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  • Writer's pictureAndray Voronov

Taking a Step Back: The Hidden Strength in Barefoot Training




Hello, fitness enthusiasts and curious readers! I'm Dr Andray Voronov from Gravity Osteopathy in Narre Warren. Today, I'm going to talk about an intriguing topic that may sound a bit counter-intuitive in our modern world of high-tech sneakers - barefoot training. Recent years have seen a rise in interest in barefoot running and training. For some, it's merely a novel fad or a return to our roots, but there's a compelling body of scientific evidence supporting the myriad of benefits it can offer (Lieberman, et al., 2010). So let's get into it, shall we?

The Barefoot Basics: Gait, Cadence, and Vertical Oscillation Running form matters, whether you're shod or unshod. It becomes even more critical when we lose the cushioning and support of modern footwear. The key factors here are gait, cadence, and vertical oscillation.

Gait refers to your running style, which can be significantly altered by going barefoot. It encourages a forefoot or midfoot strike, which contrasts with the heel strike commonly seen in shod runners (Lieberman, et al., 2010). This adjustment can lower impact forces and potentially reduce the risk of injury.

Cadence, or step frequency, is another critical aspect. Barefoot running naturally promotes a higher cadence, leading to shorter, quicker strides. The result is a reduction in overstriding and potentially harmful impact forces (Heiderscheit et al., 2011).

Vertical oscillation refers to the amount of 'bounce' in your running motion. Lowering your vertical oscillation can lead to a more efficient running form. Research suggests barefoot runners often have less vertical oscillation than their shod counterparts, contributing to better overall performance (Lieberman, et al., 2010).

The Magic of Neural Feedback Without shoes, our feet can fully communicate with the ground, giving us invaluable neural feedback. This feedback lets us adjust our balance, stability, and foot placement - crucial elements in activities such as squatting and deadlifting.

The foot is a marvel of engineering, with more nerve endings per square cm than almost anywhere else in the body (Bovenzi, 2000). When we train barefoot, we stimulate these nerves, leading to better proprioception, balance, and overall movement quality (Rosenbaum & Hennig, 1995). The soles of our shoes can't provide the same level of sensory feedback, which is something to consider.

Toe-Splaying and The Power of Three Ever heard of the 'power of three' in foot stability? It's all about creating three points of contact between your foot and the ground - the heel, the big toe, and the little toe. Splaying, or spreading your toes, can improve stability, balance, and force distribution (Haworth & Vallabhajosula, 2018). This practice isn't just for balance - it can also contribute to a healthier foot by preventing conditions such as bunions and hammertoes, often linked to tight, restrictive footwear (McClanahan & Zerbo, 2019).


From Weak to Peak: Building Foot Strength

When we put our feet in shoes, we limit their movement, and like any other body part that doesn't get exercise, they can become weaker. Conversely, walking or running barefoot can strengthen our feet. A study conducted by Miller et al. (2014) demonstrated that individuals who habitually go barefoot have significantly stronger feet compared to those who typically wear shoes.


Furthermore, strengthening the feet can have a profound impact further up the kinetic chain, benefiting the entire body (Kelly, Beardsley, Hodgson, Carver, & Gill, 2018). When our feet are strong, and the muscles function correctly, we're less likely to suffer from common foot ailments and injuries.


Debunking the Myth: The Arch Support Fallacy

In the modern world, it's often believed that we need supportive shoes, especially if we have 'flat feet' or fallen arches. However, research is increasingly challenging this notion. Your foot's arch is designed to support your body, and by relying on external support, we can potentially weaken our foot's intrinsic musculature (McKeon et al., 2015). Barefoot training encourages the natural function of the arch and can help strengthen these muscles over time.


A Smooth Transition

If you're sold on the concept of barefoot running and want to give it a try, it's crucial to transition gradually. Remember, your body has become accustomed to the support and cushioning of shoes, and you need to give your feet and lower leg muscles time to adapt. Start by incorporating short barefoot walks into your routine, then slowly increase distance and intensity.


When it comes to running, one method often cited is the 10% rule. Start by running just 10% of your usual distance barefoot, then increase this by 10% each week. This method, recommended in Chris McDougall's book 'Born to Run,' is a safe and effective way to transition to barefoot running (McDougall, 2009).


When ever I think about transitioning from shoes to barefoot (especially when it comes to running) , I'm always drawn to this excerpt from the same book.

“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that's all you get, that's not so bad. Then work on light. Make it efforthless, like you don't give a shit how high the hill is or how far you've got to go. When you've practiced that so long, that you forget you're practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won't have to worry about the last one - you get those three, and you'll be fast.”


Transitioning advice from Vivobarefoot


1. Take it Slow: The key to transitioning to barefoot exercise is to start slow. You’ve been wearing shoes for most of your life, and your feet need time to re-acclimate to being barefoot. Start by spending more time without shoes in your daily routine. Walk barefoot around your house, in your backyard, or at the park.


2. Strengthen Your Feet: One major aspect of transitioning to barefoot exercise is strengthening your feet. Shoes often do the work that your feet should be doing, which can lead to weaker foot muscles. Try exercises that target the feet, like toe spreads (spreading your toes apart and then bringing them back together), or toe curls (curling your toes like you're trying to pick something up off the ground).


3. Work on Your Balance: Balancing exercises are also crucial in the transition to barefoot exercise. One simple way to improve your balance is to stand on one foot. This engages the small muscles in your feet and ankles that are crucial for balance.


4. Learn to Land: When you're barefoot, it's important to adjust your stride to a forefoot or midfoot strike, rather than a heel strike. This helps to reduce impact and engage the foot's natural shock-absorbing mechanism.


5. Get the Right Equipment: If you're not ready to go fully barefoot just yet, consider getting minimalist shoes. They offer some protection while still allowing your feet to move naturally. VivoBarefoot is one company that offers a wide range of minimalist shoes.


6. Listen to Your Body: This is perhaps the most important advice. If you start to experience pain or discomfort, take it as a sign that you need to slow down your transition. Remember, it's not a race, and everyone transitions at a different pace.


Conclusion

In conclusion, barefoot running and training can provide a wealth of benefits, from improving your running form and efficiency to enhancing balance and foot strength. If you're intrigued and considering giving barefoot training a go, remember to transition gradually and listen to your body. If you need more guidance or have any concerns, consider booking an appointment with a professional, such as an osteopath, to ensure a safe transition.


FAQs

1. Is it safe to start barefoot running if I have flat feet? While individuals with flat feet can safely transition to barefoot running, it's crucial to do so gradually and listen to your body. If you experience discomfort, it's wise to seek advice from a healthcare professional, like an osteopath, to help manage the transition (McKeon et al., 2015).


2. How do I know if I'm overdoing it with barefoot running? Signs that you may be pushing too hard can include persistent soreness or discomfort, new or worsening pain, or blisters. Remember, your feet need time to adapt to the new stresses barefoot running presents, and a slow, measured approach is best (McDougall, 2009).


3. Can I do all of my workouts barefoot? It depends on the type of workouts you're doing. Weightlifting, yoga, Pilates, and other low-impact activities can often be performed barefoot, but high-impact activities may require more caution. As with running, always transition gradually and seek professional advice if needed.


4. Do I need to wear special 'barefoot' shoes? While barefoot shoes can provide some of the benefits of barefoot running while offering some protection, they're not essential. They can be a useful transition tool for some people, but others may prefer to run truly barefoot or use minimalist shoes (Lieberman et al., 2010).


5. Can I run barefoot on any surface? While you can technically run barefoot on any surface, it's best to start on soft, even surfaces like grass or a running track. As your feet become more adapted, you can start introducing more challenging surfaces.


6. What if I step on something sharp while running barefoot? This is a valid concern, and it's why you should always check your running route for hazards before starting. Over time, you'll also develop thicker, tougher skin on your feet, which can help protect against minor obstacles. What I've found personally is that as I got better at barefoot running outdoors, the nerves in my feet got better at sensing potential dangers, such as rocks and twigs. I would still step on them occasionally, but I would feel it and it's as if my foot would mould around the object, which wouldn't hurt as much. This is purely anecdotal though.



References

McDougall, C. (2009). Born to Run. Vintage.

Lieberman, D. E., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W. A., Daoud, A. I., D’Andrea, S., Davis, I. S., ... & Pitsiladis, Y. (2010). Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature, 463(7280), 531-535.

Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(2), 296.

Bovenzi, M. (2000). Exposure-response relationship in the hand-arm vibration syndrome: an overview of current epidemiology research. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 73(8), 509-519.

*Rosenbaum, D., & Hennig, E. M. (1995). The influence of stretching and warm-up exercises on Achilles



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