Barefoot Training and Trainer Choice: Part 1.

Two months ago I had ankle surgery which after two years of nursing an ankle instability issue gave me an even greater interest in understanding the foot and ankle complex. Trainers are something that I spend about 90% of my life wearing so it is important for me to get my footwear choices right- especially when looking to get my own training back on track and rehab an injury.

A question also that we often get asked by our training clients is “What trainer should I buy to train in?” This is often followed by a look down at our footwear- followed by “Should I buy those or should I buy a running shoe?”

A bit of a back story is necessary here to set the scene. Running trainers with support, motion control technology; special fabrics etc. may not necessarily be the best thing to wear when training. A lot of these technologies block movement at the ankle joint. Effectively shutting down range of motion and not allowing the foot to adapt naturally to movement. For a more in relation to running this website provides a great reference: http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/index.html

The question posed is that mid-foot to forefoot striking may be more desirable from a joint health perspective then to heel striking or absorbing force with your heel initially. What does this mean? Well, a lot of trainers have an elevated heel lift which causes heel contact ahead of mid-foot or forefoot strike when someone’s natural running style is unsuited to this method of movement.

This is twinned with another issue from structured running shoes. If we have a lot of medial support (typically in the mid foot area as a harder material or bar) it effectively blocks prontation (the movement of the foot inwards that happens directly after ground contact). So if we need support against pronation it is a good thing, how many people need extra support though? I have been lucky enough to work with dynamic gait analysis with pressure pads and excessive pronation can be an issue. However, the question is why do individuals have excessive pronation and what are the measures that we can counter against this apparent weakness? Well the recommendation that you go straight in to a support shoe is not always right. This again is about treating the cause rather than the effect. If the foot excessively prontates then often it is a question of stability and strength at the ankle. A point to note also is that in the case of shoe shops with “gait” analysis the instant reaction is “You are a pronator- you need a shoe that supports against pronation.” Most of these tests are performed visually or in static (on a pressure pad). Most people who “pronate” will pronate on contact before is transferred to the lateral foot before rolling back out through the toe. This is often the case as well if someone has flat feet- the assumption is that their foot will fall in on ground contact. Dynamically often though the arch of the foot may lift and the forces will display closer to a foot with a natural arch. Simply putting someone in a trainer and saying “off you go” is poor advice- similar to putting a new wheel on the car but only attaching one bolt to keep the tyre on.

Barefoot training and minimal shoe training is the smart move if you want to build up to running distance. This does not mean go out and wear flats all day every day and run barefoot. It means that building barefoot training and wearing minimal footwear can help build strength and stability at the ankle and lower limbs before running. In this sense the ankle has to remain stable in to prontation meaning the ankle is stronger at its initial contact point. Is barefoot running therefore recommended for everyone?

Well no- a lot of people will run without suitable strength not just at the ankle but through the knee, hip and lower back. Making sure that someone is structurally strong is important otherwise a minimal shoe may decrease the base of support further for the individual possibly leading to injury. This means that if someone is not proactive about building a better base to their strength levels then supported trainers will become effectively a “crutch” to lean against. After developing suitable structural strength then introducing a minimally supported shoe would be a good progression. This works brilliantly for single leg work such as lunge variations and single leg deadlifts. In these exercises the foot will try to grip with the big toe which will lift your foot arch in turn developing stability at the ankle on ground contact.

Barefoot movement drills such as shuffles and sidesteps can then be added to training, the key with these is learning to absorb force at the mid and forefoot. This can be quite harsh on your plantar fascia (the base of your foot) initially though rolling your foot on a tennis ball can help relieve tension.

Barefoot running is the next step; consider the fact that for year’s sprinters spikes and middle distance athletes have been using a minimally supported shoe. This does not validify their use but there has been no change in injury occurrences in the lower limb due to structured support trainers as discussed in the Harvard research cited. Either way if you are considering a minimal shoe to run in then I am presuming that you will be pretty switched on to having suitable postural balance, taking adequate measures to develop your strength levels and have a structured running programme with variations in intensities and volumes allowing you to introduce minimal shoe training sessions steadily without excessive volume. If you are looking for a gym shoe that will give good carryover to more effective training then you may also be interested in purchasing a minimal training shoe

So what are the options? I’ll review some of the contenders in my next post….

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