Do I run in shoes? Of course.

First Blog of the New Season

Hi all. Welcome back. The plan for the next couple of blogs is to use a training phase from the blog ‘How much training for the sub 34-minute 10km?’, to discuss issues surrounding the training that runners might be interested in. Diet, footwear, pace, heart rate etc.

DISCLAIMER: I have learned about the pros and cons of various approaches to these things over a number of years and evaluated the evidence with the same regularity. What I show you here is not designed to be an evidenced based blog, it is my interpretation of the evidence in conjunction with the practical realities which have led to my using this approach.

To shod or not to shod

If I am running slow (anything above 6-minute mile pace or running that is not a specific workout) my preference is always to run barefoot on a grass or medium-firm sand surface. If I am running fast (workout or strides etc.) I prefer to run in shoes using a road or track.

Let’s start with the slower stuff (the one that takes up most of our time). The rationale is two-fold. Grass or the right type of sand is irregular. It deforms slightly differently with every step. The foot has many bones and connective tissues deigned to respond expertly to subtle changes in the ground. Running without shoes and on an irregular surface, creates the maximum state of variability. High variability is the perfect tonic to overuse injury resulting from repeated microtrauma. By contrast, the interior of a shoe is regular and unlike the structure of the foot, largely unyielding. Similarly, the road in contrast to the grass is regular and largely unyielding. Reason one: variability is a runner’s best friend, the net result of running barefoot and on an irregular surface is high variability.

The second consideration is ‘quality of input = quality of output’, therefore, ‘garbage in = garbage out’. The nerve receptors on your feet are incredibly receptive to touch just like your hands. They are especially well developed around the region of the heel. It is for this reason that if you were asked to run along a footpath with no shoes you would proceed with far more caution than otherwise. Science has demonstrated that you intuitively shorten your stride, come a little more up on to your mid to forefoot and bend your knees to try to reduce the impact of the ground on your joints. Science has also showed that this is also what happens when running on an irregular surface (e.g. trail). You bend the knee a bit more and use the ankle a bit more like a spring (presumably to stop you from spraining an ankle). The increased feedback allows you to run in a less injurious way. When we combine the increased feedback without shoes with the irregular surface of grass or sand, we have optimum conditions for efficient running mechanics. Barefoot running doesn’t work so well on the road a) because the surface is regular and b) because the surface is so hard that you end up taking so much care that you can’t run fast enough – it is worth remembering we evolved on more variable surfaces.

Why am I unconcerned about the use of footwear and the road for faster work?

It tends not to matter when doing faster work-outs because we adopt favourable mechanics anyway. The changes I describe above such as coming slightly more onto the mid to forefoot, or bending the knee, etc. happen when we run ‘fast’. When we run slower we can extend our leg and land on a cushioned heel in way that is detrimental to us. To pick up the pace we have to adopt different mechanics at hip, knee and ankle, in addition to making better use of the spring-like function of the foot.

What type of shoes?

Shoes that are light, comfortable and cheap. Light, because as we’ve discussed we take more care when we have better feedback i.e. less cushioning. Comfortable, because intuitively we prefer what feels better and therefore, will adapt more positively, and, cheap because more money does not necessarily equate to lighter or more comfortable shoes (the only relevant criteria).

Note: in the acute management of runners with specific pathologies I may suggest different kinds of footwear to alter load on specific tissues. This is not the focus of this blog, however feel free to get in touch if you would like to discuss your own circumstances.