Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Triathlete’s Guide to Barefoot Running

Barefoot running is a hotly debated, and very vogue thing to be doing as a runner.  Popular though it may be, it can easily be misunderstood by Triathletes working to maximize gains in three sports all at once.   Hopefully this guide will serve as an overview into the world of running unshod and/or less shod than most. 
So, who are these barefoot runners?
The barefoot community is…um…eclectic at best.  The gurus of the barefoot world are typically wizened old runners that have been running unshod for a long time.  Luckily, they’re easy to identify because they put barefoot in front of their name.  Why?  I dunno.  Ask them.  The Yoda of the barefoot world is Barefoot Ken BobArguably the most popular barefooter however, would be Barefoot Ted.  Barefoot Ted was introduced to the world by the book “Born To Run” by Christoper McDougall, a converted barefooter himself.  (Which is a must read by the way)

So they run without shoes?
Sort of…  There are a few different types of barefoot runner.  I’ll try to explain.
Zen BarefooterThese are the hardcore folks in the barefoot world.  They run without shoes, as often as possible, on just about every surface.  They rarely wear any type of shoe, and only do it when conditions require it.  In other words, barefoot is their default.  They just dig it, they like the connection with their environment, and the feeling of running barefoot.
The Mostly Barefooter:  This is where most people in the barefoot world live.  They do some or all of their weekly miles in huaraches (sandals for running), vibram five fingers, or some other type of footwear that is made to protect your feet from the ground while still allowing you to feel barefoot.  They may still do some running completely barefoot. 
The Minimalist:  Not actually a barefooter per se, but a very close cousin.  The minimalist runs in very light trainers or racing flats with minimal heel drop and no medial posting. 
Ok, so there are various types of nuts and hippies that run without shoes, why should a Triathlete care?
Good question, glad you asked.  You did ask, right? 
The answer is luckily an easy one.  Doing some barefoot work will very likely help you become a better runner than you are now.  Here is how I see it:
Run Velocity = Aerobic Efficiency + Biomechanical Efficiency
If you want better running performance (and who doesn’t…) you need to increase one of those two variables. 
Bio-mechanical Efficiency:  (AKA Running Economy) This is your body’s ability to convert energy into velocity by way of your muscles.  Barefoot running provides immediate biofeedback on your bio-mechanics.  Pain is a wonderful teacher.  Make no mistake, you can make great strides as a runner (pun totally intended) by embracing one of the great running techniques out there, like chi, pose, or evolution running.  However, there are nuances to running in good form that you can learn from barefoot running faster or more completely in my opinion. 
Aerobic Efficiency:  I’m referring here to a combination of Lactate Threshold and VO2max.   As a triathlete you’re probably all too familiar with these terms so I’m going to lump them together into one generic term I call “Aerobic Efficiency.”  If bio-mechanical efficiency refers to the ability to convert energy into velocity, then aerobic efficiency refers to your body's ability to convert glycogen, fat, and oxygen into energy.  I imagine you’re probably asking yourself “how on earth can running without shoes help me convert more fat and oxygen into energy?”  In order to run fast you need to, at the most basic level, run a lot.  Sometimes that will be fast running, sometimes very fast, sometimes slow, and sometimes long; but it’s all running.  All that running simply adds up to lots of miles on your feet.  How do you rack up the miles?  You train.  But here’s the catch.  You can’t train if you’re injured.  How do you prevent injury?  Good running technique.
The pose/chi/evolution/barefoot movements provides a lot of (somewhat subjective, n=1 type) evidence that bio-mechanically efficient runners spend less time hurt and more time training.  A few academics and coaches are beginning to do research to confirm this.  In the process, that improvement in bio-mechanics will get you some free speed in becoming more efficient. 
My Personal Experience
I’ve been in the “minimalist” camp since last December, and I joined the “mostly barefoot” crowd after my A race this year.  Since then, I’ve seen a huge increase in run speed, but as I had already been big into minimalism, not so much of a reduction in overuses injuries.  Overall though, I’m a lot better runner than I’ve ever been.  I’m still making huge performance leaps.  Most importantly, I enjoy running now.
Is it worth it?  Yeah.  Is it a lot of work?  Yes, certainly. 
How To Run Barefoot
I’d be remiss to not talk about this briefly, but there isn’t really a need for me to go into this.  This topic has been done a lot, and it has been done by people much more qualified than I am.  I won’t bother telling you to make the transition slowly…and I won’t tell you to listen to your body…and I won’t…oh…wait…  So, if you want to give it a shot, go over to Google and read up.  Check out and

Keep Running…

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