Or more precisely: why I run in what is called minimalist footwear when I'm running on roads and trails, and why I run barefoot on my treadmill at home.
As in all articles or essays expounding the virtues of barefoot or minimalist footwear running, it's my duty to explain that the transition from traditional trainers to minimalist shoes didn't happen overnight for me, and to suggest to someone reading this now that if you want to switch from traditional running shoes to minimalist shoes or to barefoot running, please make the transition slowly.
previous entry, I wrote in more detail about this transition.
Before I switched to minimalist footwear, it was common for me to experience some pain--or at least, discomfort--during runs. Even short runs of just a few miles. This would generally come in the form of lower back or hip pain. And during my long runs, I would inevitably reach a point where my feet hurt so much that I couldn't continue running. Sometimes my ankles and knees would join in the chorus of pain as well. Near the end of those long runs, the muscles in my legs weren't tired; I wasn't lacking energy. And I was motivated and mentally ready to go. My feet had simply fatigued and become useless, and had begun blasting my brain with pain signals. There was, it seemed quite literally, no spring left in my step.
I understand that the pain and fatigue I experienced were caused by my relative weakness and having been under-trained, and from running with poor form. But if being under-trained and relatively weak (for the number of miles I tried to run at the time) were the intermediate causes of my running pain, then I think that running in traditional trainers was the root cause underlying both of those. Meaning: since traditional trainers are so heavily cushioned and have such a high heel, it was impossible for me to run with good form in them. And because it was impossible for me to run with good form, I was left to run with poor form, which caused pain and fatigue, which prohibited the volume of running required to build strength and endurance. It was a vicious cycle. A catch-22.
Running in minimalist footwear allowed me to break the cycle of poor form and painful running. For me, it started with better form.
So what is proper running form? Read any running forum and you'll quickly see that there are a lot of contradictory opinions about what proper form means (or if there is such a thing at all), and not just from recreational runners. Performance athletes and coaches whose reputations and achievements precede them chime in as well. Some of the discourse can get quite heated. That said, what has worked for me, and what I'm going to consider proper form--or if not proper, then at least better--is running in what is called the barefoot style.
Some key elements of the barefoot style which set it apart from running in traditional trainers are the mid-foot strike, the expansion and contraction of the Achilles tendon, the shortening of the stride and quickening of the cadence, and the general mobility of the foot and the development of muscles, ligaments and tendons that result from the application of body parts that are essentially immobilized in traditional running shoes.
Biomechanics of Foot Strikes study, the team found that runners who land on the fore- or mid-foot do not generate the large spike of transient impact force when the foot hits the ground. Running in traditional trainers has the effect, for many people--and I was one of them--of promoting a heel strike with the ground. For one thing, the high heel of the running shoe is closer to the ground than the rest of the shoe. For another, the raised heel compresses the Achilles tendon, preventing it from operating as an effective spring to absorb shock, leaving the cushioned heel of the shoe as the default shock absorber. Also, the high heel is heavily cushioned, allowing a heel strike to feel comfortable (at least, during short runs, before fatigue can set in), where it otherwise wouldn't. Just imagine running barefoot and slamming down on your heels: it hurts just thinking about it! Yet, because of how traditional running shoes are built, many people--this probably includes most recreational runners--land on their heels and count on the cushioning of the shoe to absorb the shock from hitting the ground.
The mid-foot strike aspect of the barefoot style of running is covered in some detail in McDougall's Born To Run, which I recommend to anyone who hasn't read it, especially anyone looking for a new perspective on distance running.
In addition to the change in foot strike from a heel strike to a mid-foot strike, there are several other changes in my form and my body that I noticed once I switched from traditional to minimalist footwear. The arch of my foot rose quite a bit and became significantly stronger. Various muscles and ligaments in my foot and ankle seemed to develop out of nowhere. My calves adapted quickly, getting bigger and stronger after some initial strain from the effort of being marshaled to greater use. My stride shortened, with each footfall landing underneath my body, as opposed to out in front of me, knee stiffened and straight, just before slamming down on my heel (and sending that shock up to the stiffened knee). With the shorter stride came a quicker cadence, and less commitment to each step, meaning that when I misstep, such as start to trip on an uneven piece of ground or step on an angular rock that pokes the bottom of my foot, I am able to lift up my foot and never fully commit to the step. Thus, I don't end up tripping on the obstacle or hurting myself by stepping down with full force onto the rock.
And finally: the Achilles tendon. When I started running barefoot, I began to strike the ground mid-foot. The instant after my foot struck the ground, my Achilles tendon would expand (fully, which it could not do in traditional, high-heeled running shoes) until my heel came into contact the ground. Then, as my foot began to lift for the next step, the elastic energy captured in my Achilles tendon got released, like a spring coming uncompressed, and thus helped to propel my leg upward. This entire system of shock absorption and energy capture and release is completely missing for (virtually all) runners who wear traditional trainers, partly because they land on their heels, and partly because the range of motion of the tendon is restricted from the high heel itself. On the first steep uphill section of the first hill-intensive course I ran after I switched to minimalist shoes, I noticed a dramatic change in my uphill running technique, and the ease with which I climbed. My heels never touched the ground, and I could sense the elastic energy aiding my propulsion: I was using less muscle power per step. Running had literally become easier! And of course, there is another, even more important benefit of using your natural shock absorption system: less impact force is put upon the ankles, knees and hips. The usual running injuries and maladies that so many runners take for granted are not pre-ordained: it's just an issue of running form.
As of this writing, I've run about 750 miles either barefoot or in minimalist shoes. It breaks down like this: the bulk of the miles have been in Mizuno Wave Universe 3s on roads, a small fraction has been in New Balance MT101s on desert trails, and another small fraction has been completely barefoot on my treadmill.
Posted by Joel Dalley on 2011-08-29 20:08:54.
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