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Running Barefoot – Less Injuries?

I just read the book, “Born to Run” and felt inspired to blog about running, the hazards of running with or without shoes, and the implications for runners all over the world.

“Isolated by Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons, the blissful Tarahumara Indians have honed the ability to run hundreds of miles without rest or injury. In a riveting narrative, award-winning journalist and often-injured runner Christopher McDougall sets out to discover their secrets. In the process, he takes his readers from science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultra-runners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to a climactic race in the Copper Canyons that pits America’s best ultra-runners against the tribe. McDougall’s incredible story will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that you, indeed all of us, were born to run.”


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As more avid runners are now experiment with barefoot running, doctors say they are actually treating more injuries ranging from pulled calf muscles to Achilles tendinitis to metatarsal stress fractures. Many converts were inspired by Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-seller “Born To Run,” but took things too literally and started to immediately run barefoot, all around the world. The book focuses on an Indian tribe in Mexico whose members run long distances without pain in little more than sandals true, but what they failed to emphasize is that these tribes live and grew up, in the rocky plains and were conditioned to their harsh conditions since the time they were children. Running barefoot was not something they just picked up over night. The book also goes to say that the cheapest shoes with the thinnest soles were the best, and the top range full support running shoes actually cause the most injuries. With thin shoes, your feet and feel and adapt to the terrain, but with thick soles , you’re only running in one environment, which is the shoe. It prevents the feet from being trained and strengthened and adaptable to different terrain.

As you can imagine, the argument is very persuasive and makes people (even me) want to throw away my top range running shoes!

While the ranks of people running barefoot or in “barefoot running shoes” have grown in recent years, they still represent the minority of runners. In some cases, foot specialists are noticing injuries arising from the switch to barefoot running. Barefoot runners, are more likely to have a shorter stride and land on the midfoot or forefoot. Injuries can occur when people transition too fast and put too much pressure on their calf and foot muscles, or don’t shorten their stride and end up landing on their heel with no padding. While some runners completely lose the shoes, others opt for minimal coverage. The Vibram is a shoe that fits like a glove around the feet, designed to protect from glass and other hazards on the ground. There’s little to no arch support and they’re lower profile.

For some, they have started very gradually, initially shoeless, running only minutes at a time and gently building up. After a couple of months, they switched to barefoot running shoes after developing calluses. Experts say that the key is to break in slowly. Start by walking around barefoot. Run no more than 1KM to 1.5KM every other day in the first week. Gradually increase the distance. Stop if bones or joints hurt. It can take months to make the change.

For me, I don’t think I am ready to run barefooted just yet, but I have definitely focused more on perfecting my running gait. This helps in the longrun to decrease injuries.

Here are some common injuries sustained with long term running:

The Hamstring Pull

Almost all runners have heard of hamstring pulls. The hamstring is actually not one muscle, but a group of muscles that go from the buttocks down the back of your thigh and cross over the back of the knee.Several factors may contribute to hamstring strain, including weakness, muscle fatigue and muscle tightness. Muscle imbalances and laxity of the sacroiliac joint (the joint between the sacrum, at the base of the spine, and the pelvis) are more common in females and these can lead to a pull of the hamstring, too.

To prevent a hamstring pull, don’t run when the hamstring is tight. Stretch and strengthen the muscle group and avoid big increases (more than 10 per cent) in training distances each week. Some experts recommend incorporating running backwards into your training to balance the strength of your hamstrings and quadriceps muscles.

Shin Splints

Shin splints are common in beginner or infrequent runners; the main cause is running too much, too soon. The injury is an inflammation of the outer layer of the shin bone (the tibia) and the muscles and tendons that attach to the bone. Pain is felt in the front and inside of the leg, between the knee and the ankle. The treatment is to decrease the running load and, in severe cases, stop running for a few weeks. To avoid shin splints, increase your mileage gradually and run on grass or soft surfaces for part of your run to minimize bone stress. Make sure you have shoes that fit properly and are not worn out.

Kneecap Pain

The medical term for kneecap pain is patellofemoral pain syndrome. The kneecap (patella) sits in the groove of the thigh bone (femur). The kneecap moves up, down, sideways and turns with knee movement. The exact cause of kneecap pain during running is not clear, but the way the kneecap contacts the thigh bone during the higher-impact exercise is believed to be the source of grief. More impact occurs going downhill than uphill, thus downhill running is usually more painful. Treatment usually includes training the quadriceps; typically that means shallow, speed squats. In bothersome cases, runners will need to reduce their running or possibly cease running and do other cross-training temporarily. Some may benefit from arch supports and specific kneecap braces.


And so begs the question, how does one run without injuring oneself?

Here are some practical tips to how to run longer without getting injured:


A regular increase in speed can boost your confidence as well as your pace. You can try this on a track or on a quarter-mile stretch of road. Warm up with 10 minutes of easy running. Then run a lap around the track slightly faster than usual (but not all-out) and record your time. Walk half a lap, then do another lap at the same pace. Try to keep your times consistent. If you’re huffing and puffing on your second lap, or if it was much slower than the first lap, you went out too fast. Add one lap each week, building up to six laps. Then do a one-mile time trial. Time yourself running four laps on the track or one mile on the road. In the following weeks, build up to 10 laps, then do another time trial.


Adding distance is an important part of the training. If you run on average 3 -4 times a day, try adding 20% distance to your regular run, at least once a week and building from there. Warm up for 10 minutes, and go slow. The pace should be slower than your usual pace. If by the end, you feel like you could continue, keep going. Keep extending your long runs and in a month you should have doubled your distance.


Even if you’re not competitive, it’s a good idea to enter a race every so often. Just having the date on the calendar will give you a goal to work toward, and help you stay motivated. Find an event that’s known for being fun and well organized and take part asap. It’s good to see how well you fare when running in a real race with people running alongside you. Leading up to the race you should do 3 short runs a week, and one long run on the weekend – around 80% or the maximum race distance will do. Rest at least THREE full days before the race.


And as with everything, one step at a time. Always warm up before you start. If you take on too much too soon, you are bound to get injured. Even with running barefoot, the idea is to ease into it. No point pursuing something ” just because the book says”, and you actually feel so much discomfort from it. Listen to your body.. it will tell you heaps!



2 Responses to Running Barefoot – Less Injuries?

  1. missyblurkit September 11, 2012 at 5:45 am #

    i did ponder on running barefoot but gave up the idea when I couldn’t get over the yucky idea of stepping on poop or someone’s saliva:P

    • ciki September 12, 2012 at 7:36 am #

      we could give it another shot soon! 😀

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