In my work as a physical therapist, runners come to me all the time with questions about which running techniques are best. Usually they are struggling with injuries and they’ve heard about the latest, greatest technique on the web or from their running buddy. They’re hoping that if they change their shoes or the way their foot strikes the ground they’ll get rid of that aching hip or knee or ankle… and they’ll run faster, too. They want answers to help them sort through all the strong (and often conflicting) opinions they’ve heard: Should a runner land on the heel, midfoot, or forefoot? And what is all the fuss about barefoot running?
Unfortunately, I have to break it to them that there are no easy answers. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to running. A technique that has been the answer to your running buddy’s prayers might not be suited to your body. If you really want to know which running techniques suit you best, I recommend a full biomechanical assessment of your running and training patterns.
But since the web is rife with opinions about this stuff, I’d like to share thoughts about the current running buzz based on what I’ve seen in my practice. I hope all of you runners out there will find it a useful reference as you continue to learn more about running.
What is it?
Barefoot running has become popular over the past few years and has been the focus of many books, articles, and blogs. It involves running shoeless or wearing socks that are like rubber foot covers (such as Vibram Five Fingers) to protect the soles from rough surfaces.
Proponents of barefoot running often describe it as a more natural way to run. They believe that by running barefoot you can “sense” what is happening when your foot touches the ground, which forces you to be more gentle and land more lightly. By running this way, the idea is that you can reduce the incidence of plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, or other injuries.
To a certain extent, research corroborates this: When you run without the cushion of sneakers, it’s painful to strike the ground with your heel first, so most of you naturally land with more weight on the mid-foot or forefoot, which can reduce the impact that is absorbed through the knee and hip.
So by now you may be thinking, ‘Why yes, barefoot running must be something I should strive for”, right? Well, maybe. Just because you can run barefoot does not mean that you should run barefoot. It doesn’t work well for everyone.
If you have grown up wearing shoes and you wear shoes all day, every day at work, you can’t expect to take your shoes off and start running without putting in time and energy into training the feet and lower body. And even when you do train for it, there are certain skeletal structures that are not meant to absorb the shock of the ground without the cushioning that shoes provide. For example, bow legged runners benefit from having shoes for cushioning and to prevent them from experiencing too much impact on their inner knees.
The question becomes whether or not wearing shoes is a bad thing. Currently there is no sound evidence that running barefoot is better for your body than running in shoes, especially if you are fitted in shoes that properly address your foot type. If you decide to run barefoot, my advice is to train properly for it and listen to your body; if you experience new aches and pains it might be best to go back to shoes.
So if you are a runner of any level, perhaps the most important piece of information to glean from the web is that there are endless suggestions, information, and opinions about how to run. My advice? Listen to your body and pay attention when something does not feel right. And if you are trying to determine whether or not your particular running technique and chosen shoes (or lack of) suit you, seek an evaluation from a physical therapist or medical professional trained in biomechanical analysis and injury.
Just because you can land on a particular part of your foot and just because you can run barefoot or with your favorite shoes, does not mean you should! Biomechanical assessments can determine whether your choice of technique is compatible with your ability to apply it. Physical therapy can determine your strengths, weaknesses, and mechanical challenges and make running more efficient, more enjoyable, and most importantly, injury-free.