Please read the subsequent related posts Second thought on barefoot racing and Gone with the wind? (links are in the Update at the bottom of this page) prior to following any perceived advice from the reading of this article.
A barefoot running technique might be slightly alien to most of us, but if you introduce it gradually, then you could benefit by having fewer injuries and improved performance. So why is that?
We evolved to run or walk in bare feet, and each running stride ended with the front or ball of the foot striking the ground first (forefoot strike). However, a typical long distance running technique nowadays involves the heel striking the ground first (rearfoot strike), since the vast majority of us wear a shoe with a raised and cushioned heel. ie. a ‘heel strike running shoe’.
I have long assumed that cushioning in the heel and the shoe as a whole is a good thing for injury prevention, especially when running on what may be considered unnaturally hard surfaces such as tarmac and concrete. However, research has shown (see link below) that the opposite is perhaps true, and that barefoot or forefoot strike running shoes could lead to less injuries, as the runner naturally adopts a footstrike which creates less reaction force from the ground.
So order the barefoot shoes, throw away your old trainers and get on with it. Not quite. It takes time to readjust to the barefoot style, so take it slowly. First of all, if you don’t already do so, throw away the slippers and always walk around barefoot or in socks at home. Then, when you get your barefoot shoes, wear them when out walking and for everyday use (go to work in them if that is acceptable). Do this for a couple of weeks, and then build up the running steadily. I started out by jogging/walking on grass for about twenty minutes and built up my mileage and reduced the walking spells very gradually (this suited me as I was recovering from injury anyway).
I have been running almost exclusively in my barefoot shoes for over three months now. I did a few runs in my old heel strike running shoes as I was working on the assumption that it would perhaps be taking it too far to run a half marathon and then a marathon in barefoot shoes on the road. But it didn’t feel right, having got used to the forefoot running technique (in contrast, running in bare feet always felt good to me, even when I rarely did so). I have since researched further and have been given reason to believe that it might well be safe to aim to complete these races in barefoot shoes. For example, a number of top British runners in the 1960s, inspired by the great Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s triumph in the Rome Olympic Marathon, regularly raced barefoot on the track and cross country. One of them, Ron Hill, even ran and won the Beverly Marathon, on the road, unshod. I’m not suggesting that this is something I would want to emulate, and even the great African runners of recent years don’t actually race barefoot as far as I am aware, but having the added protection of barefoot shoes is a different matter.
With this in mind, and a half marathon scheduled in three weeks, I am gradually increasing my road mileage (I normally try to avoid the roads – see my post on What surfaces should I train on?). A few days ago, I completed a steady run of just over an hour on the road with no obvious ill effects, and as my half marathon pb is just over an hour and a half, then I’m hopefully already two thirds of the way there in terms of time on the road. A couple of days later I successfully completed a tempo run of about 2 miles on tarmac, again wearing my barefoot shoes, so half marathon race pace shouldn’t be an issue either. We will see how I get on, and if I come through the half marathon unscathed, then I will plan to do likewise in the full marathon, which is two months later. Before then, I will be running a (most likely very muddy) cross country race next weekend, and will be wearing my new spikes, which should be fine as they have a low heel, not unlike barefoot shoes, and I have worn them in already. I wouldn’t consider my barefoot shoes in these conditions, as the grip isn’t that good, and I have had a few slips when running off road in wet conditions.
My experiment with barefoot running shoes is yet to be completed, and my performances over the next three months should tell me more. But the evidence so far looks encouraging in terms of injury prevention, as this has been a decent injury free spell for me (notwithstanding my very recent encounter with a couple of spaniels – see my post Dogged by bad luck?).
Update – read my recent posts Second thoughts on barefoot racing? which explains why I am probably going to make a compromise on my intention to race the half marathon and marathon in barefoot shoes. The later post Gone with the wind? explains how I actually ran the half marathon (sort of) in minimalist shoes and this experience made up my mind that it would not be wise to wear them for the full marathon.