In July 2015, images of a super-fit Milind Soman in his 50’s, rising from the water splashed across the news as he emerged an ‘Ironman’ (the toughest triathlon in the world). Seemingly in hibernation for the past few years, this heartthrob of the 90’s was back in the news for focus his fitness and remarkable achievement. As article after article poured in and old articles re-surfaced, there was a surprising revelation. Milind Soman, with access to top-of-the-line equipment and expertise, always ran barefoot. Barefoot running? Huh? “It’s all about connecting,” he claimed. But what about all the guidelines we’d been reading about choosing the right shoes or else risking injury. This was right on its face!
Want to know more on Milind Soman? From Ironman to Ultraman – Milind Soman .
Curious, we decided to dig further. The running fever has truly gripped India. Come morning, and scores of runners are seen huffing and puffing. Marathons, half-marathons, and cross-country runs spring up every weekend. Running, a skill gained in childhood which required no equipment is great for everybody. But how do you start? If you Google, dozens of beginner articles emphasize on the same thing. Running can cause major injuries. There’s impact on your knees and on your ankles. You need to start slow and make sure you have the correct support that ensures you do not pound your feet hard. Is shoes the answer to it?
In 2009, Christopher McDougall in his book “Born to Run” brought to focus the incredible ability of the Tarahumara Native Mexican tribe to run long distances nearly bare feet (minimalist footwear). He imbibed their techniques to overcome his running injuries. In fact, some tribes in Kenya also run barefoot and are known for their prowess. This bestseller book gave great impetus to the barefoot running trend worldwide. But how can barefoot running reduce injuries? Wouldn’t you be at a greater risk of injuries through gravel, twigs and other rubble on the ground? Seems not.
When you run, how your feet strike the ground is most crucial. The commonest method is the forefoot strike or mid-foot strike. The belief is that with these, the impact is much lower, hence automatically resulting in lesser injuries. When you run bare feet, your body instinctively goes for either a forefoot strike or mid-foot. But with shoes on, you end up with a heel strike. Secondly, without shoes adding their weight, the feet stay light and running requires lesser energy. Plus as you respond to the ground, you run lighter. Your feet bounce naturally adding the spring to your step or shall we say, jog?
Another key factor is the sensory nerves on your hand and feet. They do a great job of feeding signals to your brain resulting in perfect responses. Imagine, operating a mobile phone with a glove or walking with your cast on. There simply isn’t enough input for the brain to respond to. Similarly, padded shoes dull your responses. When you run barefoot, you are more connected to the ground, the texture, temperature, and terrain. As these sensations travel rapidly to your brain, it magnificently tailors your body’s responses to suit the moment. Your posture alters, your feet strike lightly, the angle of the feet adjusts automatically. The inbuilt supercomputer takes charge. No one better that we’ve seen till date.
Intrigued and ready to ditch your flashy Adidas and Nike runners? Hold on to your horses. Like anything new, running barefoot needs breaking in too. Remember that though as a race, running barefoot is something that comes naturally, years of conditioning have coddled our feet. So do not kick off those shoes and head out to run right away. Suddenly shifting to the forefoot strike can cause plantar fasciitis, put pressure on your calves and just switch you over to a different set of injuries. Plus, running barefoot on littered roads brings you at a risk of cuts and scratches. Barefoot running is not recommended for diabetics and other patients with reduced sensations in their feet.
If you do want to try this lighter, freer form of running then as always, start slow. Consult a doctor or physician. Instead of going barefoot completely, you can start with minimalist support shoes (like Vibram). Run slowly and cautiously over very small distances, graduating to longer distances and then to bare feet. Pay close attention to your body and stop at the slightest instance of pain. Running when done improperly – be it barefoot or shod – will cause injuries.
So, are you ready to shed your shoes and feel the grass? The more we learn, the more it seems to take us back to our roots. Born to run!
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