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Barefoot Running

It’s not uncommon to see Belmont senior marketing major Lilly Casha jogging along busy city streets, with her iPod and water bottle in hand, running in time to her music. But one thing’s missing. Her shoes.

Two summers ago, she decided to ditch them and go barefoot, and she said she’s never looked back.

“I was just trying to find something different to do because I can run for hours and hours and hours and not get tired, but I get sort of bored,” she said. “It stopped being fun, so I was looking for another way to make it more fun, and I found barefoot running.”

Casha began walking a mile a day without shoes at the beginning of summer to prepare her feet for barefoot running. By September, she had worked them up enough to run a marathon barefoot. But the first time she ran without shoes wasn’t easy.

“It was so hard,” she said. “When you start doing it, you have to build up to it because when you run in shoes, your foot hits the ground in a totally different way than when you don’t, and so it’s murder on your calves if you wear running shoes on Monday and then go out running barefoot on Tuesday.”

Casha started running consistently nearly four years ago. With shoes, she ran around 30 to 37 miles a week. Since going barefoot, she’s now running between 45 and 55 miles a week.

Running barefoot has transformed her feet physically so that they’re now “hard as a rock,” but this former “pedicure girl” said she thinks it’s worth it.

“There are vibes,” she said. “As soon as your foot hits the ground, it’s like vvvhhuumm, it’s like, ‘alright, let’s go!’”

For her, trying barefoot running was a “shake-it-up thing.” And that kind of experimentation is something she encourages.

“If what you’re doing is not working, just try something else, just experiment,” Casha said. “And if you don’t like it, then maybe it’s not for you, but just give it a shot . . . it just might turn out that it’s your favorite thing.”

Dr. Nick Bacon, a Belmont professor of sport science, explained that running barefoot helps individuals learn proper running technique and improves their performance.

“Probably one of the best feelings about barefoot running is, once you learn how to run and use gravity in your favor, running becomes a series of falls, not a series of push-offs,” Bacon said.

Shoes prevent the kind of instant feedback that barefoot running enables. Without shoes, runners are better able to feel the impact their running style has on their legs and feet, allowing them to immediately adjust their technique.

“I think barefoot running teaches you how to run properly through consequence of pain or discomfort,” Bacon said.

He recommends running on a clean, hard surface like a running track or concrete because it’s easier to feel when you’re running improperly.

“If you do have bad form, there’s a consequence to you having bad form, and it’s you feeling that impact every time you hit the hard surface,” he said.

Before going barefoot, take a good look at your feet to determine if running without shoes is really best for you, and do your research.

First, consider the current condition of your feet. If you have abnormal growths like bunions, the impact of running barefoot could be more harmful than helpful.

“Anytime you change your running form drastically, your body needs time to adapt, or injuries will most likely occur,” Bacon said.

Think about the styles of shoes you typically wear, too. If you’re more accustomed to wearing structured, cushioned footwear, then you should consider first transitioning to more minimal footwear before running barefoot.

Joseph Cates, a sales associate at Athlete’s House in Nashville, explained that minimal shoes share these common characteristics: a zero millimeter heel-to-toe differential (that’s the height difference between your heel and toes), thin sole and lightweight design with no heel inserts.

Whether it’s transitioning from more structured to minimal footwear or from running shod to barefoot, the process should be slow.

“Be conscious of what you’re feeling. If it’s starting to hurt, don’t push it, and just work up slowly,” Cates said.

It takes about six months to a year of training for new bone formation to occur, Bacon said. During this time, it’s important to make small, gradual changes in technique so as to reduce the risk of injury.

To develop bone growth and improve bone density in the feet, he recommends starting out by simply walking around barefoot for a few minutes a day, a couple times a week. Then, as the bones in your feet gradually strengthen, you can increase the time and distance of barefoot exercise.

After running barefoot for a prolonged period of time, you’ll notice changes in the physiology of your feet. Bacon explained the forefoot will become wider, the arch will become more pronounced and the sole will thicken, creating a protective layer of skin that helps prevent puncture wounds from stepping on thorns, sticks or rocks.

For those who run more than 20 miles a week, combining barefoot running with cross training like biking, swimming and aqua jogging can help prevent de-conditioning, he said.

Going for Barely There? Athlete’s House sales associate Joseph Cates recommends these minimalist running shoes for those wanting to transition from structured athletic shoes to barefoot running. + Brooks PureProject + Saucony Kinvara + Nike Free Family + New Balance Minimus + Merrell Barefoot Collection + Vibram Five Fingers Keep moving Want to learn more about barefoot running? Belmont professor Dr. Nick Bacon recommends visiting these websites for more tips and information: + “Running Barefoot” Harvard University + Ken Bob Saxton “Running Barefoot” + Newton Running + Barefoot Running University

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