Pragmatic Barefoot Running - A different perspective

Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Porter Olson. When he’s not out running and enjoying the outdoors, Porter is a writer and blogger for Porter brings an interesting perspective into his dabbling, and his thoughts on barefoot running. 

For eons we were perfectly content to run barefoot around the world with no problems other than the apparent ones. We wouldn't run through a cactus patch without shoes on, but there's a very good chance early man didn't either. Commons sense, particularly about feet and cactus, somehow feels innate.

Somewhere along the timeline, someone decided we need shoes on our feet, particularly when we're running.

Even though we've worn running shoes for a very long time, there's an emerging trend of barefoot running or minimal footwear which is described as any footwear lacking a cushioned heel, a stiff sole, and arch support.

Here's a look at some of the specifics of barefoot running and how you can involve yourself at any level you desire.

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Avoiding Hard-Surface Injuries

Contrary to popular opinion, running barefoot on a hard surface doesn't increase the likelihood of an injury. Our bodies are amazing and have an uncanny ability to protect itself against these types of injuries.

In fact, in 1960 an Ethiopian runner by the name of Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon as a barefoot runner.

The combination of muscles, joints, ankles, and nerve endings cause our legs to naturally adjust their shock-absorption to account for harder surfaces. Whether perceptible or not, our legs stiffen just enough to deal with the additional force generated by the harder surface, while still giving us the range of motion we need to run.

Experts say people can learn to strike harder surface with proper forefoot and midfoot form to further reduce any risks of injury, as well as create a more comfortable style.

Unexpected debris—Barefoot running does present a higher risk of some injuries that might not arise when wearing running shoes, even minimalist shoes like the "Vibram FiveFingers Bikila" and "Nike Free" series. These potential dangers include:

• Broken glass
• Nails, staples, and other pointed metal objects and debris
• Sharp rocks
• Puncture thorns, spines, and prickles
• Jagged, uneven sidewalk and street surfaces

Many running shoes, even those categorized as "minimalist" will protect your feet against all but the worst examples of the dangers listed above. However, bare feet have little to no resistance against most of these items, which could prove quite troubling, particularly if you're at your farthest point from home base.

Be prepared—Should you suffer a puncture or cut while running barefoot, what will you do? The best course of act is to stop running and assess the damage. If you've suffered a severe cut you should immediately dial 911 or someone you know who can immediately retrieve you. Foot cuts can bleed profusely, and continuing to run or walk on the injured foot will worsen the injury.

Clean the wound to the best of your ability and apply pressure to stop the bleeding. When running barefoot it's a sound policy to carry an adhesive bandage made specifically for feet, and some antibiotic ointment. Neither item will take up much space in a pocket or bag and could stave off further problems.

Additional preparations include Tetanus boosters. Under normal circumstances we should have a Tetanus booster shot ever 10 years, but many doctors and nurses will administer one upon sustaining any type of injury like mentioned above. Check your shot records and if you have any questions or concerns pertaining to the last time you might have had a booster shot, call your doctor and schedule one.

If you're going to run on an asphalt track at your local school, take the time to chose a lane and slowly walk the full distance. Remove all debris that could potentially cause you problems. Don't be embarrassed to show up with an outdoor push broom to use on your chosen lane. After all, they're your feet. Who's to say what preparations you can and can't make prior to running?

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Tips for Transitioning to Barefoot Running

Walking barefoot— The natural transition into barefoot running is to start walking barefoot as often as you can get away with it. Experts suggest no more than a mile every other day, but at least a quarter of a mile to start. To assist in making the transition as smooth as possible, do not increase your distance by more than 10 percent each week.

The sidewalk around your neighborhood is a great place to start. This keeps you close to home in case you suffer an injury and offers just enough differing terrain to begin the process of toughening and strengthening the soles of your feet.

Run in place on your forefeet—Your forefoot is the area of your foot that includes your toes and the thick pads just behind them. If you've ever heard the term "the balls of your feet," this is a direct reference to your forefeet.

Your forefoot is the strongest part of your foot, which means it should be where your place your focus are you're training your feet to run barefoot. Run in place, on a hard or moderately hard surface, to help strengthen your arches, Achilles tendon, and calves. These are the parts of your body that will be most impacted by the transition and it's important to gradually get them in shape and properly conditioned.

Expect some soreness localized to these areas, similar to what you would expect if you started exercising new sets of muscles elsewhere in your body. You can help alleviate lingering pain and rejuvenate tired muscles by stretching both before and after each workout.

Proper stretching required—As with any form of physical activity, a proper warm-up period is essential. Stretching your calves and hamstrings, while transitioning to barefoot running, is one of the main keys to an effective transition.

Stretching your calves—To properly stretch your calves, keep your entire foot on the ground and take a normal step forward with your other foot. You will feel your calf muscle stretch. You can bend your forward leg at the knee to stretch the muscle even farther. When you've reached a comfortable point, hold it for a few seconds and then step back.

Continue this method, alternating calves, for 10-12 stretches per calf. Do this before and after each workout, which will increase the blood flow to the muscles, help prevent them from cramping, and keep them limber between workouts.

Stretching your hamstrings—The hamstrings are a group of massive muscles located on the backside of our thighs, and actually contain three individual muscles: the biceps femoris, the semitendonosus, and the semimembranosus.

They function as a group to give flexibility to knees and hips and allow us to stretch, hold various postures, and turn quickly. Because of their size and their potential for long-term injuries should they become damaged, it's critical to warm these large muscles before running.

The best method for stretching involves laying your entire body flat on its back. With one leg left in position, slowly pull the other leg toward your chest while bending at the knee. With both hands on the topside of your knee, pull your leg down and toward your chest. You will feel these large muscles stretching. When you've reached a comfortable point, hold that position for several seconds.

Continue this method, alternating legs, for 10-12 stretches per hamstring. Like your calf stretches, do this before and after each workout for the very same reasons.

Take care of your arches—Also, massaging your arches frequently will help breakdown old scar tissue, which has built-up differently from running in shoes. It's important to listen to your body and if your arches start hurting, stop running and massage them.

With your thumb of your left hand on the bottom of your right foot, gently rub your arches with your fingers. Your and will naturally contract, which in turn will cause your thumb to simultaneously massage the mid-foot section of your foot. You can wiggle your toes and bend your foot at the ankle to assist in the total massage of your arches.

Repeat the process on your other foot. It should only take one or two massages in any give setting to help those muscles relax and feel revitalized.

With proper training and preparation, you can become part of a growing exercise trend and will likely see you distance increase while your times decrease. Remember, slow and steady is the key to success.

Never exercise a muscle or tendon you believe you've injured and properly stretch before and after each session.