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Natural Running

natural_runningBy: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

The idea of barefoot running is not new – back in a Running Times magazine issue in July/August 2002, Pete Pfitzinger wrote “You can strengthen your feet and ankles by using them as they were designed to be used.  Take off your shoes and let your feet move on natural surfaces.  When you walk or run barefoot, you strengthen the little muscles in your feet, which, have been sleeping, peacefully in your shoes for years. You also stretch and strengthen your calf muscles and may improve your running form.  The protection provided by your shoes allows you to get away with sloppy running style.  It is very difficult, however, to run barefoot with bad technique and almost impossible to over stride.”

However, true barefoot running can be dangerous and injury causing, say if a runner suffers a large cut to the bottom of his/her feet or if the runner does too much barefoot running too soon and suffers a stress fracture to one of the small bones in the foot.  That’s why Vibram created the fivefinger “second skin” footwear – to protect the skin on the bottom of the foot but still allow the barefoot feel.  Their newest model is the fivefinger Bikila.  This model is named after Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia who won Olympic Gold in the marathon in Rome on September 10, 1960, running 2:15:16.  Did I mention he wasn’t wearing any shoes?

The fivefingers might protect the skin from getting cut up during a run, but it definitely will not prevent minimalist running related injuries associated with doing too much too soon.  Some runners even make the transition to minimal running by making the leap from running is a super running shoe such as the Asics Kayano or Nike Shox, missing the important adaptation phase in between.

Runners need to be smart about incorporating barefoot/minimalist running into their weekly running routine.  The idea behind minimalist footwear is to allow the body to utilize sensory feedback (afferent feedback) from the feet to help you balance, absorb force and move safely and efficiently forward while running.  If you compare running in shoes with a thick heel compared to running barefoot or in the Vibrams, you’ll notice the body self regulates the impact by landing lighter, landing with a different part of the foot (the mid foot) and landing in a different location on the ground, relative to the body’s center of mass (underneath the center as opposed to in front of it).

But what is the best running form?  Danny Abshire and Brian Metzler in their new book called Natural Running explain that natural running teaches runners to run better, more efficiently with fewer injuries.  “We have evolved as heavy heel strikers,” writes Abshire.  “…only because of modern footwear.”  Abshire describes natural running as running with an upright posture, compact arm swing, high cadence with a mid-foot strike under the center of mass.  Basically, runners should be able to run purely, efficiently and uninhibitedly.  Abshire wrote this book because since the 1970s, running shoes have evolved, but the injury rates among runners has been shown to be uninfluenced with the new technologies found in today’s runners.

“Virtually all of America’s top professional and collegiate distance-running coaches – Alberto Salazar, Terrence Mahon, Greg McMillan, Pete Rea, Greg Barker, Vin Lananna, Karen Harvey and Jay Johnson, to name a few – utilize some form of barefoot running or barefoot strength and proprioception drills as a means of improving and maintaining a runner’s form, preparing for the rigors of racing in lightweight racing flats and spikes and ultimately, improving individual running economy to maximize race performance” writes Abshire.  Even the elites do not perform all their runs bare feet.  They’ll wear lower profile shoes (racing flats and track or cross country spikes) more often compared to a recreational runner.  I would consider myself a recreation runner these days since I stopped competing in 2007 and I wear racing flats for most of my runs, but my body and feet are used to wearing low profile running shoes…that’s why I like wearing them!  Most of my runs are in the Mizuno Universe, the lightest racing flat on the market.

Jay Johnson is a coach in Boulder, Colorado of many elite track athletes.  He incorporates barefoot running at the end of track workouts around an artificial turf field.  The pace is super slow and this barefoot trot allows the athletes to cool down and stretch out their feet after a tough practice, but Johnson avoids these trots when it’s too cold, too hot or too wet out.  “We only run barefoot on limited occasions under limited circumstances and, keep in mind, these runners are very fit and very strong,” says Johnson.  Johnson also incorporates stationary barefoot drills such as a single leg squat with the eyes closed to develop strong and nimble feet.  He is also a fan of minimalist footwear (minimal ramp angle from heel to toe with a very low profile) as a method of improving running economy and developing foot intrinsics.  “It’s the intrinsic ability of the foot to do what it is designed to do, which is absorb shock and move over the ground effectively,” Johnson says.

Does this mean you should make the transition to running in minimalist footwear?

Not really…

Miranda Barrett wrote in “If the shoe fits, run with it” (IMPACT Magazine March/April 2011) that comfort is of utmost importance when choosing a running shoe, no matter if you’re looking for a regular trainer or minimalist shoe.  She quotes Dr. Benno Nigg, a researcher at the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab (who I actually saw present at the BC Strength and Conditioning Conference held at Simon Fraser University in the middle of last year) says “the major factors determining injury and injury rate are distance, the intensity and the time in between runs.”  Basically a runner should chose a running shoe that is comfortable – not ground breaking news, just common sense.  Barrett also reports that Nigg doesn’t think there is any advantage to barefoot running; however, Nigg agrees that strengthening the foot’s intrinsic muscles is a priority because they aren’t normally trained when you run in a shoe.

Bottom line:  choose a running shoe that is most comfortable and don’t fall for the barefoot running hype.  To me, running in a low profile shoe, racing flat or minimalist shoe is most comfortable. If you are going to make the transition, make it slow so you don’t aggravate any of your muscles, tendons or ligaments in your lower leg.

Happy running.

Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Definitions Fitness Company in St. John’s, NL. He is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology at Memorial University and specializes in strength training middle-to-long distance runners. Check out www.JKConditioning.com and www.StrongerRunner.com for more information.

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January 17th, 2012

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