Running barefoot will strengthen the intrinsic muscles of your feet, making them more stable. And, it may give you a feeling of running differently. But, it won’t somehow automatically undo all your worst movement habits or change them for the better.
Pete Larson, the Runblogger, has recently posted a comment on the rash of metatarsal stress fractures occurring among barefoot and minimalist shoe runners and he theorizes that most of them occur in the mid to late part of the support stance when running.
From my own experience, I agree with him. I hardly ever run barefoot unless it’s on a track where I know there won’t be anything to hurt my feet. Instead, I run in minimalist shoes once or twice a week and run in racing flats for the rest of my weekly runs.
When I run barefoot or in minimalist shoes I notice a change in how my feet feel. Because I have no shoes providing protection and structure to my feet, I find that I hold a bit more tension in the intrinsic muscles of my feet. My body is looking for a sense of stability in this shoeless mode, so my natural tendency is to get my feet to create that stability I’m used to feeling in shoes. I can feel the tension in my feet the most when I roll onto the balls of my feet and lift off for my next stride. Because of this, I’ve had to train myself to relax my lower legs and resist a tendency to hold tension in my feet and toe off. As a result, I’ve had to pay special attention to relaxing my lower legs and to relying on my forward fall for most of my propulsion needs.
From the “body logic” I’ve been taught in t’ai chi, the smallest muscles and bones of my feet have no business acting to support my full body weight or propel me forward as I run. The job of support should fall to the largest bones (the femurs, pelvis and spine) and the job of propulsion should fall to the strongest muscles (the core muscles) assisted by the pull of gravity, and not to the relatively small bones and muscles in my feet. Placing my full weight onto these small bones and muscles and then increasing that amount by toeing off is asking for trouble in the form of possible stress fractures. No thanks. I’ll just pick up my feet instead of pushing off and run the risk of being sidelined.
Danny Dreyer is the founder of ChiRunning. This essay originally appeared on ChiRunning.