Guest post by Adam Janke, Owner & Certified Pedorthist, at Active Orthopaedic Inc.
The Barefoot Movement
There is no hotter or more controversial topic right now in foot health, running, and footwear than the barefoot or minimalist shoe debate. Should we all toss out our fancy gel, air or “stable” running shoes, insoles and orthotics and revert to the perfect simplicity of our own two feet? Should we forget the basic biomechanical concepts (dare I say facts?) of over or under-pronation? Is the multi-billion dollar running shoe industry selling us nothing but smoke and mirrors? The minimalist or barefoot movement and many of its proponents would have you believe yes to all of the above. Unfortunately, the answer like so many issues involving the human body is: it depends.
Without question one of the most common questions I get asked in my clinic these days by runners, triathletes or anyone who has battled a recurring injury is “What do you think about those barefoot shoes or barefoot running?” and “Should I or could I do it?” As long as a person does not present with some of the contraindications to minimalism or barefooting (such as diabetes), my answer is always the same: The concept of minimizing or even entirely removing what’s under our feet to tap into our natural and evolutionarily tested ability to move and run and more specifically move and run well based on what we currently know has some real merit…but you have to be careful.
As is too often the case in the Type-A personality driven running, health and fitness market there are a lot of absolutes thrown around. On this topic in particular I have read countless articles on why a person should convert to a shoeless existence but there is considerably less how to information in the marketplace outside of books and education on running form. And in my opinion, there is even less well-informed guidance on how to go about the process of transitioning yourself to a minimal shoe or if so desired shoeless style of running, walking or other activity. In this article I hope to help those of you whom are interested in this topic sift through all the information out there and make well informed decisions on the right barefoot path for you.
Now, I would like to clear the air and proudly say that I own and regularly wear and run in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and I
unequivocally love them. I also own and run or at the very least have ran in a variety of the other barefoot or minimalist options on the market as well. And depending on how my body feels on any given day I will wear a variety of minimal footwear over the course of a week. I am a definite believer in what we’ll call the Lieberman Theory: that the human foot and body over millions of years of evolution and natural selection evolved into the perfect tool for doing what we are hardwired to do, run, walk, and hike long distances over a variety of terrain with relative ease with little to no footwear on our feet. Upright bi-pedal movement is after all one of the defining human characteristics. But despite what a lot of the barefoot community would have you believe, for the majority of the population it is not a matter of simply throwing your shoes out the window or strapping the Five Fingers on and your problems are solved.
This point specifically is where I take issue with a lot of the information currently available on minimalist or barefoot activities. If we are going to use the evolutionary argument as the primary basis for the merits of barefoot/minimalist activity we also must recognize that in the majority of shoe-wearing and desk working societies we have in many ways “de-volved” our feet and our body’s natural abilities.
So for a person to start barefoot running, walking or any minimalist activity without carefully assessing and addressing their individual body from the standpoint of their work environment, lifestyle, injury history and potential contraindications, is in my opinion a recipe for disaster. I’d like to be clear here. I am not suggesting that a person should not attempt to move towards a minimal shoe or barefoot existence. I am a big believer in doing so. I am suggesting that anyone interested in this needs to do so intelligently and carefully and in most cases with some professional guidance to ensure a quick and easy transition.
Where do I start? Transitioning to Barefoot…
So where to start? The first thing you have to realize is that there is no quick fix. To give your body and feet the chance to adapt and change to what will be a very different movement pattern (biomechanics) from what you’re used to takes time, discipline and commitment. You will be hard pressed to make your transition successful by depending on a “barefoot” or minimalist shoe alone. There is no doubt that certain shoes will absolutely help you transition more easily and give you the feedback you need to constantly be aware of how you’re moving, but for many people minimalist or barefoot shoes will only be one of the essential pieces in the puzzle. This spring especially will see a significant increase in the number of shoe options available in this realm so if you’re serious about transforming your biomechanics finding a shoe that works for you is paramount. But this can be a difficult task.
Getting Your Feet Assessed by a Professional
As a foot practitioner I am biased but I feel it’s essential that a person get their feet assessed before starting any minimalist or barefoot activity. Ideally you should try to find a sports oriented pedorthist, podiatrist or chiropodist in your area that is familiar with the concept of minimalism and/or barefooting. There are also many chiropractors, physiotherapists, massage therapists, and trainers that are very foot focused so do your research on practitioners in your area and if necessary call the clinic or office and ask about the person in question.
The idea of minimalism or barefooting should not be news to them! They should offer gait analysis, a thorough foot/lower limb and lumbopelvic examination and be familiar with the various minimal shoes on the market. A good knowledge of running form is also very important and this person should be able to help you decide on the best shoe (or lack thereof) for your individual needs and will likely know the best stores to send you to for selection and advice.
Having your feet and lower limbs assessed will give you absolutely essential information such as strengths and weaknesses, joint or soft-tissue restrictions, and anatomical and other biomechanical concerns that could get in the way of your return to natural biomechanics. And there are without a doubt a few contraindications to going truly barefoot (such as hallux valgus or diabetes) and these concerns must be identified so a person does not get hurt trying to do something their body simply is not capable of.
The information and guidance you receive here will speed your transition, give you a plan of action and only enhance the experience for you. When it comes time to select a shoe, spend the time necessary to find a store that carries a good selection of minimalist footwear and try a variety of the shoes on (again the right foot practitioner will know where to send you).
Minimalist / Barefoot Alternative Shoes
Most minimalist/barefoot shoes will give you sensory feedback from your feet that you haven’t felt in a long time so testing out as many options as possible will allow you to make the best choice for your feet. You should also do your research on the concept of “zero heel drop” as it will allow you to understand the thinking behind minimalism and barefooting, why it’s so beneficial for so many people and help you make solid footwear decisions from here on out. And one last point on footwear, if you’re going to use a minimalist or barefoot shoe for activity it will help you immensely to find a casual or daily shoe that also incorporates the “zero heel drop” concept. There will be more and more options in the casual realm coming out over the course of 2011 but right now Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot line has the best selection of “work friendly” casual shoes based on the minimalist philosophy.
Walk Before You Run
Assuming your feet have been cleared, your next step should be to simply get outside and let your feet feel and interact with the ground. Go for a walk or hike and re-connect with your feet by actually going barefoot. Turn on the nerve endings that have been dormant for years and let the feedback from your feet guide your progress. Choose your walking surface carefully and ideally start on a natural surface like a park, field or trail but even walking on concrete or pavement can be an awakening experience. The key at the beginning is to have fun and start slowly. Let your feet and body re-learn the biomechanics that barefoot movement entails and don’t force it. Even if you already have strong “neutral” feet at the very least your skin will not be accustomed to the friction, pressures and exposure that going barefoot involves. One of the leading authorities in this field, Michael Sandler (www.runbare.com), refers to the skin on his feet as his barefoot “coach” since the skin will always break down (blisters, cuts, etc.) before a person can harm themselves intrinsically (muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments, stress fractures, etc.) This is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve come across in the barefooting/minimalist world. If your plan is to run or play a sport in the Vibram Five Fingers, walking or hiking barefoot is a great intro to the movement and muscle use required for effective barefoot or minimalist running. To use an age-old phrase, you have to walk before you can run.
Next on the transition plan list is a general postural/orthopaedic/biomechanical exam. This will likely be with a physiotherapist, chiropractor, massage therapist or osteopath and should be an exam truly focused on whole body movement and not on “symptom chasing”. Again, do your research and ask questions. Make sure your intentions are clear so the practitioner knows what they are working with and you know you have someone comfortable with minimalism or barefooting. This step is absolutely vital if a person is planning on doing any form of higher output activity such as running or other endurance sport where volume and repetitions are at the higher end of the scale.
Even, you if are not planning on running but would like to hike longer distances this will be essential. If a person wants to run with barefoot or “natural” form and have been heel striking or running in non-minimalist shoes with poor form then there is a strong likelihood that the lower limbs, hips, pelvis, spine, and neck have been affected by that negative biomechanical feedback. Throw in working at a desk 40 plus hours a week like many people do and there are a lot of long-standing postural and movement tendencies residing in the body that won’t just disappear overnight. These biomechanical issues can make it very difficult to learn and adopt the type of biomechanics necessary to be a comfortable, happy and injury free minimalist or barefooter.
If you know where your body is imbalanced, misaligned, weak, restricted or prone to problems you can address these concerns right out of the gate and set yourself up for an easier transition. At this stage some treatment is likely going to be necessary but it is money well spent in the grand scheme of getting your body ready and able to transition easily and smoothly into your new biomechanics.
“Do It Yourself” Barefoot Care
The next step is an extension of both the foot and general body analysis and that’s self-care or self-management. If you are planning on going minimalist or barefoot, now is the time to invest in some “home-massage” tools and products.
These days there are literally hundreds of different products available so it’s a good idea to discuss the various options with the practitioners you’ve seen as they will have a good idea as to what product(s) are best for you. The main benefit with these products is they let you treat yourself on a regular and consistent basis. Most of us can’t afford the time or money to get to a physiotherapist, chiropractor, massage therapist or osteopath on a regular enough basis so these tools help you manage your own body. Especially when you’re going through the fairly significant biomechanical changes that come from minimalism and barefooting, your whole neuromuscular and fascial system will not be used to this style of movement and will need regular maintenance to keep you moving well and injury free.
I have yet to see a person (especially if they’re even remotely active) in my clinic who wouldn’t benefit from some form of self-care/self-massage work so I can say with total confidence that this is a given in anyone’s minimalist or barefoot plan. Using the knowledge you’ve gained from the foot assessment and postural/biomechanical assessment you will know where you need to focus your self-care time and can stay on top of these areas as you learn and adopt the your new biomechanics.
As your body becomes accustomed to a more natural walking/running style you will likely need to do considerably less self-care but in the early stages regular self-treatment can mean the difference between success and frustration.
The next step is primarily for runners or others looking to go minimal for some other sport where running in some shape or form is involved, so if you’re not planning on running this section won’t apply. There is still lots of debate on the whole topic of minimalism or barefooting in terms of its effect on the musculoskeletal health of the body and its long-term benefits (or lack thereof) and more and more research is being geared towards figuring out why exactly there seem to be so many positive effects associated with this style of running and movement.
The most consistent and common denominator though is the effect on running form. There is little debate whether minimalist shoes or barefooting especially have a generally positive effect on running form and this is a crucial piece of the puzzle if a person is planning on running, especially longer distances (over 10km/6 miles). I mentioned earlier that depending on the “quick fix” or “magic pill” of a shoe or your bare feet alone to teach you how to run efficiently and effectively in my opinion is a recipe for frustration. The right minimalist shoe or the sensory feedback from your own bare feet is without question essential to adopting a more natural running form but it is a gross oversimplification to think that shoes or bare feet alone will fix your biomechanics.
The concept of running form and more importantly efficient and non-injurious running form is based on whole-body kinematics and there are almost always restrictions or limitations in the upper parts of the body (hips, pelvis, spine, shoulders) when a person has been running with a heel-striking gait for most of their life. As I also mentioned earlier, if a person comes from a desk working background there are certainly postural and biomechanical limitations present in their body that will negatively affect their ability to learn to run with a barefoot or minimalist style. Finding a practitioner or coach that can teach you the various elements (and there are many!) of running with natural form and help you identify limitations in your body that are impeding that process is key to your transition. Now, some of you may be wondering why this is not one of the first steps you should take when deciding to explore the barefoot/minimalist realm?
Most running form coaching is based on just that, efficient running form. But in my experience, one of the vital missing elements in the variety of methods taught is a true biomechanical “pre-screening” of a person’s capability to adopt that new style of running. Something as simple as poor or limited trunk flexion or hip extension (something I have been assessed as having) can negatively affect your body’s ability to successfully learn a new running style. And until the biomechanical root cause of this limitation is addressed you will have a hard time truly learning to run more efficiently. Going to a form class or course and repetitively hammering away at the new movement pattern with an underlying limitation present in your body only leads to further biomechanical compensation.
Quite simply, the laws of physics dictate that poor movement begets poor movement and overcompensation in a different segment of the moving body. This is why I recommend having your feet and total body biomechanics assessed prior to beginning a running form class or program. Your success and ultimately your happiness literally depend on your body being able to re-learn how to run naturally and adopt a new movement pattern.
Years of heel-striking and desk work and their consequent biomechanical effects do not disappear in a short period of time or with an 8 week form program. I would like to be very clear on this point. Running form is essential, likely the essential element in learning how to move well but the timing of when you pursue coaching, teaching or reading and self-practice in running form is crucial to your success.
There are quite a few different running form “techniques” taught these days (Chi, Pose, Natural Running, Evolution Running to name just a few) and they all have their own merits, but the key is to find one that works for your body, your fitness level and your running or activity goals and to insure that your body is able to move properly within the given form guidelines.
The most important thing to remember when embarking on your barefoot or minimalist journey is that no two feet are the same and everyone will have different responses to going barefoot or at the very least minimal with their footwear. Listen to what your feet and body tell you and enjoy yourself. I have yet to hear of a person that has tried to go barefoot or minimalist intelligently and carefully not absolutely love it, so as long as you start slowly and work your way up there are very few reasons why you cannot “go bare”. Don’t be afraid to seek professional advice on this topic as there are more and more practitioners that believe in the benefits of natural biomechanics and will help you transition into this realm.
So in closing be safe, do your research, talk to other barefooters/minimalists, find the right footwear (if any!) and enjoy what will almost certainly be a revelation for your body and your biomechanics.