Just Say NO! To Running Shoes

If you are one of the millions of people who run on a regular basis there is a good chance you may have heard about the recent barefoot running “fad.”  Up until 18 months ago I thought it was one of the craziest ideas I had ever heard, yet people were leaving their expensive runners at home and heading to the street, track, and treadmill with nothing but their bare tootsies.

As a chiropractor, one of my biggest concerns when a patient enters my office is the biomechanics of their spine and kinetic chain of movements.  In other words, how their spine interacts with their overall gait and extremities.  If alignment is poor, there is an excellent chance that they are suffering an acute or chronic condition that is hindering their performance.

The top complaints from competitive runners are:

  • Hamstring Pain and Tightness
  • Plantar Fascitis
  • Knee Pain
  • Foot Pain
  • Hip Pain

This must sound par for the course, and only makes sense with the type of mileage many of these athletes put on their bodies each week.  The success that is achieved through chiropractic care has been excellent, as the realignment of this lower body kinetic chain can help all of these issues, and allow a person to get back to doing what they love best.  However, this is not the case with all of them.

That is where barefoot running comes into play.  When I first discovered the concept of barefoot running, it was through the best seller, Born to Run.  It chronicles the author’s journey as a chronically injured runner, to a man who is fit and stable beyond his years.  Even though he was told he should never run again, the moment he switched to a barefoot running stride his body started to adapt and heal.

In the spirit of Chritopher McDougall’s Born to Run, here are my 5 reasons to run barefoot:

  1. Avoid the Heel Strike – Due to the angle and padding of a typical running shoe, we feel comfortable with our heel striking the ground first when we run.  Unfortunately, with each step we send a shock of force up our leg and through our entire body with each strike to the ground.  Free running on the other hand caused us to run on the balls of our feet, with a more natural pattern that protects our bodies with minimal momentum loss with each stride.
  2. Reduce Stress On the Kinetic Chain – The kinetic chain of a running stride is essentially made up of the balance and co-ordination of your pelvis, hip, knee, ankle and foot.  Natural re-alignment can occur when the artificial feel and stride of the standard running shoe is removed.  Given time, your body can heal, balance, and restrengthen so you can achieve optimal performance with limited wear and tear.
  3. Rid Yourself of Acute and Chronic Injuries – In line with the other two suggestions, living a life with or fearing injury is no fun at all.  However, this is what many longtime runners are reduced to after they have lost faith in their bodies.  While my work as a chiropractor has allowed me to help many runners, they would be helping themselves even more if they tried the shoeless approach. 
  4. Better Balance and Proprioception – While many athletes do not consider their ability to balance a problem, it certainly can become one as we age.  Wearing the standard shoe while running can have a negative impact on our brains ability to recognize out body in space, also known as proprioception.  When our shoes are removed, the neuronal firing can work at 100% so we end up improving brain function, communication, and overall balance.
  5. Running Shoes May Be the Fad – The excuses I typically hear from patients and competitive runners for not switching to barefoot running is that it is just a “fad.”  In response, I typically explain the history of running as a popular exercise option.  This did not occur until 1972, and Nike was responsible for leading the way in the product design for us to compete.  That would put the age of the modern running shoe in the 40 year range.  When this is compared to how long people have been running barefoot, the evolution of our bodies to run barefoot, and the scientific breakdown of the heel strike versus the ball of the foot, we can see which one is indeed the “fad”.

One item I have not mentioned yet is the availability of multiple free running shoes available in the marketplace.  These shoes can be considered for those who cannot fathom the idea of running without some sort of foot protection.  The concept remains the same as these barefoot style shoes implement the same concepts as running barefoot.  Some of the brand names in the marketplace include:

  • Newton Running Shoes
  • Five Fingers
  • Nike

While I have come across some people who can wear a standard running shoe while avoiding a heel strike, this is not the majority.  If you suffer from acute or chronic injuries due to running, or have had to give running up all together, I implore you to give free running a try.  It has helped a number of my own patients, and actually helped rid my surgically repaired knee of pain and swelling.

About the Author:
Dr. Graeme Gibson, D.C. is a Seattle chiropractor who has been in full-time practice at Queen Anne Chiropractic Center since 2001.  In addition to work, he loves to spend time with his family, watching his son compete in taekwondo, and writing about health and wellness.

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