No, not a typo. And not yet in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. It IS however synonymous with ‘Vibram Five Fingers’ on Dictionary.com and will probably be elected an official word by the linguists before too long.
Bizarrely, as far as the regular chap/ess in the street is concerned, the whole concept of shoes that encourage a more natural ‘barefoot’ gait started back in 2002 with the heaviest, clumpiest shoes imaginable – the genius brainchild of the Swiss engineer Karl Muller – the ‘Masai Barefoot Technology’ MBT footwear range. For once ahead of the States, Europe ‘rocked’ in the world of physiological footwear. By creating instability underfoot, the body has to balance, which quite naturally engages the postural muscles, located mainly at the back of the body. Deliberately, there is no support or cushioning inside the shoe itself, so the foot and the ankle have freedom to do their job, with the challenge of balance enforced upon them. The result? An upright stance, which when running, automatically encourages a midfoot/forefoot strike; slightly shorter stride; higher cadence; less impact; improved efficiency and very often resolutions for those most frustrating of running injuries – shin splints, achilles issues and the dreaded Runners Knee.
The Germans quickly cottoned on and raised the stakes with the more aesthetically wearable ‘Chung Shi’ range a year later, this time with an angled ‘ramp’ midfoot rather than a ‘pivot point’. The heel being lower than the ramp forces the wearers body alignment slightly further back, engaging the postural muscles – the same end result as the MBTs – but sadly, these aren’t suitable for running in, as the ramp is way too obvious. There were so many ‘variations on a theme’ at that time, trying to mimic the Chung Shi way, that you’d have been forgiven for thinking that a ‘negative heel’ was the holy grail for the perfect postural alignment. But few stopped to think that having the toes permanently above the heel was perhaps not ideal.
Year 2008 and the Triathlete Influence
By the very nature of multisport events, any innovations to promote efficiency, increase speed with seemingly minimal extra effort, or lighten loads would be tempting, given running has to follow the efforts of two other disciplines. Perhaps that explains why triathletes seemed more open to the arrival of Newtons than dedicated runners. The fact that a midfoot/forefoot strike might be similar to the more natural action of a barefoot runner was probably less important than the idea of PB’s. Faster times certainly helped their popularity initially, however the tide started to turn when so-called calf issues cropped up repeatedly. Fingers were pointed at the ‘extra load’ on the calves and their ‘inability to cope’. Autumn 2008 was the season of the ‘love them/hate them’ hot debate, which appears to still be raging, 2 ½ years later! ‘Heel-strikers’ have come out in force against them, and questions have been asked regarding their suitability for anything other than short distance running. Given that a midfoot/forefoot landing position is a barefoot running action and logically more natural, this resistance is fascinating and deserves addressing.
In addition to the Newton story, energy now surrounds a growing ‘barefooting’ movement – running in footwear that seems nothing more than a thick skin, and little else … not as scary you might initially think, given we evolved bare-foot over 2 million years ago, and there’s as yet no record of anyone being born with shoes on!
Forgetting the airy-fairy-hairy-stereotypical-anecdotal-barefooting perceptions, let’s look at the premise that, to coin the title of Christopher McDougall’s book, we are ‘Born to Run’ as we were born – without shoes. If you run with bare feet, you run as you were born to. But what about everything we’ve been told we need – heel cushioning, arch support, metatarsal cushioning, metatarsal lifts, asymmetric heel stability, torsional control, shock absorption, stability posts? Endless lists, taking you further and further away from our original design. So what is that – our original design – exactly? Here are just a few considerations:
- The Achilles Tendon. Apart from being the subject of many runners’ injury blogs, the Achilles tendon is the single strongest tendon in the human body. Thought by many to be primarily for the transmission of power from the calf to the foot when walking and running, more recent research by several evolutionary anthropologists (most notably David Lieberman, of Harvard University) have shown that it is for running – and running alone. If you have strong enough calves and strong enough feet you can completely rupture your Achilles tendon and continue walking – but you can’t run. Your Achilles tendon is like an enormous rubber band – you stretch it, it stores energy and returns it. The more you stretch it, the more free energy you get as it springs back. If you hinder its stretch, you hinder its action.
- Buttocks. Big muscle group. Built for power, and also endurance. Mammalian haunches. Our ‘engine’ for forward motion.
- Arches: To understand better, let’s look at it from purely an engineering perspective. The structure of an arch spreads the load efficiently, enabling it to be supported by the least amount of effort and material. King of tunnels, bridges and viaducts, Isambard Kingdom Brunel established it beyond doubt back in the early 1800s. An arch shape is innately strong! In fact so strong, an arch is considered the strongest engineering structural shape. So, that’s really, REALLY strong then. Each engineered arch has a load limit. Think of a hump-backed bridge with a load limitation sign. A regular car can happily go over it. A juggernaut would flatten it. We will return to this concept later.Now to the anatomical picture. Our arch shapes are maintained by the combined action of the foot bones, muscles and ligaments. But they are not rigid. It’s their flexibility that provides some shock absorbency as your bodyweight rolls over the foot. We have three arches in each foot, and their cleverly combined structure creates efficient load bearing and enables propulsion. Those three arches also help the foot adapt to uneven surfaces and prevent crushing of the local blood vessels and nerves.
The skin of the foot is thickest under the heel bone, round the outside of the foot, across the ball of the foot and under the pads of the toes. The skin is thinner elsewhere, to the extent that on the inside edge of the foot, along the most well-known arch, you can often see the blood vessels through the skin. The typically ‘neutral’ picture of a healthy foot is that shape made when the thicker skin makes contact with the ground. The greatest part of your bodyweight plus gravity is being ‘carried’ around the outside of the flexible foot. In motion, when the weight remains more towards the outside of the foot, the arches ‘give’ with that weight (shock absorbency) and then spring back (propulsion).
An over-pronating, or collapsing foot makes a wider shape as the inside long arch (the medial longitudinal arch) flattens and is forced towards the ground. Your bodyweight plus gravity being carried along the inside of the foot acts like the juggernaut over the hump-backed bridge, and is too much load for that structure. The arch gives way, with loss of function.
Now, the trouble is, we all wear shoes. Well, most of us, most of the time. And modern day shoes have evolved into structures that limit the natural function of what they are wrapped around, and as Newton has taught us, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Most supportive features of shoes restrict the flexibility of the foot. When the midfoot and forefoot are held in place, their rigidity and inflexibility leads to the toes engaging strongly. But if the toes join in a power effort, rather than their usual balancing job (you are running here, not doing plyometrics), they will tip you forward. This leads to heel strike as well as toe-off, which are not efficient propulsive actions, as heels hammering into the ground add an element of braking action to your forward motion, and toes are no competition in the strength stakes compared to buttocks.
A forward-leaning stance can start the habit of instinctively picking up your toes after the toe-off, in order not to fall over them as you pull the leg through. Repetitively lifting toes can over-stress the anterior tibialis muscle, encouraging ‘shin splints’.
Leaning forwards, allowing the buttocks to trail behind, under-utilises the outward hip rotators, and significantly the gluteus medius. This leads to varying degrees of inward rotation of the leg from the hip. Try this at home. Stand comfortably with your feet slightly less than hip distance apart, relax your buttocks, lean slightly forward so that you equalize the weight of your body between the heel bone and the ball of the foot. Feel your arches make stronger contact with either the ground or the insole of your shoe. Pronation. Now gently squeeze your buttocks together and allow your bodyline to drift back to upright. Feel your arches lift off the floor and your bodyweight rest on the heel and the outside of the foot, and only very gently across the ball of the foot. Neutral.
Leaning forwards creates a running action pushing from the toes, pulling from the hip flexor and landing on the heel, which is now ahead of the rest of the body. To take that motion full circle, the front of the foot slaps down to the ground, and then bends at the toes ready for the next push-off.
This two-stage foot action – instigated by the forward lean, which in turn allows for inward rotation of the leg – gives more actual time for the forefoot to land and collapse along its inside line, flattening the medial arch. Over-pronation.
Because the foot is longer during over-pronation, over-stretching the tough sheath running from the heel to the toes – the plantar fascia – is a risk. Injury to the plantar fascia is called plantar fasciitis.
If the foot over-pronates, the heel bone will keel inwards, which will have a knock-on effect on the alignment, function, integrity and stability of the ankle joint. Unstable ankle joints are more easily sprained.
If the foot over-pronates, the lower leg internally rotates. It does not necessarily follow that the thighbone above the knee joint internally rotates to the same degree. In some instances, this would lead to a misalignment within the knee joint, which then becomes inflamed.
If the rear foot is rolling inward, the tracking of the kneecap (patella) over the heads of the shin bone (tibia) and thigh bone (femur) is affected. The patella cannot move smoothly and centrally through the femoral groove at the lower end of the thigh bone. The result is ‘runners knee’ otherwise known as patello-femoral pain (PFP).
If the body alignment is forward, with the glutes trailing behind, the shoulders WILL stay square and stiff – to counterbalance the weight of the head which is now forward of the base of the spine. The muscles of the neck and upper shoulders, far from being used to move the head and flex it, are now straining to hold onto that heavy weight bouncing around on a wobbly stem. This sets up strain in muscles not allowed to relax. How many times have you seen runners rub their shoulders?
If the shoulders are stiff and unmoving, with just the arms pumping from the shoulder sockets, the upper body is a sack of potatoes on the pelvis, and that deadweight transfers itself into your footfall. It is nigh on impossible to land lightly if your upper body isn’t counter-rotating, and your upper body can’t counter-rotate if it’s leaning forward. If you’re not light-footed, then impact is a problem.
That forward lean is a real nuisance.
Heel cushioning will lift the heel above the toes, and if that is above 5mm, the bodyweight is tipped forwards. That action (leaning forwards) has the same reactions described above. Lifting the heel also shortens the calf AND the Achilles tendon. Repetitive actions with foreshortened muscles, shortens the muscle and the associated tendons. Short muscles are at more risk of injury than ones the right length. And if your heel stops short of where it really wants to go, your Achilles won’t give you as much recoil action as it could.
[A quick note here for Newton debaters: if your calves are a little on the short side, and the Newtons allow the body weight to fall neutrally rather than forward, it stands to reason that if you start wearing Newtons, your calves are going to be working initially in a more stretched position. So, you build your mileage sensibly, allowing the calf to lengthen naturally, rather than yanking it there. Yanking hurts. If you’re patient, it won’t take long for the muscle and tendon to be in better shape, and YOU have control!]
If a raised area of cushioning interrupts the fall of your heel into the step, your hip movement (your hips being attached to your heels via your legs) will be restricted too. A locked and rigid pelvic girdle will send huge forces through your hip joint as your heel strikes. Your hips are designed to be free to seesaw gently up and down. If your heel is given the opportunity to sink towards the ground, one side of your pelvis will sink too, and of course, the other side will lift slightly – enough for your leg and foot to swing through without picking up your toes. Many people we see appear to be unaware of their pelvic stiffness or even that their pelvis should be mobile.
Try this: lift your hips alternately without bending your knees or allowing your upper body to sway. Now, instead of lifting up, gently push the heel bone down into its fat pad underneath – and alternate. You will, if you relax, start to feel the hips very gently tipping and lifting, and if you let them, your shoulders will start to twist or counter-rotate …
Another thought on the effects of heel cushioning: over ten years ago, researchers at McGill University, Montreal showed that gymnasts landed more heavily as the landing mat got thicker. Just as your arms flail instinctively if you slip on ice, your feet, searching for the stable landing platform they need, instinctively land harder when they sense squishiness underfoot. Their research concluded that balance and vertical impact are closely related, and that “current available sports shoes …. are too soft and thick, and should be redesigned if they are to protect humans performing sports”.
Please don’t take my word for it, take your shoes off and give it a little go – on a running track, close to the cricket wicket, on the hard sand of a beach. Anywhere you fancy, just so long as the surface is relatively free of debris, and not too soft. Ignore talk of soft sand, soft earth or soft fields – if you heel strike or land heavily, that kind of surface will mask any poor technique. Within a few paces you will adjust your habitual running style to accommodate your instant lack of artificial support and cushioning. You will:
- Begin to avoid heel striking (it will hurt – possibly even straight-away)
- Begin to avoid toeing-off (that will hurt too, after a while)
With more practice and barefoot ‘conditioning’ (which does not happen overnight, or even in a fortnight!), and perhaps with the confidence of a very thin piece of puncture resistant material between you and the ground – a thick skin if you will – in the form of the new era of ‘barefooting’ shoes (try the amazing Vibram Fivefingers, the Finnish comfort of Feelmax footwear, the Vivo Barefoot runners, the Evo and Neo, the Merrell Trail and Pace Gloves, inov-8 bare grip, bare-x and trailroc shoes) you will soon:
- run more light-footed, landing somewhere between the beginning of the long foot bones and the ball of the foot (mid-foot/forefoot strike), reducing energy loss into the ground, and keeping the foot relaxed so that it retains its flexibility and optimises blood circulation to the working muscles
- land more towards the outside of the foot, not flattening the arch but allowing it to ‘give’ to support your body weight
- land with your toes pointing gently down (plantar-flexed) and your heel slightly up, allowing your calf to control the descent of the heel via the Achilles tendon
- no more than ‘kiss’ the ground with the heel before the elastic recoil of the Achilles tendon rebounds the foot into the next step
- as a consequence, work your calf muscles double time (so be kind to them and build up distance slowly)
- run with your feet almost skimming the ground, saving all the momentum for forward motion, which tends to make you faster
- run with more power coming from your hamstrings and buttocks (big, efficient and durable) rather than your feet (which are working hard enough just carrying you)
- run with a more upright stance, enabling your head to sit with more stability on top of your mobile neck
- run with more relaxed breathing as the upright stance allows for more space for your diaphragm to bounce up and down between your lungs and your abdominal cavity, also improving oxygenation to the working muscles
- run more efficiently, with a slightly shorter stride and a swift cadence, minimising foot contact with the ground, and reducing energy loss into it
- run with potentially less risk of injury once you have conditioned your body to do the job it was meant to do without assistance.
On that last note, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of conditioning. Some of the muscles used when barefoot running are ONLY used when barefoot. Research papers published summer 2011 have now shown that of the +20 muscles in your feet, 2 might be functioning correctly in ‘traditional’ footwear. If you live your life barefoot, great, but otherwise you are going to have to put the time in, before running, to wake them up. They will have been pretty much dormant your whole life. You need to get strong, get balanced, get stable – and then running in barefooting shoes is huge fun! You feel the warmth of sun-baked tarmac, the cold of the frozen ground, the cool of the mud, the squelch between your toes, yes a few harsh stones – but you learn lighter feet and to deal with it! There’s a feeling of freedom and connection with the ground that I simply can’t do justice with words. Feel it, and choose your own words.
If you’re still reading and haven’t fallen asleep yet, I would like to finish by stating that this is simply an introduction to another way. Not all runners get injured. There are plenty of runners who are quite happy in what they have been running in for years. There are runners who swear by their orthotics. And that’s fine. It’s not explainable with logic, but it happens. I just wanted to suggest that there are other options for those who are tempted, frustrated, repetitively injured or just plain curious. There is so much information out there if you are. There are newspaper articles almost weekly now, quoting another piece of research that’s just been published. ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall is not just a great story about ultra races; it’s also an informative read about traditional trainers vs. barefooting. The Feelmax website is another source of research. There are a few links below for more background.