What is natural running all about?

Much has been written about the merits and pitfalls of barefoot running and the use of minimalist shoes. Some have heralded it as the panacea to all injuries and the key to enhanced performance while others warn that it’s the surest route to Achilles tendonitis, fractured metatarsals and other such woes. Of course, neither view is entirely true. As Professor Daniel Lieberman, a leading researcher on barefoot running at Harvard University, said when Sam interviewed him for Runner’s World magazine: ‘The issue isn’t whether you run barefoot or not, but about how you run – your form.’

In other words, you can get injured in a pair of barely-there minimalist shoes as surely as you can in a pair of motion-control monsters if your form isn’t up to scratch. But – and it’s a big but – what minimalist shoes – or no shoes at all - can do is raise your awareness of how you run, which has to be the essential first step in improving your form.

Top form

In 2010, Professor Lieberman published a study showing that habitually barefoot people run differently to people who are accustomed to wearing trainers. For a start, they tend to land on the forefoot rather than on the heel (which is where 75 per cent of shod runners land). And secondly, they land more softly, generating smaller collision forces (the force of initial impact) than heel strikers wearing shoes in spite of the absence of cushioning. They also have greater springiness (known as ‘compliance’) and less stiffness in their stride.

In 2012, further research by Lieberman found that the incidence of injury among heel strikers was twice as high as among forefoot strikers. Put these findings together and you have a pretty convincing case that running with a ‘barefoot’ or ‘natural’ running style with a forefoot landing is likely to help you reduce your risk of injuries. And if it is performance enhancement, rather than injury prevention, that concerns you, you’ll be interested to hear that Lieberman also found that forefoot runners had a modestly better running ‘economy’ (that is the oxygen ‘cost’ of running).

Should you switch?

So does that mean that everyone should switch their style to barefoot running? Well, not necessarily. It depends on what your goals are, whether you’ve had many injuries in the past and how much time and effort you are willing to devote to changing your form. Whatever the shoe companies might tell you, it's not a simple matter of donning minimalist footwear - you need to put some work into improving! And conversely, if you can't (or aren't able) to put in the time and effort to make lasting changes to your running technique, you should probably stick to your existing footwear rather than opt for minimal shoes. Galahad Clark, founder of Vivo Barefoot, puts it beautifully: 'if you are going to bang your head against a brick wall, best wear a helmet. But why not simply stop banging your head against the wall?'

In our opinion, if you have had a string of injuries as a result of running, or if you’ve reached a ‘plateau,’ performance wise, that you don’t seem to be able to get off - and you are willing to invest the necessary time and practice - you’ll be well rewarded by making the switch. But don’t expect to change things overnight.

Making the transition

It’s impossible to give a set ‘timescale’ within which you’ll be able to change your form – it’s very individual and depends on factors including your body awareness, strength and flexibility and running experience (arguably, it’s harder to break old habits).

It’s likely that if you are willing to forgo pace and mileage for a while, and focus entirely on drills and barefoot form over short distances, you’ll progress quicker than if you continue to run in your ‘normal’ shoes for the majority of your runs and only do a little barefoot or in minimalist shoes. But either approach can work. A good strategy is to switch your 'normal' running shoes for a more lightweight, minimal shoe that still offers a little cushioning and heel raise and use a true barefoot shoe for drills and shorter runs, so you are at least always heading in the right direction. Do ask us for advice on specific models if you need guidance. When you buy your shoes from us, you’ll receive an information leaflet with some advice on transitioning, and some hints on common teething problems and how to solve them. Be patient and enjoy the journey of discovery!

Find out more about Running Well workshops with Sam Murphy

Barefoot versus Minimalist

There are all kinds of shoes out there purporting to be 'barefoot' running shoes, or using the terms natural or minimalist, but what does it all really mean? In our eyes, here are the qualities of a true barefoot shoe:

  • No heel raise – our feet don’t have elevated heels, so why should our shoes?
  • A low profile – giving better stability and responsiveness
  • No midsole – that means no structure, no motion control and no cushioning
  • Thin, flexible sole – offering protection without hampering the natural movement of the foot
  • Lightweight – maximizing your efficiency and pace

From our range, all Vivo Barefoot shoes, all Fivefingers and the Inov-8 Bare-X 180 fit these criteria. So what’s a minimalist shoe, then? The best minimalist shoes on the market offer some, but not all, of the above features – for example, good flexibility and less weight but with a small heel raise or a modest amount of cushioning. These shoes can be a good compromise for someone who doesn’t want to go the whole hog, or as a tool to help you transition to barefoot. All the Inov-8 shoes we stock (bar the Bare-X 180) fit the bill - with varying degrees of heel drop, from zero through to 9mm. We both have minimalist shoes in our arsenal, but we do believe that nothing beats a genuine barefoot shoe for finding your form. (Except going barefoot, of course!)

Workshops and coaching

Sam offers one-to-one coaching – shod and unshod - for runners of all levels and abilities. Read more at sam-murphy.co.uk

We also offer group workshops in London and the south-east. Keep an eye on our facebook page and twitter feed for details of forthcoming workshops or drop us an email to go on the notification list.