This is going to be quick and easy. Will barefoot running make you a better runner? No, it will not. Yes, it will change your mechanics, but that doesnt mean all for the better. Barefooting is a tool and should be used as that. Period. Your feet are not conditioned whether you like it or not (caveman or not) to be barefoot all the time. 40,000 years of evolution says so, paleo man. That does not mean you need motion control shoes.
The video below is of Usain Bolt and all those he raced against when he broke the world record (on one occasion). I want you to notice how quickly his foot comes off the ground (this is the hamstrings in action), and then as his foot comes back towards mother earth and almost how it stalls or just floats to the ground underneath him. You will see very little if zero knee lift after the foot has been pulled the full distance to under his hips. This is an indication that the hamstrings are the primary mover. As his foot drops you will notice that it is in a postion in which a lot of people have interpreted hip flexion, and its easy to see that, BUT because the foot and leg are in a recovery place, gravity is pulling down and the hip flexor does not need to be active. A lot of coaches will say you want to drive towards the ground, yet this is not occurring as the speed it takes the foot to get down is not in sync with the speed it is pulled, this is why its blurry as he pulls his foot from the ground.
Now we have a video of Haile Gebrselassie running by himself, then against Paul Tergat. In both of these clips the only changes are the speed of the pull and how high the foot travels as a result of the faster more agressive pull. Then we have a clip of Dr. Romanov running on ice. Again, same technique. So far we have 3 different speeds… Sprint, fast, and someone on ice. Hamstrings being used as the primary mover in all.
Next week have a slew of runners going by at the Boston Marathon. The peeps in the big shoes obviously have an entire other set of issues, including the cushioned heel strike. They all actually have some similar issues. In the middle we have a barefoot runner. I want you to notice where the pull of the foot stops moving vertically towards the hip. You will then notice that the knee pulls forward. This is the hip flexors making up for where the hamstring stops. You will also notice that as the foot drops from the pulled position that the leg winds up in a position that looks – oh so familiar – with many of the hip flexor drills that many coaches, and “writers” are putting out. You need to understand that gravity’s role is constant and you are not actually accelerating to the ground (try jumping rope with that concept! Actually dont.), your foot and leg are falling into position. If you do activate the hip flexors though, you may fall into reaching for the ground as well as the chain reaction of engaging the hip flexors the whipping the leg forward with knee extension is a common issue we see . At this point you are now activating the quadriceps early and they are active when you land, which if you’d like to wear silly knee straps, and develop “knee cancer” by all means keep doing. Stop reaching for earth, she will pull you towards her at a rate you do not need to change.
So, where does barefoot running go wrong? It’s not that it goes wrong, it’s that we have not developed our feet no matter how long you go barefoot for. It is believed that shoes existed 40,000 years ago, not 1000, or even 5000… 40G’s, dude! This means the foot has changed to the point of “desensitizing” itself. Its why you eat Paleo. 10,000 years ago we ate a certain way. Now, here is where it gets tricky. Im not saying to put on some cushioned out shoe of any sorts. Quite the contrary!
Barefoot is a much better option than this!
Fact is you should walk barefoot and even do some running barefoot if your feet allow for it. It strengthens the feet and can help change your perception of what it is you are doing. Having some form of zero differentialed shoe, or slightly lifted heel is fine. Its when getting accustomed to highly cushioned shoes, a heel lift, or putting your foot in a glove or moving mechanically different because you are barefoot that changes this.
Wearing a glove on your foot only restricts the movement of the toes, and has a permanent restrictive arch in the foot bed, and that is UN-NATURAL. Just as bad as adding a heel… We live in a concrete jungle, and although some of you may be living the dream, in your back yard, hunting squirrel, cooking on an open fire, in your bare feet, tweeting from your IPhone (I am), I still bet you cant change 40G’s of time. If you actually use barefoot as training and learn to run with proper technique you might find you get better results. Of course puncture wounds, cold feet, twisted mechanics, wicked tight hip flexors and restricted toe movement are all awesome too.