Nation's Tri blog

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What used to be an oddity has now become commonplace – on city streets and in races, more and more runners are going barefoot or wearing minimal support shoes, such as the distinctive Vibram 5-Fingers, those shoes with the individual toe sleeves.  Barefoot or minimal shoe running is supposed to aid proper form by removing the aid that enables you to land on your heel, and by forcing the arch to engage.  The natural result is a mid-foot strike and a shorter, quicker step.

Does this mean that to run properly you must be barefoot?  No.  While it’s hard to run improperly barefoot, not everyone wearing traditional shoes is running improperly.  So forget what you’re wearing; there is no evidence that running barefoot, with minimal-support shoes, or with traditional running shoes, prevents injuries.  Instead, focus on running properly.  Here’s how:

Count steps.  Research has shown that the ideal leg turnover is approximately 180 steps per minute.  Many runners take only about 160 steps per minute, which means they are over-striding.  With each step, they land on their heel, which is the least flexible part of their foot and the one least able to absorb impact forces.

When you take 180 steps per minute, you don’t have time to throw your foot far in front of you.  The result is a mid-foot strike, which puts pressure on the flexible arch in the middle of your foot.  That’s just where you want the greatest impact forces to go; from there, they are dispersed throughout the foot.

Listen.  Regardless of what you’re wearing on your feet or how many steps you take while running, you should be listening to the sound of your footstrike.  A loud footstep is an indication that you’re throwing down a lot of impact force on your foot, and raising the risk of injury.  Practice running in a way that minimizes the sound of your footstrike.  You might be surprised that with a little experimentation and a few adjustments, you could go form a plodding rhino to a speedy gazelle.  Your feet will certainly appreciate it.

Watch.  Try to pay attention to your vertical displacement, which is just a fancy term for the bounce in your step.  As you run past a shop window, give yourself a sideways glance.  Are you loping from step to step?  Remember that everything that goes up must come down, which means more impact force on your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back.  So try to maintain your head on a level plane as you run, and keep the bouncing to a minimum.

Jeff Horowitz

Jeff first fell in love with endurance sport almost a quarter century ago, when he chose the Marine Corps Marathon as his first race. Since then, he's run over 150 marathons, including at least one in every state and on 6 continents, including Antarctica. He's also taken up ultramarathoning and long distance cycling. His swimming is a work in progress; it took him a while to realize that when people said he swims like a runner, it wasn't a compliment. Jeff is the author of "My First 100 Marathons: 2,620 Miles With An Obsessive Runner (Skyhorse Press, 2008) and is the Mid-Atlantic editor of Competitor Magazine, He is a coach and personal trainer, certified by USAT, USATF, RRCA, USA Cycling, and AFAA. He also is a member of the Clif Bar Pace Team, and loves being a brand ambassador for The Nations Tri and the Washington DC Triathlon.