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A Scientific Method to Barefoot Running - Explore

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A Scientific Method to Barefoot Running

barefoot runningQuestion: "Is barefoot running for me?"

There's plenty of room for debate when it comes to running shod versus bare. Amidst the hype surrounding barefoot and minimalist running, most runners hesitate to forgo the convenience, comfort, safety and, well, hygienic benefits of good-old-fashioned running shoes. 

But who could resist running au naturel in Autumn? Fallen leaves from maples, poplars, or oaks cushion the trail with a forgiving crunch between your toes, and the ground underfoot doesn't cook your bare soles to medium-well, the way asphalt does on triple-digit summer days.

Not all of us can renounce our shoes and run like the Tarahumara. Conduct your own experiment and follow these tips to see whether or not barefoot running is the right fit for you. 

Hypothesis: Predict what results you will see in your running ability from running barefoot. A team of Harvard researchers led by Dr. Daniel Lieberman hypothesized that humans, before the advent of the running shoe, landed more frequently on the forefoot than the heel. "We suspect," states the research team's website, "that forefoot striking was most common." They conducted a wealth of experiments to test the merits of barefoot running over shod running — particularly the biomechanics of various runners' footstrike, from Harvard students to Kenyan school children. The evidence, though anecdotal, favors barefoot or minimalist running shoes as a means of low-impact and foot strength-building running.

Procedure: Check your form in the mirror. To get a feel for what's comfortable, hop on one foot. You should feel the forefoot or mid-foot strike the ground when you land.  The calf and achilles muscles should cushion the weight of your footfall. Also, check out this video of a runner mid-stride: 


Control: "The best way to learn good form," says Dr. Lieberman, "is to run on a smooth, hard surface, not a soft surface like a beach." The reason, he says, is because hard surfaces teach the body to run gently. Just be sure to watch your step! Some seasoned barefoot runners, like 21st century Johnny Appleseed Henry Sanchez Pardo, have formed kevlar-like calluses over their feet and can withstand the roughest trails and most grueling distances. Novice barefoot runners, however, are still thin-skinned, and stepping on something sharp can easily be discouraging. Scan the ground ten yards ahead of you for any broken glass, sharp stones, crab grass, nettle or garbage. Your feet will toughen up and thank you for it. 

Experiment: Without shoes, try running a manageable distance, 0.25% of your normal weekly mileage. For example, runners who average 20 miles a week should only run a half mile. If you're a little more competitive and log 80 miles a week, try running 2 miles barefoot.

Analysis: After two weeks, your body may feel faster, your medial arch and achilles stronger, and your feet tougher. If you want to start training consistently with barefoot running, you must listen closely to your body. Don't be a hero!  Pay attention to any abnormal muscle aches, sharp pains in the knees or feet. The point of running barefoot is to avoid the injuries most commonly associated with shoes, like shin splints and tibial stress fractures. If your goal is to consistently run barefoot, then make staying injury-free the top priority. Treat your feet. Wash them, ice them, bandage them, massage them as needed. 

Conclusion: Ask yourself, "Is barefoot running right for me?" With these steps in mind, it's important to understand: Barefoot running is risky business. In paleolithic times, early man didn't have to worry about stepping on broken glass, hypodermic needles, or rusty nails. In other words — run barefoot at your own risk, please. 

 --Image via iStockPhoto/spwidoff

--Video via Youtube/Skeletonheb

Scott Donahue is an intern at Sierra. He was a high school freshman in Mr. Hancock's English class when he first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Now, he's currently working on a graduate thesis composed of travel essays. Topics include substitute teaching kindergartners in Nepal, drinking rice beer with a Tibetan porter, and running a marathon from Everest Base Camp. 


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