An opinion piece by one of our in-store foot educators, Liam McLeod.
I've been running barefoot for a bit over a year now. Originally, (before I started working with Sole Mechanics) I discovered minimalist shoes because I had shin splints and couldn't run more than a couple of kilometres. I'd heard a few people discuss barefoot running and how it could help strengthen the small intrinsic muscles in your feet to improve your bodies natural alignment. So I gave it a shot.
Amazingly, I ran pain-free as soon as I put them on, thinking my problem was solved I did four days of way too much running. It turns out I had a long road ahead of me. Shortly after my four-day stint, my feet were sore, swollen, and on the verge of stress fractures. It was a painful lesson to learn, but from then on, I realised I'd have to slowly build up the muscles in my feet - which had essentially been weakened my whole life through wearing cushioned, supportive shoes.
After resting my severely swollen feet for a week I adopted a more responsible approach which was to walk in them first and slowly build up to running. Even though this would have meant at least a month without running for me it would reduce the risk of any overuse injury significantly.
The other important factor in running to help reduce injury is technique. I see so many people today that run incorrectly which doesn’t make sense considering we’re a species designed to run. I put a big part of it down to the running shoes we see today. It's not uncommon to see someone running with a big heel strike, caused by over-striding and an excessive forward lean to counteract this improper step. Having shoes with a cushioned heel allows you to do this by blocking any pain you would naturally feel without it. Unfortunately, this affects the running mechanics of the body and is a good explanation for the massive injury rates seen in running.
As a former competitive swimmer, one thing I understand is the importance of technique, so naturally, I keep it at the forefront of my mind. Starting I just tried to think about being easy, light, and smooth, these words might be familiar to anyone who has read the book Born To Run (written by Christopher McDougall).
What worked for me was concentrating on one body part at a time starting with my feet, since they help align the rest of your body and are the only thing making contact with the ground. For the first few weeks, my main focus was just on my foot placement, trying to get a consistent foot strike which felt strong, sustainable, and powerful. Once I felt comfortable with my foot strike I moved up to improve my knee drive (focusing on driving the knee forward with each stride), this helps to pick your feet up and land beneath your centre of mass which is ideal for running efficiency.
From there I kept moving up the body to my hips trying to not have too much of an anterior pelvic tilt (don’t let the hips roll forward, maintain a strong core). It might sound boring but body position is essential for the correct technique because this is where you generate forward momentum, it turns running into a controlled, continuous fall which is then caught by your next step. What helped me with this was to visually lead with the heart, this helps create correct posture from the upper body and makes the forward lean feel natural. Once you have all these aspects nailed down the rest of your body should move in sequence.
The last thing to mention would be the use of the posterior chain, which involves the muscles through the back of the legs, hips, and lower back. Most people are very front dominant which overworks the quadriceps and hip flexors. A correct running form will take advantage of our largest muscle, the gluteus maximus, however, most people struggle with this due to underuse and excessive sitting.
Notice how I didn’t talk about the arm swing? I see a lot of people put way too much emphasis on the upper body when other aspects of their running could use work and would provide much greater efficiency and speed.
It is always good to take a step back and think logically, you run with your legs so it’s good to focus on them first. At the end of the day running is a natural movement so if you are doing things right, it should feel good in your body.
The main takeaways from my 15-month journey would be:
1. Listen to your body and don’t overtrain.
2. Make sure form and technique is your main focus.
3. Remember, slight forward lean starting from the ankle, not the hip.
4. Place your foot beneath your body, not in front.
5. Repeat after me “easy, light, smooth”.
6. Most importantly have fun!
During my journey, I felt everything from invincible to cripple and what I learned was that in the end technique really is everything. Take the time to listen to your body and please don't rush things, after all, we want to be doing this for as long as possible and you can't if you're injured.
This was my experience and everyone's will be different, so if you have any question don't be afraid to get in contact with the team at Sole Mechanics, we’d be more than happy to give advice on running and transitioning to minimal footwear. It's what we're passionate about.