Barefoot running is one of the most controversial topics in the world of running today. Shoe manufacturers, hoping to capitalize on the buzz, have introduced a variety of footwear into the market; and the fad has led to a slew of experts and non-experts alike making unfounded claims about the benefits or hazards of this style of running. Even research on the topic has left many unanswered questions.
Before you incorporate barefoot running into your exercise regimen, learn the basics of body movement and how to transition to this style in six steps.
Nuts and bolts of movement
Body movement results from force production and force dissipation, which are complex neurological and biomechanical processes especially when it comes to walking or running.
When the body is in motion, it uses a "feed-forward" system as opposed to a "feedback" system. This means that much of what happens during movement with muscle contractions is a process by which the brain anticipates what is about to happen and accordingly contracts or relaxes respective muscle groups in order to properly accommodate the movement that is taking place.
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The act of walking is a series of repeated cycles of our bodies being displaced from a position of stability into an unstable one, otherwise "falling forward." The rate, speed and force of the "fall" are elements that our brain tries to calculate, anticipate and finally accommodates for using a precise activation or deactivation of related muscle groups. The end result is the gait cycle.
The gait cycle is a complicated process. We can simplify it by dividing it into three phases: the ground contact (heel strike), the mid stance (stance phase), and the toe off (propulsive phase). During the walking gait, we normally strike the ground with our heel (heel strike), transfer our body weight on top of the front foot/leg (stance phase) and finally toe off (propulsive phase).
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However, this may not be the same when we run. Our natural running gaits differ from one individual to the next with three basic foot strike patterns: heel strike, mid-foot strike, and forefoot strike.
The average individual (let's say he or she weighs about 160 pounds) goes through approximately 5,000 foot strikes per day. This translates to about 640 tons of force traveling through our bodies with speeds of up to 200 miles per hour or more which our body has to absorb and manage daily.
When we walk, our body generally has to deal with about 110 percent of its weight in "ground reactive forces." When we run (depending on the speed and the inclination angle) these forces can increase to about 300 percent to 700 percent of our body weight. One mile is approximately 2,000-plus steps and a marathon an average of about 55,000 steps!
Shoe manufacturers took some of these factors into consideration and began to produce shoes intended to aid and accommodate the body in managing these forces and led to a market of highly engineered athletic footwear.
These shoes have thick cushioned heel pads, a graduated heel-to-toe angle, various types of mid sole rigidity, and toe boxes of all shapes and types. This modern shoe type attempted to help manage a workload that our feet and lower extremities were designed to do for us.
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Despite the good intentions, the long term effects include a reduction of lower limb functionality, which some authors say has contributed to the increased rate of various types of repetitive stress injuries (RSI) seen in today's runners.