Over the last few years, more and more runners and training professionals have been touting the beneﬁts of utilizing barefoot running form (or “bareform”), with a mid-foot landing, rather than the more common heel-strike. Many agree that a mid-foot landing is more natural, and I absolutely agree. Have you ever tried running in place with no shoes on? You’ll never land on your heel.
The human foot is an amazing structure, built with 26 bones, 33 joints and over one hundred muscles, ligaments and tendons. The arch is a beautifully designed spring mechanism that feeds energy to our calves, quads and hips and lets us run gracefully and painlessly…that is, if we just let it do its job.
The running shoe we see most often today has been around since about the mid 1980s, when more of the general masses started to take up running. The athletic shoe industry figured that the average jogger might want more comfort than the serious athlete, who had up until then influenced the market toward a more lightweight racing shoe.
So, all the major shoe companies started to add cushioning and a raised heel to the running shoe, leading to the heel-strike running form that’s so common today. Essentially they made running feel like walking. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Since then we have seen an explosion of runners in all shapes, sizes and athletic abilities. But we have also seen an explosion of knee problems, heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, and the list goes on. The super-cushioned, gel-ﬁlled, motion-control features of the modern running shoe have dimmed the natural movement of our feet and upset our skeletal balance, causing unnecessary injuries.
Because of this, some runners are setting their feet free. Some go completely barefoot while others are choosing to lighten up on their footwear, wearing shoes closer to what runners wore in the old days, with little to no cushioning and no pronation control. No bells and whistles.
Runners today are taking back their mid-foot and reaping the beneﬁts with less injuries and more enjoyable runs. If you’re up for the challenge of finding your mid-foot and improving your running form, here are some tips to follow:
1. Lose Those Cushioned Shoes
Bare feet are your best teacher. If you aren’t comfortable going totally bare, try some lightweight footwear. You can choose anything from huarache sandals to a high-tech pair of minimalist running kicks.
The things to look for in a minimalist shoe are:
- no significant lift from the toe to heel (4mm or less) or none at all (often marketed as “zero-drop”)
- very little to no cushioning
- an extra-flexible sole
- plenty of room for your toes to spread and move
Here are some of my favorites:
If you’re just too stubborn to part with your cushioned trainers, well…that’s okay. You can still be better off if you improve your running form by following the rest of these steps.
2. Stop Landing on Your Heels
The key to good form is in contacting the ground with the front half of your foot first. This is more difficult to do in heavy trainers, but it’s next to impossible to avoid when barefoot. The exact contact spot varies from person to person. Some land on the ball of their foot (forefoot landing), but most land somewhere in the middle (mid-foot landing).
Your heel should still touch the ground briefly. However, it should not carry a large weight load. Your foot must land directly under your center of gravity. As soon as your heel makes contact, your arch and lower leg muscles will gather the spring they need to move your body forward. This way you can land much more lightly and bounce out of each stride rather than pound the ground. I like to tell people that proper running form feels more like bouncing than stepping. And it really is.
Jason Robillard, bareform running coach and author of The Barefoot Running Book and the super-informative website Barefoot Running University, recently taught me that the best mental trick for learning a proper foot landing is trying to land with your foot flat. Yes, flat. All at once. Your mid-foot makes contact with the ground first, but the rest lands almost simultaneously, too fast for you to control. You don’t want to anyway, it’s supposed to be automatic. So if you just focus on landing flat-footed, you will land correctly, and avoid those weeks of ignorantly keeping your heel too far off the ground and busting up your calves while doing so.
Yeah, you know you did that. I’ll admit I did, too.
3. Stand Up Straight, and Shorten Your Stride
Remember what your mother told you: don’t slouch. A slumped-over runner wastes energy and allows for over-striding, which means extending the leg so far ahead that the foot lands in front of the body’s center of gravity.
Over-striding is the main reason why a heel-strike landing is so bad. Because over-striding essentially puts the brakes on every stride you make, it can lead to a host of problems, joint pain and knee injuries in particular. So keep your back straight, lead with your chest and focus on every footfall being directly under your center of gravity, not in front.
Shortening the length of your stride and increasing your cadence makes it easier to straighten up and resist over-striding. The average heel-striking runner uses longer strides and a cadence of 90 to 120 beats per minute (BPM), but the recommended cadence for optimal mid-foot running is about 180 BPM.
Getting this cadence down was the main factor in my learning proper form. Even now if I get tired on a run, I’ll take a quick look down at my watch to make sure that my cadence is at least three steps per second.
Finding your mid-foot will make you a more graceful and energy-efficient runner. But there’s nothing graceful about running with stiff, robot-like limb and tensed-up shoulders. Loosen the heck up!
Relax your shoulders, neck, hands, toes, and even your legs. Focus on only using the muscles you need to make each stride. Extra tension in your muscles wastes energy and can cause a lack in flexibility and extra soreness. Bend your knees, shake out all the stiffness and let your body choose which muscles carry you forward.
5. Follow Your Body, Not Your Mileage Goals
Switching from a heel-strike to a mid-foot strike is serious business at first. In the long run, good mid-foot form is easier on your joints and spine and strengthens your ankles, feet and lower legs. But it is a big change for your very underused lower leg and foot muscles, which have essentially been in an immobilizing cast your entire life!
It is important to start slow—even slower than you think. And then slower than that! Build mileage gradually and always listen to your body whenever you think it’s probably telling you to stop. How do you know? Just use common sense! If you need a place to start, most knowledgeable barefoot runners recommend no more than 1/8 to 1/4 mile at first, and increasing distance by 10 percent each week.
For longer distance runners, this may seem ludicrous. Believe me, I understand the desire to continue your weekly mileage without interruption. And, runners are not known to be the most patient people in the world. However, learning a new running form is the equivalent to being a new runner. With that said, every runner is different. The smartest thing you can do is be patient, pay attention to how your body feels and avoid injuries by taking it easy during your transition period.
And if you overdo it and end up with PF or a stress fracture, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.
6. Learn from the Masters
Finding your mid-foot takes a little more finesse than just throwing off your trainers and heading out the door. Fortunately, there is a wealth of advice out there on running with good form. Helpful guidebooks by masters of the sport can be useful tools no matter what you wear on your feet. Here are some of my favorite:
You can also look to instructional YouTube videos, informational minimalist running blogs and helpful runner forums for your education. There are even some barefoot and minimalist running coaches all over the country who can help you correct your form one-on-one in person or through email. You don’t have to learn all by yourself.
So go ahead and ﬁnd your mid-foot. Your feet will thank you for it.