Making sense of Barefoot Running
Proprioception is the body’s awareness of its own motion and position. It’s essential to enjoyable and injury free running and is the secret to optimum performance. Understanding and developing your proprioceptive sense is the first step on the journey towards awakening the skill of natural movement.
This training resource cuts through the myths and misinformation to bring you the ultimate guide to barefoot running.
Evolutionary Masterpiece With its complex system of springs, levers and nerve endings, the foot is one of the body’s major sensory organs. Humans are naturally good at walking, running and sprinting. Jogging, or, slow, sticky heel-striking in padded shoes is not a natural movement and is responsible for countless runners’ injuries. READ
Barefoot Running Skill You have the hardware, but you’ve forgotten the software. Re-building your barefoot running technique will take time, particularly if you’ve been wearing padded footwear all your life. But it’s an exciting, joyful and probably life-changing journey. We’d like to help take you through it, step-by-step. Literally. READ
We Have Forgotten How To Run
Proprioceptive feedback in running
Movement is a skill and the foundation of skilled movement is proprioceptive feedback (shown here in orange). Information from your skin, muscles and joints (mainly in your feet) is fed back to the brain to allow your body to adapt to the biomechanical loads and environmental cues experienced while moving.
We all know that regular physical activity is important for a healthy life.
In fact, it’s a more powerful remedy than any drug you can take for modern day epidemics like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
There are many different kinds of exercise that fit the bill, but walking and running are the most natural, effective and accessible.
What do we mean by ‘natural’?
Well, evidence suggests that endurance running was the major evolutionary stimulus in shaping human anatomy and physiology. In other words, the minute we started to move further and more efficiently than anything else was the minute we leapt ahead of the competition. Nature has literally engineered us to run!
But now we reach a bit of a conundrum:
If humans have evolved as endurance running specialists, why do about 80% of us injure ourselves every year? Why haven’t injuries such as ‘runners knee’, ‘shin splints’ and ‘plantar fasciitis’ become rare and unfortunate occurrences, like scurvy and TB, banished to those parts of the world without access to the latest advances in technology and biomedical science?
The answer is simple.
We have forgotten how to run.
The Human Foot Is An Evolutionary Masterpiece
The only natural forms of human locomotion
Humans naturally display three forms of locomotion: walking, running and sprinting. Each form has distinct biomechanical characteristics in terms of the body’s posture (kinematics) and the subsequent loading of the body’s structure (kinetics).
Proprioceptive feedback from the feet informs the brain of the forces encountered (plantar pressure) and triggers a change to the most appropriate form of locomotion.
Humans have evolved over the last two million years to become the only upright, bipedal, running primates.
This unique form of locomotion creates physical and mental challenges, which our bodies and brains have evolved to deal with.
For example, because humans stand upright, the main stimulus that has moulded our structure is the force of gravity. Thanks to gravity, we have an ‘s’ shaped spine, large hip muscles, short parallel toes, straight legs and long tendons compared to other primates.
One of the main structural features that make humans unique is our feet.
The human foot is a complex system of springs and levers, unmatched elsewhere in nature. However, the real beauty is that this system is adjustable, allowing our feet to execute three very different forms of locomotion: WALKING, RUNNING and SPRINTING.
When we walk, the foot and ankle create three ‘rockers’, or pivot points. These work together to allow smooth horizontal displacement of the body’s centre of mass. This is the classic ‘heel-toe’ biomechanical behaviour and is used by all the great apes.
As you might expect, your running anatomy (for example, the muscles, tendons and ligaments in your feet and ankles), need regular use in order to stay healthy.
In biomechanical terms, that means loading that part of your anatomy with the right forces. However, because the foot and ankle work in a specific way, they can be easily injured if these ‘forces’ are exaggerated, attenuated, diverted or delayed. It’s common sense when you think about it: using your running anatomy unnaturally and/or beyond its structural capabilities is the root cause of all running injuries.
When we run, the foot’s mechanical behaviour essentially reverses.
Instead of landing on the heels, we land on the ball of the foot and then the heel. Using the elastic recoil of the Achilles tendon, the plantar fascia (a supportive tissue) and ligaments, our foot and ankle work like a powerful spring. This elasticity greatly reduces the amount of energy required to run and is used by all animals, especially ‘running specialists’ like horses and dogs. In fact, these animals have taken this feature even further; only the toes or forefoot touches the ground and a tendon runs up the whole lower leg.
When we sprint, we actually use a very similar forefoot landing technique – touching the ground with only the ball of the foot.
Unfortunately, the science behind most modern running shoes is almost entirely based on manipulating these forces via ‘motion control’ and ‘shock absorbing’ technologies.
And this is why, despite over 25 years of research and application in this field, the percentage of runners suffering from injuries has not decreased. Perhaps even worse, there is little understanding of the mechanics of even the most common running injuries.
For example, did you know that we’re more likely to injure ourselves on soft surfaces than hard ones? Whether you’re in conventional trainers, minimalist shoes or barefoot, softer surfaces reduce the efficiency of our elastic recoil and cause excessive muscle activity, one of the main causes of runners’ injuries.
Proprioception: Our Sixth Sense
‘Jogging’ is only possible because of reduced proprioceptive feedback
Modern human beings display a fourth form of locomotion - “jogging”. Jogging is a hybrid walk/run locomotive pattern and is unnatural in terms of posture and forces encountered. This type of movement is only possible because of reduced proprioceptive feedback to the brain, which is caused by inappropriately constructed and excessively cushioned footwear.
Our bodies are incredibly good at moving, often without any conscious involvement.
Just think: sitting down, standing up, picking up objects, throwing, catching, jumping, skipping, running…
The reason we can make all of these movements without thinking (or falling over) is because of something called ‘proprioception’ - our body’s sense of its own position, balance and movement. Proprioception provides us with ‘body awareness’ and is commonly referred to as our “sixth sense”.
The proprioceptive system uses stretch receptors and pressure receptors situated in our muscles, joints and skin to inform our brain about our physical environment and how we are interacting with it.
A large percentage of these receptors are in our feet; they’re the parts of our body most in contact with our physical environment. If we reduce the sensory feedback from our feet to our brains by wearing thick, shock-absorbing soles then the brain has less information to work with, reducing the quality of the movement pattern produced.
The foot has evolved over millions of years to a dextrous and sensitive masterpiece – by patronising it with thick soles and supportive padding we’re limiting its potential and risking injury throughout the body.
But here’s the catch: if the bare foot is so wonderful, why did humans invent shoes? Although the human foot is a marvel of evolutionary engineering it has one serious design flaw: a lack of protection from the environment.
Although the human foot is a marvel of evolutionary engineering it has one serious design flaw: a lack of protection from the environment.
All other running specialist animals have evolved hooves or pads to protect themselves, but our feet, originally designed to grasp and climb, are instead covered in proprioceptors, sweat glands and soft skin!
This design flaw could have been a serious set back to our plans for world domination. There’s no way the bare human foot could have coped with everything from rainforests, through deserts to the arctic.
Fortunately, efficient bipedal locomotion isn’t the only thing that sets us apart from other animals; the human brain also helped us survive and thrive as a species. The same brain that learned how to manipulate fire and use tools also gave us the insight to use animal fur and skins to survive in more extreme conditions.
In other words, footwear that insulates and protects the human foot is a part of our evolutionary history.
Footwear That Makes Sense
The proprioceptive feedback in natural walking
The plantar pressures experienced by the foot in a natural walking gait cycle. The orange areas represent progression of body weight and the proprioceptive feedback to the brain. Variations on this pattern are linked to dysfunction and pathology.
The perfect running shoe allows the foot to behave exactly as it would if bare, while also providing maximum protection from the environment.
Whatever ‘barefoot’ running shoe you chose, make sure it fulfils the following four criteria:
NB. Bear in mind that point one (sensory feedback) and point two (protection) are often traded off against each other depending on the terrain and climate provided for. For example, road running in a city presents a different challenge to trail running in the mountains!
- The shoe must allow for sensory feedback.
Your body and brain need to receive feedback from your senses in order to know how to move. The sole of your foot is packed with sensory receptors, so the sole of your running shoe must allow feedback from the terrain you’re moving on in order to create a natural running style.
- The shoe must protect your foot from the environment.
Although your foot needs to be sensitive to the terrain it’s moving on, that doesn’t mean it should be vulnerable. The sole of your running shoe must be puncture-proof and capable of protecting your foot from extremes of temperature.
- The shoe’s weight must not unbalance your foot’s natural position.
A heavy or unbalanced running shoe will affect your foot’s natural centre of gravity and therefore your running style. Ideally, the weight distribution of your shoe should allow you to balance it with your finger halfway between the heel and toe, or just slightly towards the heel.
- Your foot should not be restricted in any way by the shoe.
When your foot hits the ground, your toes splay outwards to help balance your stride. The toe box on your shoe must therefore be wide enough to accommodate this spread without any restriction.
Reawaken Your Innate Barefoot Running Skill
The human brain constructs complex movements (like running) by combining simpler movements. The movement milestones of a child clearly demonstrate this. The quality of the complex movement is only as good as the quality of the simpler movements; this is the foundation of any successful movement coaching model.
So, what now? Even though barefoot is in our blood, that doesn't mean you'll start doing it correctly the second you whip off your shoes and take to the streets.
If you've been wearing over-protective footwear all your life, your barefoot running muscles will be weak and your posture will be all out of whack. There’s a bit of work to do first.
- Barefoot Walking
Can you remember the last time you were truly barefoot?
Because we overprotect our feet so much, our brains have learned to interpret a lot of their feedback as a warning to ‘tread carefully’. In order to start using your feet effectively, your brain therefore has to ‘rewire’ itself and learn to read these sensations as useful feedback rather than as a potential threat.
The objective of this first stage of training is for you to feel relaxed and confident walking barefoot across a variety of surfaces, both natural (grass, mud and sand) and man-made (concrete and tarmac).
As your feet and your brain begin to communicate properly about the new sensory information available, your movement across these terrains will become safer, confident and more efficient.
How To walk barefoot
In theory, you can learn to walk ‘barefoot’ in any type of shoe, but you’ll make the process much easier for yourself if you wear minimalist shoes or go barefoot. Our bodies are astonishingly adaptable; keep the following four points in mind, and you’ll be walking ‘barefoot’ in no time:
Your weight should move from heel to big toe, but think of it more as a smooth heel stroke than a jolting heel strike.
Keep your strides shorter than normal – this will help keep your body in its optimum alignment for efficient locomotion.
Try not to look down; in fact, keep your gaze somewhere above the horizon and ‘lead’ with your chest.
Keep your stride relaxed, balanced and symmetrical.
Cultures that favour bare feet or minimalist footwear rarely have many chairs in their homes, workplaces or public spaces.
Instead, people spend a lot of time in a deep, balanced squatting position – while, for example, they eat or work.
Learning to squat properly, both as a held position and as a dynamic exercise, will help you develop your barefoot running style more quickly and with less chance of injury. Here’s why:
- Balance: a proper squat will position your body’s centre of mass over the ball of your foot – essential for barefoot movement;
- Strength: the squat won’t come easily to someone who hasn’t tried it before, but it will build strength in parts of the body needed for a correct barefoot running style;
- Flexibility: the squat will also improve the range of movement in your ankles, knees, hips and spine, helping you stretch important tendons, muscles and ligaments. Balance, strength and flexibility all contribute to the improvement of posture, which, don’t forget, is the first rule in our movement mantra.
How To Squat
Although squatting is one of the first steps towards barefoot running, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy! Not only will you need to build your strength up to maintain the position, you’ll also be stretching muscles and tendons in a new way. Be patient and take things slowly. Learning to keep your balance while in these positions is the most important take-away for these exercises.
Correct squatting position
Keep your weight on the balls of your feet; avoid the temptation to shift it onto your heels. The best way to perfect the deep squat is to practice whenever you get the chance. If you’re watching TV or have a low table you can read from or write on, take the opportunity to build up your strength, flexibility and balance so that running barefoot comes even more naturally.
A good dynamic squat is all about posture and balance; the best way to maintain the correct form and build up the appropriate muscles is to use a weighted pole of at least 5kg. As with the sitting squat, keep your weight on the balls of your feet and concentrate on your balance.
Hold out your arms horizontally and balance the pole across your collarbone. As you squat, concentrate on keeping the pole stationary; this will ensure that the rest of your posture falls into place.
This time, hold the bar horizontally above your head. Follow the same squatting guidelines as above. To begin with, you’ll probably find the weight of the bar topples you forwards; thinking about maintaining your body weight over the balls of the feet and keeping your head and chest up will help.
Try not to think of the dynamic squat as hard work – it should be a ‘bouncy’ movement and one that uses as little muscle action as possible. Complete each squat quickly; the ‘dynamic’ part of this exercise means it’s much more about the movement than holding the position.
- Barefoot Jumping
The barefoot jump takes things up a notch. A jump is much more dynamic than walking or squatting, which means there are more forces involved and more skill required.
Learning to jump will build on the strength, balance and flexibility gained in Stage 1 as well as improve the elasticity of your tendons and, importantly, teach you about rhythmic motion.
Tendons are a bit like elastic bands. You have them all over your body and they usually connect muscle to bone. When stretched, these ‘elastic bands’ snap back into place, essentially providing you with ‘free’ energy. This is known as the ‘stretch-shorten’ cycle.
How we run affects this cycle because our tendons stretch and recoil most efficiently at a certain ‘cadence’ (beats per minute). When the cadence is wrong, injury often occurs. We’ll cover this concept more fully in Stage 3 of this guide, but it’s important to understand while you’re learning to jump why elasticity and rhythm are such important factors for running.
How To Jump
Focus on using the balls of your feet, but don’t use your tiptoes. You’re not trying to jump too high; instead, keep your bounces small and light, and start with a rhythm at which the jumping feels most efficient and relaxed. You should be able to keep going for quite a while! Eventually, try to reach a rhythm of 180 bpm - this is the optimum cadence to harness the elastic recoil of the body and is a fundamental coaching point in efficient, injury free barefoot running.
Jumping on two legs
Put a piece of tape on the floor and do twenty small jumps without looking down. Ideally, you should end up on the same spot. If you don’t, work out which part of you need to align in order to fix the problem; for example, are you chasing your head forwards? Once you’ve perfected this skill, hold the weighted bar above your head to add an extra challenge to the exercise.
Jumping on one leg
Running is essentially a series of one-legged jumps! Do the same exercise as above but this time on one leg
Jumping on one leg with bar
Add the weighted bar once you’re able to hop comfortably on the spot.
Jumping with rope
An excellent conditioning exercise and warm up drill for barefoot runners (try five minutes before running to develop an awareness of your cadence and rhythm). Again, put some tape on the floor and make sure you don’t move away from the line as you jump.
NB. As a benchmark, if you can manage to jump rope at 180BPM for five two-minute rounds with one-minute rest, you should easily manage a ten-minute barefoot run at the same cadence.
- Barefoot Running
The exercises in Stage 1 and 2 will improve your posture and help you appreciate the natural rhythm of your body.
These activities will also reconnect your feet with your brain and the rest of your body – you’ll be using sensory feedback from the soles of your feet to move safely and more efficiently in everything that you do!
Once you are happy walking, squatting and jumping with bare feet it’s time to move on to barefoot running.
If you’ve completed the previous stages properly, you shouldn’t encounter any problems as you move to barefoot running. However, it is still a new way of moving so do take things slowly; if you’re accustomed to running five miles in regular trainers, don’t expect to be able to run the same distance straight away with bare feet or minimalist shoes.
How To Run
There’s a lot to remember when you start running barefoot for the first time. The following checklist will help:
- Bouncy rhythm and short strides
- Relaxed body
your posture is absolutely the most important thing when you run barefoot. As you run, keep your head and chest upright and relax as much as possible; the whole of your upper body should remain stable but un-tensed. Focus on landing on the ball of your foot. You probably won’t be landing on your heels (your brain and feet don’t like it), but you still need to avoid landing on the sides of your feet or too close to your toes.
If you’re struggling, think back to the connection you made with the balls of your feet as you learned to walk, squat and jump barefoot. When your running posture is correct, your feet should feel like they are landing directly underneath your body as opposed to out in front.
To reach the correct cadence for a bouncy rhythm, your feet will probably have to touch the ground more often than you’re used to. However, because you don’t necessarily want to run faster, this means you’ll need to take shorter strides. It might take a few weeks to get to this stage, but you eventually want to run at 180 bpm.
Most of your body should stay relaxed most of the time when you run. A relaxed body is more rhythmic and uses a lot less energy as it runs. Listen to the sound of your feet as they make contact with the ground. Quiet feet are relaxed feet! If you’re finding it difficult to un-tense, focus on specific parts of your body at a time (your hands are a good start). Contract the muscles for five seconds then completely let them go. This contract-relax technique is an excellent way to build awareness of the difference between relaxed and tensed muscles.
A fully relaxed and skillful technique is the sign of a master in any sport, so be patient for this last pointer – it will take time and practice.
The barefoot squat has the same plantar pressure as running
A natural barefoot squat requires the foot to be flat but the body weight to be predominantly applied to the ball of the foot. Notice the similarity to the healthy running plantar pressure. The barefoot squat encourages and maintains the necessary mobility and stability required for barefoot activities.
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