritating than this!
Unfortunately, there is a huge discrepancy between the soaring sales of minimalist running footwear and the education required to safely transition into barefoot footwear. Many runners, especially the experienced ones, think their feet and legs are strong enough to handle anything. They don’t do a lot of research before strapping on a new pair of Vibram FiveFingers or Merrell Road Gloves. They run way too far, way too fast in the minimalist shoes, and they get hurt. And it’s not because the shoes suck. It’s because the runner has weak, atrophied feet and lower legs as a result of wearing shoes that do all the work. And it’s also because they have terrible form.
Now I know that Coach Rick teaches the importance of good form to his runners. I have heard him talk, and I have read his blog. But it’s advice that people widely ignore, and cushioned running shoes make it easy to do so. I’ve seen so many runners out there, barreling around the lake like Frankenstein’s monster. There’s this one particular dude who clobbers the sidewalk with these uproarious footfalls, hunched over like a turtle with his head down. He is wearing the latest marshmallowy Asics with the gel inserts and braces wrapped around his knees, completely oblivious to the fact that I can hear him coming from a quarter mile away. And yet he snickers at me when I glide by with nothing on my feet, like I’m the idiot.
Okay, maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’ve bought the idea that good form is important and you’re curious about the whole barefoot thing. But maybe you’re also skeptical like that guy at the lake, because barefoot running is new and weird and, well…sort of “hippy.” And I’ll admit that some barefoot dudes are a little on the…odd side, but that’s neither here nor there. If I could get one thing through to every runner I come across, it’s that the barefoot running movement actually has very little to do with what is or isn’t on your feet, and everything to do with foot strength and good running form.
Your feet are amazing tools. They are exquisitely built structures, consisting of 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. They are intrinsically perfect. The arch of your foot is built just like the arch of a bridge, to support your weight and transfer energy to your legs. A spring made to propel you forward. No technologically engineered foam or gel can mimic the beauty and strength of the human foot – the only thing that stuff can do is get in the way.
I often ask myself what people were thinking when they devised the first cushioned running shoe. Well, actually I know what they were thinking, I just don’t like that it stuck around for so long. Up until the early 80’s, runners and racers historically wore very thin, non-cushioned racing flats. Once running became more popular among the largely undertrained and unathletic general public, the running shoe changed dramatically. Shoemakers figured that a softer, cushier product would make a newbie runner more comfortable. Well, they were right. We loved them. And the rise of the heel-lifted, foam-filled sneaker began. No special technology or mathematics, no structural testing required. They just…caught on.
And so did the many slew of running injuries that we see on a pretty consistent basis. Plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, ankle sprains, stress fractures, knee pain, shin splints, flat feet, pronation, supination…the list is nauseating. The plain fact is that 90% of all runners get hurt about once per year. That’s right, folks, every year! I strongly believe these injuries have risen so much over the last thirty years because cushioned running shoes have largely allowed us to ignore our crappy running form. No, I’m not even really blaming the shoes. I’m blaming our crappy running form.
Here’s what I have to say about running injuries: whether you’re running barefoot or in Vibrams or in Sauconys, it doesn’t matter. If something hurts (with the obvious exception of acute and overuse injuries), then it’s probably because your running form is bad. Shin splints? Bad form. IT band bothering you? Bad form. Keep spraining your ankles every summer? You have bad form.
And we barefooters get it wrong sometimes, too. Just because we bought a pair of shiny new $100 minimalist running shoes last week doesn’t mean we suddenly have good form. I’ve seen a lot of proud new Vibram runners at races, and 75% of them are still doing it wrong. Correct form takes practice, a lot of it, the learning curve is wide for many of us and there is no instant fix.
So today when a friend asks me what minimalist shoe she should buy, I tell her first to get on the computer and do some research, or spend time with a trainer (or as an absolute last resort, me) who can teach her how to run with good form. Below is part of an article I wrote awhile back for Active.com, which outlined the most important points to learning good form running.
1. Wear lighter shoes.
Bare feet are your best teacher. But since most people aren’t comfortable going totally bare, why not try some lightweight footwear? The important things to look for in a minimalist shoe are:
- No significant lift from the toe to heel (4mm or less) or none at all (often called “zero-drop”)
- Very little to no cushioning
- An extra flexible sole
- Plenty of room for your toes to spread and move
If you absolutely cannot part with your cushioned trainers, that’s okay. You can still improve your running form with these next tips.
2. Stop landing on your heel.
The key to good form is contacting the ground with the front half of your foot first. This is more difficult to do in heavy trainers, but it’s still possible. The exact contact spot varies from person to person. Some land on the ball of their foot (forefoot landing), but most land somewhere in the middle (mid-foot landing).
Your heel should still touch the ground briefly. However, it should not carry a large weight load. Most of your weight should be directly above your mid-foot. As soon as your heel makes contact, your arch and lower leg muscles can gather the spring they need to move your body forward. This way you can land much more lightly and bounce out of each stride rather than pound the ground.
3. Stand up straighter, and shorten your stride.
Remember what your mother told you: don’t slouch. A slumped-over runner wastes energy and allows for over-striding, which means extending the leg so far ahead that the foot lands in front of the body’s center of gravity. Over-striding can lead to a host of problems, joint pain and knee injuries in particular. So keep your back straight, lead with your chest and lean forward only slightly from your ankles.
Shortening the length of your stride and increasing your cadence can make it easier to straighten up and resist over-striding. The average heel-striking runner tends to use longer strides and a cadence of 90 to 120 steps per minute (SPM), but the recommended cadence for optimal mid-foot running is about 180 SPM. That’s three steps per second.
4. Listen to your body.
Switching from a heel-strike to a mid-foot strike is serious business. In the long run, good mid-foot form is easier on your joints and spine and strengthens your ankles, feet and lower legs. But it is a big change for your underused lower leg and foot muscles.
It is important to start slow—even slower than you think. Build mileage gradually and always listen to your body when it says stop. Most knowledgeable barefoot runners recommend starting with no more than 1/8 to 1/4 mile at first, and increasing distance by 10 percent each week. For experienced distance runners, this may seem ludicrous. However, learning a new running form is the equivalent to being a new runner. With that said, every runner is different. The smartest thing you can do is be patient, pay attention to how your body feels and avoid injuries by taking it easy during your transition period.
I hope this post has been helpful in making sense about the difference between buying some new pair of shoes and actually running with good form. The sooner we hold ourselves accountable for learning and maintaining proper running form, the less likely we will be to “blame the shoes.”