A fantastic story just came out on NPR about the impact of running in shoes vs. running without them.

Something I’ve claimed for years, based on my own experience running barefoot and also from working with runners, is that shoes causes more impact on your body than leaving them behind.  Running in your birthday shoes lowers the impact on your body simply because it forces us to improve our alignment to avoid pain.  Very quickly our alignment and running posture improves from the simple act of trying to avoid blisters and hard landings.  Getting blisters running, while a painful annoying experience, actually help to tell you if you’re moving with too much effort!

Barefoot running works like this… Most people with very little coaching will naturally switch to landing forefoot first when running barefoot.  When we land on the more stable forefoot (rather than the unstable heel) it guides the foot into the center of the arch.   Anytime you land over the center of your arch, the foot acts like a spring.  Something that might not be so obvious is that when we run heel first the leg is extended in front of us and all that straitening keeps the knee from being able to bend and really absorb shock. by landing on the forefoot or the center of the foot the tendency is to land with the knee slightly bent and with the torso directly over the foot.  This keeps us from driving our heels into the ground in front of us like it’s a pole vault we’re throwing ourselves over the top of, hence, less shock.  With the knee bent, the body is also prepared to absorb shock by bending the knee.  With a strait leg, the only thing that can absorb the shock of running is the little padding in your shoe and the curve in your lower back.  Personally, I would rather use the full bend of my knee as a shock absorber than my low back.

Another thing that isn’t as obvious when you haven’t run barefoot is that the muscles you use are different.  We are adaptable creatures and we can put ourselves to the task of all sorts of horrible postural imbalances if they serve our purpose, but there is a cost.  The muscles that are activated from heel (shoe) running vs toe running (barefoot) are going to be different because you are balancing differently.  If you lean forward your back muscles engage, if you lean back, your belly tones. This should surprise no one.   So not surprisingly, when you land over the center of your foot, it tends to create more balanced muscular tone whether running or walking.  When you walk or run with the weight in your heels it tends to engage the back and outside of the legs disproportionally because you’re swinging the front leg out in front and hooking your heel to bring yourself up and over the leg.  When you move from your center it allowing the leg to go behind you to push you forward and engages the front and back of the legs in a more balanced way.  When the leg goes behind the body it also lengthens the psoas, but this can only happen when we are walking or running over our centers.  In the NPR article the photo of the man running in shoes is pitched forward and he as to be to get his weight over the extended leg. It’s far easier to be centered over a pair of moccasins or barefoot than fancy running sneakers.

Light like a deer… When you are running barefoot you generally want to be light on your feet to avoid impact. The tendency is for the drive of the run to come more from lifting the kneesthan from pushing the foot down.  I’ve discovered from my own experience that this action tends to both strengthen and engage the psoas so much, that pilates exercises I thought I’d never be able to do became effortless after a 15 minute barefoot run.   The opposite is true of running heel first.   I’ve worked with many runners, or former runners who complain of tight hamstrings and painful IT bands as a result ofrunning heel first.

Since it’s winter in New York I wouldn’t recommend going out and trying to run barefoot, but there are some great shoes for simulating the feel of running barefoot like Vivo Barefoots and Vibram Five Fingers.  To really get good feedback on your form though, nothing beats doing a couple minutes around your gym track or on the treadmill unshod.  Just be sure you start out slow and keep it around 5 minutes the first time you give it a try.  Build up slowly.  There’s a lot of adjusting that has to happen if you’ve been running with shoes your whole life.  You wouldn’t go into your first yoga class and try to bring your ankle behind your head.  The same caution applies to running barefoot.