This post was originally written for International Barefoot Running Day, May 6, 2014.
Happy Barefoot Running Day! As long-term readers of this blog will know, I run barefoot most of the time but help runners run comfortably in whatever footwear they prefer.
The main reason I run barefoot is the enormous pleasure it gives me – as great as running is, running barefoot feels at least twice as good.
The other reason I run barefoot is that it gives me a great deal of insight into how running works. One of the things I’ve learned is this: there is no such thing as bad running form.
That might seem like a preposterous claim, particularly from a woman who makes her living helping runners improve their form. But the more I run barefoot the more I understand that each of the movement patterns we know as “bad” running form has an important use. Every possible way of coordinating ourselves for running is, in the proper time and place, excellent form.
Let me give you an idea of what I mean through a few examples.
When I’m running barefoot and am confident of my footing, I lean forward from the ankles, land around the base of my 4th and 5th metatarsals, and bring my heels almost instantaneously down to kiss the ground. My skull slides forward on my atlas vertebra so that my chin moves away from my throat and I can easily look down or to the horizon or even upwards if I’m running uphill; it’s easy to look around. My pelvis and ribcage and shoulders are turning and shifting laterally. This is generic good running form, as you will have learned elsewhere on this blog.
When there’s a lot of little bits on the ground I pay more attention lest there be something unpleasant hiding among the pebbles, twigs, debris, cherry blossoms, etc. I look at the ground closer to my feet, meaning that my head isn’t sliding forward on my atlas any more, it’s more or less in line with my spine. This slows me down a little bit and makes me land a little flatter on my feet – both these things are helpful because I need just a tiny bit of extra time to see the ground and respond to what I see.
When the ground gets rough, for instance when I find myself running on some of the sharp gravel and cumbling blacktop my city specializes in, my lean immediately reduces so I’m running more upright. My feet lose their stiffness and get soft instead so that my weight is spread across a larger surface area and no single wicked pebble will cause me any problem. The reduced muscle tone in my feet spreads to my legs as well and I don’t push against the ground as hard or quickly, increasing my ground contact time. My pelvis shifts backwards slightly and I use my glutes less. This of course slows me down a lot while also keeping me from digging my feet too hard into the sharp ground, thus keeping them safe and healthy. All of this is regulated by nervous system without my exerting any conscious control, and shifts from step to step based on what I’m feeling with my feet.
If the gravel gets too sharp to run on, the changes I described above become more pronounced till I’m not pushing against the ground or leaning at all. My head is down, my back is rounded, and my pelvis shifts farther behind my feet…and I find myself walking. Even then, my feet stay very soft and my weight is spread out, and sometimes it even feels like my soles are shaping themselves around every tiny stone as if they had a separate intelligence from my brain. I love that feeling.
If suddenly feel something uncomfortable underfoot, I find I have shifted off it a split second before I’m even aware I’ve felt it. If it’s under the front of my foot, I’m instantly on my heel with my pelvis behind my foot, my back flexed, my head down. If it’s on the side of a foot, I’ve picked up that edge or even the whole foot and am on the other foot, with my pelvis shifted sideways off the pointy thing. If I feel it under my heel as it descends I’m suddenly up high on my forefoot, with my back a little arched to keep my heel from coming down.
If I’m running in high grass… well, this is a fairly risky thing to do, since all sorts of things can hide in there that you wouldn’t want to step on. However sometimes it’s necessary, and sometimes it seems worth the risk. In this case, I often am not exactly sure where the ground is for each step, and so I find I increase the plantarflexion of my feet, landing on my forefeet with my heels more lifted off the ground than usual. This slows down the process of landing and lets me feel where the ground is before I commit my weight.
Our nervous system responds instantaneously to sensation underfoot, shifting our center of gravity and regulating our muscle tone to safely adapt to the ground. The variations in my running form I’ve just described include overstriding, slouching, hunching, running upright, failing to use the glutes, running on the heels, running with an exaggerated forefoot strike… but every movement, no matter what it looks like, is a healthy movement when it comes as a spontaneous, functional response to the ground. All running form is good when it suits the situation, and the endless variety in every step keeps us supple and healthy.
However any of these things, if done all the time, would be a gait abnormality that results in excess stress and can produce an injury. In other words, running form problems come about not from any intrinsically unhealthy movement, but from doing a healthy movement in the wrong situation.
There are two reasons this happens:
- You can’t feel the terrain, as is the case in cushioned running shoes. There won’t be any unexpected pebble to keep you from running more heavily on your left foot than your right, or shock to keep you off your heels, or change in the surface to regulate the stiffness in your feet. You can end up running exactly the same way all the time – perhaps an unbalanced way — accumulating repetitive stress that can lead to injury.
- You don’t know how to vary your movement enough. If this is the case you’ll still do better barefoot because spinal reflexes that don’t even pass through your brain will operate to keep your feet safe and this will vary your movement. But they won’t be enough to keep your running optimal and versatile – you need to increase your repertoire of movement possibilities so you can spontaneously choose the best, responding with subtlety and finesse to all kinds of different situations.
Today, International Barefoot Running Day, is the day we celebrate the alternative to #1. If you run a wee bit with your shoes off today for the first time, you can expect it to take a year or more to accustom yourself to the sensations underfoot well enough to have the proper response, but you’ll find every step of the process fun and stimulating. Consider giving it a try — you’ll be a better runner even if you only incorporate a little bit of barefoot into your otherwise shod running.
Next Sunday falls in the middle of International Feldenkrais Awareness Week, which will allow us to tackle #2. Stay tuned!
For more about how our running form is produced by our interactions with the environment, here’s a livestream I did in 2020: