Happy St. Patrick's Day!
Every now and then I get bombarded with questions that hover around a common theme. The current trend is the barefoot and minimalist movement. That is, running without shoes (barefoot) or running with a very flexible shoe that offers protection without support (Vibram FiveFingers, VIVOBAREFOOT). It is fascinating to me because at the very same time there is also trend in maximalist shoes (rocker type shoes that remind me of the Moon Boot era, but I digress). And the shoes that run in between minimal and maximal are being left in droves. I have a lot to say about this so please pull up a chair and keep reading and excuse me while I step up on my soap box (barefoot).
Here are just a few of the great questions being asked...

I'd like to transition to FiveFingers but I have a couple of half-marathons coming up on March 27 and April 16. Should I wait until after the April 16 run to try to transition? I'm not sure how long it takes to get used to this type of shoe and the different step. Thanks--Dori
I love my running shoes and I've never had any injuries but want to learn to run barefoot as well. Is this okay and if so, how do I start? Thanks--Jeff
I've develop a stress fracture in my foot and I'm worried it might be related to trying running barefoot. I started slowly with two miles the first week and then progressed from there. I used to run in a very structured running shoe. Thanks--Anna

I learned early on while studying exercise physiology and anatomy that there is no such thing as a bad exercise. However, bad form can elicit a negative response. For example, performing a single leg lunge is an effective exercise to build overall leg strength, balance, and stability, but if you perform it with improper alignment and while holding 50-pound dumbbells, you've just made a useful exercise dangerous and harmful. This is exactly what is happening with the movement to run with less shoe (minimalist) or naked (barefoot). You can go from 0-60 in three seconds in your car, but to make the transition to running with less support is going to require a lot more time.
Barefoot movement is authentic to our bodies, but just not to our culture. Since when did living barefoot become a bad thing and even crazy? My nephew is making the reverse transition to his first pair of shoes from learning to walk barefoot. It's not all that natural for him because he's missing the key ingredient he used in learning to walk in first place--the sensory information he receives from his feet. When your feet are in direct communication with the ground, you move differently and some would argue, more efficiently. You can also see this when you put gloves on a dog's paws (my dog hated this). They can't interpret the ground and are at a total loss as to how to walk or run in them initially (quite funny to watch). We put shoes on kids and dogs to protect their feet/paws from the reality of the real world, which includes concrete, snow, glass, and many other obstacles. Eventually, we adapt and learn to navigate our lives with protection and support and that leads to mindless movement down the road because you don't have to think about every step, you simply plod along. It's very much like wearing a low back support instead of developing core strength to support the spine.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not 100 percent barefoot either but I don't believe it is an all or nothing proposition. There are many runners that have been very successful running barefoot and there are just as many that run better with less shoe or a modern supportive shoe. It doesn't mean running shoes or Vibram FiveFingers are bad. It simply means that when you begin to run with less, it is imperative to understand that the technique (stride) is vastly different and you have to relearn the patterns by starting with the fundamentals. Running with supported shoes promotes a heel strike (not always, but usually) and without shoes promotes a mid- or forefoot landing pattern. Therefore, it's not as simple as taking off your shoes and going out for a run. Making this transition is a lot more taxing on the muscles in your foot, ankle, calf, hamstrings. It isn't bad, but it is different and we've become dependent on the support of the shoes and it takes time to adapt to moving with less under our feet. Try writing a letter with your non-dominant hand and you'll get my point.
Without the support, you automatically (within a few strides) revert to a mid-to-forefoot landing pattern because if you don't, the impact is felt through the heel and it hurts. It is a subconscious and authentic movement pattern that is dependent on the sensory feedback of feeling the ground and the impact forces. As you begin to add layers between your foot and the ground, that feedback goes numb as the cushion is a barrier. Minimalist shoes, (those that have very little protection) offer a subtle transition in terms of support, however unless you learn the sensory patterns you can end up continuing to heel strike with less protection (not good). Finally, contemporary running shoes are made with a beefy heel which encourages a heel strike. All this is to say, if you are keen on making the transition to running with less you have to start with the fundamentals. You can't hit a home run until you learn how to swing the bat and connect with the ball (T-ball). Many runners are swinging for a home run with out the strength and technique it takes to cover the fundamentals. And even when you have the technique down, making the transition activates a series of muscles that have been dormant and supported by the structure of a beefy shoe! Running with less isn't bad, it just takes time to reap the benefits.
Are you still with me? Good, because the really great news is that there is a place for everyone, from runners who want to go barefoot or with less shoe to those who love their contemporary running shoes but want to improve their form. It just takes a few more steps to get there.
Build a strong foundation. Start your journey to less by creating a strong foundation. You can run barefoot all you want and have perfect technique, however if you don't have the strength to support it you will end up injured (think straw house, high winds). Rather than swinging for the fence (running barefoot today), focus on drills to learn how to connect with the ball and hit a single. Start by incorporating exercises into your regular regimen that develop strength, balance and stability. For example, the single leg standing balance. Stand on one foot for 30-60 seconds while the opposite leg is bent at a 90-degree angle (Flamingo). Sounds easy, right? Within seconds you will begin to feel the small stabilizing muscles begin to fire to keep you upright and vertical. Start with shoes on (T-ball) and develop the fundamental strength and then progress to a lighter weight shoe or socks (even a casual shoe with less support i.e. Mary Janes). When that gets easy go barefoot. When you're bragging about that skill to your friends, it's time to stand barefoot on a BOSU, wobble board, or pillow to up the ante. Progress from there to by performing it with your eyes closed. Good, efficient running form is contingent on a strong foundation (core). The stronger you are, the longer you can hold good posture as you run down the road and progressing to going barefoot for strength sets the stage for the next step.
Sprinkle in barefoot drills. Once you've developed foundational strength, add short intervals of running drills. Start with running in place intervals for 30-60 seconds four to six times, keeping your core activated and posture tall, landing lightly and mindfully. Begin with a minimalist shoe and work your way to moving barefoot. You'll begin to move in a more dynamic setting with your new found strength and it is in a safe, predictable environment. It is a small increment in the demands placed on your feet, ankles and muscles and a realistic segue into the barefoot world.  A further progression could be running with high knees in place followed by running short (20- to 30-second) intervals on a treadmill or on a stable, predictable surface (gym, track). Investing a short amount of time in authentic movement like this can earn big dividends on the run and make for a much less turbulent transition (if this is your thing) to the minimalist running world. From here you can choose to use it as a condiment in your recipe or move gracefully into making it an entree. If you do go the barefoot route, it is wise to educate yourself with clinics, training sessions, and books. Listen to your body as it adapts and take it from there. Everybody adapts at different rates. It's also wise to avoid making too many changes at once so if you're training for a demanding event there is a lot of stress being placed on your body and a little of this goes a long way. Tiny steps lead to big changes.
And finally (for those that have endured this long blog), there is no doubt in my mind that wearing less on our feet can strengthen the muscles and support you better as you run. The secret is in understanding that we live in a supported world with shoes and have all of our lives (most of us). Because of this, all those muscles are dependent on that protection and if you take it away too quickly, injuries will happen. It's not a bad thing to move in a direction that requires more from the muscles to stabilize and less from your shoes, but it really needs to be done is a painfully slow (think Flintstones) fashion or injuries will occur. Whether you are in the middle of a training season or running for life, start with the fundamentals, respect the process, and watch in amazement as your body re-learns how to move more authentically again. And that's all I have to say about that...
Happy Trails.
Jenny Hadfield, Co-Author, Marathoning for Mortals and Running for Mortals
Have a question for Coach Jenny? Post it on her Facebook page, on the Ask Coach Jenny Facebook Page or email her at coach@jennyhadfield.com Follow along with her on Twitter and Facebook or "like" the Ask Coach Jenny Facebook page below to ask, learn and win!

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