Barefoot Running: Efficiently Reduces Running Injuries

By Tay Yu Shan

We speak to Corrado Giambalvo, an Italian FIDAL Track and Field Federation Instructor, Creator of training protocols for youth of sports clubs in Italy, recognised expert of the Barefoot Running Movement and brand technical representative for Vibram Fivefingers on “Tips for transitioning into minimalist running”.

Photo Credit: http://styleandfashion.blogosfere.it/

 

Introduction

The key thing to remember when trying out barefoot running – simply speaking without anything on your feet -  is to start very humbly and gradually. Instead of running your usual 5 or 10 km a week or two times a week, why not start with an attempt of 5 minutes every day or other day?

“Run less, much less, more often” is the trick. Most runners, especially those who are used to running at least once a week, try to clock as much mileage as possible. This however, does not apply when one is experimenting to barefoot running. The reason is simple: barefoot running takes time to get used to. And the key to it is that it must be pleasurable and enjoyable!

So, the second thing to remember is to enjoy it as much as you like in order to get “maximum result with minimum running”. Being able to feel and to enjoy the process is as important as the result.

In order to illustrate this, Corrado then embarked on a series of exercises beginning with what he calls “refamiliarisation”. That is to say: get to know your feet. The reason being, people have no idea what their feet do – apart from smelling and hurting – because they keep them inside shoes, the same shoes all day long. So a good start might be to expose the feet to different stimuli and exploring the different sensations. 

Corrado demonstrating techniques on different surfaces

Running barefoot

Next, Corrado then gave a brief recap on the fundamentals of running. Namely:

  1. RIP – Run In Place; and
  2. CSI – Cadence, Stride length and Intensity

Apart from chuckling at the captivating and “noir” quality of the acronyms, Corrado then kicked off the educational session. Beginning with a foot drill that involves standing on your toes and then slowly shifting your weight to the inside, the heels and the outside edge of the feet, he illustrated the way to become aware of our feet by moving them as naturally they can, in all directions, applying different amounts of pressure, stimulating the plantar fascia and nerve endings under our feet.

After “warming up” the foot, it was time to put CSI into practice with some simple RIP: yes, by simply Running In Place. 

We tried running on the spot while following the cadence – clapping his hands to steady slower to faster beats -  given by Corrado. As his hands clapped faster, it helped to pick up my footsteps.

The next exercise we tried was similar, but with the knees lifted higher, for intensity. And oh boy, what a difference that made: going nowhere yet really feeling the effort!

As emphasised by Corrado, it really makes sense to first work on cadence and intensity, find and maintain the center of gravity easily and being relaxed while in control. Only after achieving this, then worry about finding a comfortable, pleasurable stride length.

With that in mind, we then set out on a short run around the exhibition area, barefoot. When we came to an open area, we then did a series of drills beginning with running in curves. We don’t just run in straight lines especially on trails and so the foot needs to be adapted to varied terrain, while feeling the ground and being open to the new sensations. We then did some running forwards and backwards in a straight line – to learn how to use the whole foot and not just stomp the ground mindlessly.

Once this was done, Corrado brought us to a carpeted area where we did strides of approximately 100m each time. Beginning with a low, steady cadence, and then building up to a higher cadence and then gradually increasing the stride length. This was repeated about 7-8 times, before heading back to the exhibition area.

SportSanity writer Yu Shan (Left), Corrado Giambalvo (Right)

Conclusion

The best tip to start approaching barefoot or minimalist running is to try it on a predictable surface: some people might prefer the harshness of asphalt; for others a golf course fairway or hardwood floor maybe better. Best to remember to “wake up” the feet first and really start gently and slow. Try both without preconceptions.

Different people have different resistance to different environments. Track and Field coaches all over the world have their athletes do barefoot strides on the grass to recover after a medium long run on city streets.

As for hard surfaces, it is possible to cover, protect, and give better grip to the feet. And this is where shoes like the Vibram Fivefingers (VFf) come in handy. Corrado advises to first wear them in a casual environment and to bring a spare pair of shoes in the beginning stages.

One way to experiment is instead of going on a regular circuit which takes you quite far from home or your gym, to run in the vicinity, perhaps in concentric circles so that if issues occur you are not far away from your starting place.

Furthermore, one needs time to get adjusted so it is best to start with a short stride, and then slowly increasing it. There is no one formula that applies to all. The principle is applying the fundamentals to your liking.

The shorter stride is the easier it is to control. This is also ideal for managing shock absorption, stability and steadiness while running. For a more intense workout, one can always raise the leg as though climbing a staircase with very high steps. When landing, what would be ideal is if the feeling is that of using the whole foot naturally, without pain and pleasurably.

Again, there is no “wrong way” of running because this is naturally adjusted to our body type and frame. With an understanding of the fundamentals of running barefoot, we can gradually find a way which is more related to technique and form rather than performance and objectives. We can really just also learn to relax (especially the shoulders!) while we run and make the whole activity very enjoyable. And it could just be, that by making it this good, at one point it might just coincide with the best performance we are capable of.

And by all means, for all over-achievers, challenge yourself but always know when to get out of the challenge if it just doesn’t feel good.

It was a short but highly informative running clinic. Thank you Corrado for your time and valuable advice!

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