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A friend asked me for my opinion on barefoot running, technique and specific shoes. I think that barefoot running is a big and controversial topic (!) so I thought I would post my response on line and get other’s perspective on it!

Here are some of my thoughts: Yes I agree that modern shoe wear is probably to blame for a lot of the foot problems that we now have. But the real problem starts when we started to wear shoes full-time as kids. You would probably know that we should try to let kids run around barefoot as much as possible and for as long as possible so that their foot musculature develops. As soon as we get into ‘stable’ ‘supportive’ shoes our own muscles are no longer required for the role… so we then design and need more supportive shoes to help the unstable foot, and so on…

In as far as our running style being changed due to modern shoes, I’m not so sure. I have not done a lot of reading on this specific topic so the following is just my opinion: I really don’t think that we are actually designed for long distance running. I think that most of our running – from a historical perspective – would tend to be over shorter distances and at higher speeds, ie: warfare, hunting, etc which would favour a style based on the ball of the foot as sprinting does.

However, we know that at slower speeds we do ‘naturally’ heel strike, such as with walking. Also from an anatomical perspective, the foot arches and shape seem to be designed for this function. And to their credit, good shoe manufacturers base their shoe designs on that structure and shape and their understanding of foot bio-mechanics, and try to work ‘with’ it as much as possible. Furthermore, from a clinical perspective we see a number of musculo-skeletal issues from incorrect foot function, especially when sprinters turn to distance running later in life and don’t change their running style! Without going into too much detail we are naturally equipped with a shock absorbing system called the ‘longitudinal sling’, which is based on a chain of structures (ligament, tendons and muscles) designed to absorb shock on heel strike.

In as far as shoes designed to mimic barefoot function, I’m actually a big fan. I am mostly familiar with the popular Nike ‘Free’ range and to some degree with the Vibram Five Fingers range. I like them because they are a great training tool for our foot musculature, but I would be cautious about their application for long distance running due to their decreased shock absorption and the point I made earlier about our running ‘design’. If you wanted to run in them I would then suggest the Nike Free range as they provide more ‘vertical/axial’ cushioning, and I would start with more supportive ones (higher support numbers, ie 7+) and then progress to less support (yes, expensive process I know!).

A great way to start, and this would apply to both types of shoes mentioned is to treat them as a training tool, which is really what they are. As with any training tool, there needs to be an introductory period and then some progressive overload. I would start with just wearing them around the house or gym training, etc, then progress to more hours/walking, and then do some running in them. While there’s people that do big kilometres with them, I would limit that to about 5kms.

Well I hope this adds to an interesting discussion’! I think its a really interesting and important topic. I would love to get some more educated comments on this!

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