It’s a familiar story: A longtime runner suffers nagging injuries and is forced to abandon the sport he loves. Then he reads Born to Run, the best-selling true story of a tribe of native Mexicans who run barefoot and never endure an overuse injury despite being some of the best long-distance runners in the world. Our longtime runner soon buys a pair of “barefoot running” shoes because no one in this country actually runs barefoot. Instead, American barefoot runners use what is known as “low-profile” shoes, which place the heel and the ball of the foot on the same plane. (Almost every major shoe company makes a low-profile model now.) He learns how to run in the new footwear, resumes running without injury and goes on to tell everyone about it.
It’s a good story, but there’s one catch. It’s not the shoes that cured our longtime runner, says Robert Forster, a physical therapist who owns Phase IV, an athletic performance clinic in Santa Monica, Calif. It’s the fact that he finally learned how to run.
Running is the one sport that no one is taught. You start as a kid, and by the time you’re an adult, you think you know how to do it. Unfortunately, inefficiencies and flaws in mechanics eventually snowball and are only resolved by really learning the intricacies of gait, stride and pace. In fact, the only technique involved in barefoot running is sound biomechanics; the shoes make it slightly easier to incorporate the new movement, but one is not dependent on the other.
“The basic feeling is, if you can run properly, you can run with shoes or without and do pretty good,” says Forster, who has been the physical therapist for a number of Olympic track-and-field gold medalists, as well as champions in tennis, triathlon and MMA. “If you’re a regular guy and switch over to barefoot shoes without changing running style, I think the shoes will help change your running style. But without consciously improving mechanics, you’re at a bit of a loss. You lose the shock absorbency of the shoe and you’re still not running right.”
Forster and his team of therapists perform gait analyses on dozens of runners every year. Much of their prescriptive advice boils down to three elements.
Use more arm swing: Fascia, which covers muscles, is like a full-body wet suit of connective tissue, and it’s especially thick on your back. Lifting your right knee causes the right shoulder to be pulled back because the fascia is stretched. Arm swing prevents rotation of the trunk when you run. It’s also important for efficiency and speed. “Pump your arms and your legs will move,” Forster says.
Drive the knee higher: “The classic runner has a low knee, and he hits the ground when the tibia is still swinging forward,” Forster says. “Every time you land ahead of your center of gravity, you are breaking your forward momentum. You need a high knee in the front so that the lower leg bone has time to move backward to hit the ground.”
Turn the steps over quicker: A basic law of physics that governs running states that the foot needs to land as close to your center of gravity as possible. Overstriding, or getting the foot way out ahead of the center of gravity and landing on the heel, is a common problem in many runners. Forster tries to get his clients to take 180 steps a minute or about 30 steps every 10 seconds, whereas most runners take between 25 and 28 strides every 10 seconds. Combined with a high knee, a faster turnover creates a shorter, more efficient stride that keeps the foot striking the ground beneath the center of gravity.
With these techniques, most people can run fast and pain-free no matter what shoes they wear. While Forster isn’t against barefoot running shoes, he advises runners to take their time in transitioning from traditional running shoes to barefoot models. “The safest way to switch is to do just one short run day the first week in them, then two short runs the second week,” he says. “Ease into it until you switch all your runs to barefoot running.”