By Kyle Garratt
Running barefoot is like a form of time travel. It takes people back to how they ran as children, before heavily padded running shoes corrupted their form. Whether inspired by new research or the practices of a secluded Mexican tribe, more runners are going barefoot or employing minimal footwear. A longtime advocate of this mantra and creator of his own running technique details the benefits of this new, and old, approach to running.
Danny Dreyer has competed in over 40 ultra marathons and numerous other distance races, so from his perspective, it was essential he learn how to run properly. He applied principles of Tai Chi, focusing on core muscles and connecting the body and mind to running, and created ChiRunning. This technique doesn't require athletes to ditch their running shoes, but shares the goals of injury prevention and efficiency associated with barefoot running.
"What we are trying to do with ChiRunning is teach people how to run barefoot without becoming reliant on being barefoot," says Dreyer. "We are teaching all the same biomechanics of stride that somebody would have if they were a good barefoot runner, except you don't necessarily have to go shoeless to learn it."
Dreyer, a student of Tai Chi for more than 30 years, holds workshops and multi-day retreats around the country to teach ChiRunning. He also sells DVDs, books, training programs, and many other products to help runners learn his techniques. Dreyer recommends a very minimal shoe, such as a racing flat, but says running barefoot is its own powerful teaching tool.
"It trains you to strike the ground in a softer way," he says. "You learn how to stroke the earth, rather than land on it. It gets your upper body to be positioned a little more forward. Most people who have big running shoes are over-striding and heel striking, which creates an incredible amount of braking. That hurts their knees and lower back. We teach a forward lean where you are out in front of your feet. You don't want your feet to land while they are still going forward."
The barefoot, or unshod movement has recently gained momentum with the popularity of Chris McDougall's book "Born to Run" and the publication of a study by Harvard Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, Daniel E. Lieberman, that suggests barefoot running decreases impact on the legs. It's easy to reason that people running barefoot will naturally run in a manner that creates the least intense pounding on their lower limbs. Dreyer also notes that shoes interrupt the natural communication of the body.
"When your foot can feel the ground and feel your weight balance, the neurotransmitters in your brain get the message from your feet and legs of where you need to be positioned over your feet," he says. "With shoes on, your brain doesn't get that message. Barefoot running can help your body re-educate itself on how to move more efficiently and safely."
The problem with most runners, according to Dreyer, is they associate the wrong body parts with running. "I tell my classes, 'My biggest job is to teach you how to run without using your legs for propulsion,'" he says. "Your legs are really only necessary for momentary support between strides. If you can show someone the technique of simply landing on their leg to support their body rather than thinking they have to do all the work with their legs, that allows them to relax the muscles in their legs. The best way to teach people to relax is to engage their core muscles and let go of everything else. You can run faster than anybody if you run from your core muscles and view all the peripheral arm and leg muscles as just being along for the ride."
In addition to focusing on core muscles, Dreyer teaches pre-running relaxation through light range-of-motion exercises and the 'shaking out' of arms and legs like a swimmer might do on the starting block. He also encourages shorter strides and a faster pace. He runs with a clip-on metronome to make sure he runs at a clip of 180 strides per minute, which he recommends for most runners. Tall athletes can aim for 170.
Posture is another big component. "When you come down on your foot, you always want to be aligned in your posture during that split second," says Dreyer. "You want your shoulders, hips and ankles in a straight line. Not a vertical line, but straight. You want to lean forward, but from your ankles, not your waist."
An integral part of reducing injuries and the pounding feet take is something runners can't sense through thick shoes: how their feet land. When runners land predominantly on their heel or forefoot, it creates braking and reduces the surface area that absorbs the ground's impact. Barefoot and ChiRunning reinforce a full-foot landing.
"It means the ball of your foot and your heel land at exactly the same time," says Dreyer. "If I'm 150 pounds, every time I come down on my heel, that's at least 150 pounds coming down on a two square-inch area."
While most of the focus on barefoot running has been on its ability to reduce stress on the body, it might also enhance performance. But Dreyer warns against focusing on running faster. Learn how to run safely, and the rest will fall in place.
"If you have great technique, speed is easy," says Dreyer. "Especially if you are using a forward lean where gravity is assisting you and your feet aren't creating any deceleration. You get no resistance from your body and that turns in to speed. You are being run by these other forces like gravity, rather than having to create all that power yourself."
And an errant glass shard isn't the only danger of going barefoot. "A lot of barefoot runners land on their forefoot," says Dreyer. "That loads your calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and plantar fascia. That can cause metatarsal stress fractures because there is too much stress on those tiny bones. If I land full foot I'm really just aligning my bones and I don't have to use a lot of my muscles."
While running barefoot can certainly be beneficial, it doesn't come without warnings. Going from regular shoes to no shoes all the time is an unwanted shock to the body that can lead to plantar fasciitis.
"Introduce it in small amounts just to get athletes to feel how differently they move," says Dreyer. "Then they can try to memorize how they feel differently and try to do that with their shoes on. Whether they're a soccer or basketball player or a runner, give them a sample of how differently their body feels when they are barefoot. Do it once a week or for five minutes at the beginning of each training session."
Different athletes should also take different approaches to a barefoot transition. A marathon runner can gradually use less and less bulky shoes until he or she is comfortable barefoot or with minimal shoes. Less active runners can shelve their shoes if they are not putting in a lot of miles. But the main message is that bare feet can't be paired with a bare mind.
"Just because you're barefoot doesn't mean you immediately start running correctly," says Dreyer. "Whether you run in minimal shoes or barefoot, it's your body that needs to learn how to run correctly, so you need to be mindful of that. We are trying to teach people how to listen to their feet and bodies."
For more information on ChiRunning, go to ChiRunning.com.
Kyle Garratt is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.