Guest Post: The Anatomy of Barefoot Running

by Matt on November 17, 2010

You guys are in for a treat today!

Instead of listening to my nonsense, is going to explain a little bit about the anatomy of the human body and how it pertains to barefoot running. She has been running barefoot much longer than I have, so she knows quite a bit more than I do. With that being said, I will turn over the reigns to for the rest of this post.

Hey guys! My name is Abby and I’m the blogger at . I am so honored to be here at The Kitchen of a Runner! Thanks, Matt!

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When I started college, I was determined to be a nurse. I was accepted into the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, which is no small feat, and studied as a nursing student for 3 semesters. During my sophomore year, when I was in clinical, I realized that I didn’t want to be a nurse. While I loved the science and anatomy classes, I hated the nursing classes.

A normal person probably would have switched to something like Physical Therapy, but I switched to Classics and Philosophy.

So while that decision may not make sense to many people, there’s logic behind it (I won’t get into it now). There’s another decision I have made that causes the same sort of questions, raised eyebrows and incredulous responses. That decision is to transition to barefoot running.

However, like my major choice, there’s logic behind this, too. I am relying on the knowledge I have of running, the injuries I have sustained (runner’s knee, patellar tendonistis, stress fractures, ITBS, achilles’ tendonitis…) and what I have learned as a nursing student. Guess what? Barefoot running makes sense when you know the anatomy of the foot. And I’m here to share it with you. And for the record, I run in Sprints, so it’s not exactly barefoot, but it’s darn close!

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When in shoes, the average runner strikes heel first. When you look at that, you’ll see how the force of the impact can travel up the leg and cause joints such as your knees and hips to absorb it whenever they are not designed to do that.

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Now look at a barefoot runner: you’ll see that when you run, you strike mid- or forefoot first. The strides are shorter and the foot stays under the body so you can tell that the force from the impact remains in the foot.

But is that good? Those foot bones are tiny, won’t that cause stress fractures?

It is very good! You see, the foot goes through something called pronation. While shoes (designed for heel strikers) inhibits this natural movement, it’s important that barefoot runners pronate. Pronation is the slight rotating of the foot from the outside toes to the inside toes to disperse the force of impact throughout the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Pronation only becomes a problem when you heel strike, but for mid and forefoot strikers, pronation is necessary for saving the bones of your legs and your other joints from injury.

So, since the foot is designed for that kind of impact, let’s all kick off our shoes and run a half marathon this weekend, ok? Just kidding! That would be a bad decision, and here’s why:

Have you ever broken your arm? Have you ever been in a cast? The weeks when your arm is in a cast, your muscles atrophy and your bones become weak. There’s no way you can immediately go back to your normal weight bearing activities or you will break your arm again.

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Shoes act like a cast on your feet. When you begin running barefoot it’s important that you ease into it. I think we all know that muscles grow with activity. They tear and then heal and are stronger. What you might not know is that bones do the same thing. When the body senses stress on a bone, little cells called osteoblasts come and build more bone around the areas under stress. As long as the force and frequency are not too great, the body has time to create healthy, strong bone cells.  Now if you are running too much, too soon, or aren’t getting proper nutrition, it’s likely that you’ll be sidelined with stress fractures because you didn’t give the osteoblasts enough time to reinforce those tiny bones (I know from experience).

Ok, that’s a lot about feet, but I have one more thing to add. Let’s say you’ve been trained correctly and you run on your mid foot, but you’re still in normal running sneakers. Well, you still run a risk of running too hard. Your feet are extra sensitive (ticklish feet, anyone?) and that is for a good reason. This helps your brain tell your body how hard to hit the ground and when to adjust your stride based on terrain. Sneakers with thick soles prohibit that communication and you end up striking the ground 2-3 times harder than you would if you were barefoot. That’s not good for your body at all!

So there you have it: the anatomy of barefoot running! Makes sense, don’t you think?! If you’re interested but skeptical, I suggest just trying it! IT has made my normal aches and pains disappear—even if I only run in my once a week. But always, always, always remember that slow and cautious running is important for the health of your feet.

Thank again, Matt! Happy barefoot running!

Woah that was really informative!

Who is going to try barefoot running now?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

November 17, 2010 at 8:37 AM

This sounds intriguing now! I never really thought about barefoot running but with the state of my knees, maybe it’ll be a good fit? :-)

Thanks for the information!
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November 17, 2010 at 7:39 PM

Definitely give it a try!! I think it will help!
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November 17, 2010 at 9:11 AM

barefoot running sounds way cool. i’m nervous that i’d end up stepping on glass or something!

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November 17, 2010 at 7:38 PM

That’s why I run in Vibram FiveFingers!! The thin sole will keep your feet safe! But if you run totally barefoot, you just go slow, and your feet will callus and they will keep you cut-free.
Oh, and don’t run at night :)
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ElliottNo Gravatar November 17, 2010 at 9:38 AM

I definitely want to try it! I think it would do me a lot of good. Thanks for the great info!

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November 17, 2010 at 1:20 PM

Wow.. thank you Abby! I’ve just recently converted to barefoot running and LOVE IT! But i definitely have to agree with you about taking it slow… One thing i’ve noticed is that your cadence is very important (well, at least for me) and it keeps me from over-striding thus eliminating heel strikes. The faster cadence keeps my feet under my body better… it just takes some getting use to the quick foot turn-over. Anyways, i really liked the post … Take care…

peace

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November 17, 2010 at 7:39 PM

Thanks, Curtis! My stride shortened without even thinking about it. My body innately knows how to run…it’s shoes that throw me off!
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November 17, 2010 at 1:29 PM

Great information! I already do and I love it.
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November 17, 2010 at 7:35 PM

Thanks for this Matt!!! I love spreading the word about barefoot running and like that I found others who feel the same!!
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D PattersonNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:54 AM

A suggestion for making that transition easier – look for a biofeedback insole that will come in contact with the central region of the foot’s plantar aspect. Proper development also comes from the proprioception and biofeedback that we can truly only realize with direct foot-ground contact – anything between the sole of the foot and the ground and the ground is a sensory insular and does not afford ideal biofeedback. Look for an insole that engages the foot’s center of mass. This is also the body’ line of action through the foot and also the location that ensures true tri-planar (3D) motion of the foot – confidently is also a very nerve engorged region. Progressive stimulation about the key point can help make the transition faster and safer: Summary – glad to see someone moving towards a more ideal foot-shoe environment and glad to see someone taking the time to throw some education to those who are simply jumping on the barefoot bandwagon.

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November 19, 2010 at 1:25 PM

Thank you, D! This is extremely insighful and I appreciate the time you took to share it. I did know that the foot is inhibited by anything between the foot and the ground and we hit harder trying to sense *something* that our body can use to tell us how to run. However, I didn’t understand it in such detail! I also heard that running completely barefoot on really hard groubd is the best way to begin to transition so that you learn excellent habits right away. I think I read that in Michael Sandler’s “Barefoot Running” book.
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November 20, 2010 at 11:48 PM

Great post. I’ve been running in the FiveFingers for four years, and have never felt better running-wise, all of those nagging running pains (knees, hips) are gone. I have seen lots of people jump into barefoot running too quickly though and really injure themselves, so your advice to take it slow is great. I have people start with no more than once around a track when they first start barefooting it!

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November 24, 2010 at 11:55 AM

This is a great blog post. I ran barefoot once a few years ago while camping (I literally was running late to a cabin area to get to my canoe reservation in time!). And it was a surprisingly wonderful experience. I had not expected it to feel so good, but it was.

In an earlier comment, Abby, you mentioned that the FiveFinger’s thin sole keeps your feet fairly safe. As a Brooklynite, I run outdoors over all sorts of urban territory (broken sidewalks, glass, random pieces of plastic, etc. etc.). I’ve heard the FiveFingers are good protection for some stuff on a running path, but I’ve wondered if it would provide enough for such an urban environment. Would you mind clarifying a little further your opinion about how much protection they give?
THX!

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LarryNo Gravatar December 11, 2010 at 7:36 PM

Very informative post. I was having some issues with one of my knees and tried running barefoot on a treadmill. Did about a mile and a half, twice during one week. I have not any knee issues and have switched to minimalist shoes and just recently went with a pair of five fingers. Really believe that the least amount of interference between you and the ground the better.

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