This is not an article to convince you to become a barefoot runner, but instead, it's a piece to help you assess whether or not your choice of gear is helping or inhibiting progress with running.
We were born barefoot, with all the necessary means to propel ourselves for miles and miles. But here we stand with our feet snuggly wrapped in various forms of polyester, synthetic material providing ample support and protection from the elements.
Why have we traveled so far from our roots? Why are we afraid to walk barefoot through the grass? And why must we insist on spending hundreds of dollars attempting to mask our natural barefoot identity?
The first pair of insoles I used were purchased for me in 1998. Twenty-two years ago, at the age of 12. I had been diagnosed with "jumpers' knee." Also known as patellar tendonitis, a painful condition common among growing adolescents, my physician thought that insoles might help alleviate some of the discomforts, and for a period, it did. I wouldn't even try on a pair of athletic shoes for the next few years without first slipping in an insole.
As I continued to run, the list of accessories grew with me. Next came a knee brace my junior year of high school, and finally, we added heel cups + orthotics by my freshman year of college due to bouts of plantar fasciitis. At this point, I also began using topical ointments and OTC medication to keep me from being sidelined. I had become accustomed to masking the pain and trying every new foot aid on the market to stay in the game. With each new accessory, I got immediate relief that lasted a month or two. Then the pain would slowly return, and with this, I went back to the drawing board, researching the next new gadget.
When my playing days were over, following graduation from college, the pain went away entirely, and it wasn't until I began running eight years later that I picked up that tried-and-true habit again.
Enter Super Feet - Blue Comfort. Its high-density foam provides ample cushion with a perfect contouring shape, stabilizing, supporting, and reducing stress on your ankles and knees. Super Feet, boasting durable construction to propel you up to 500 miles, these insoles are built with reinforced rails and have an added heel cup to absorb the road's impact. I WAS SOLD, so I bought two pairs.
My first two years of running were filled with ongoing bouts of plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and occasional knee and hip pain. I was back to my old ways of looking for various methods to mask the discomfort. At its worst, I threw in the towel less than a mile into a training run, and somehow here I sit, 34 years old, entering my fourth year of running, and I just retired my first pair of running shoes with the original soles still intact.
To my knowledge, not much at all. I certainly hadn't been running much differently. I was still a moderately pronated ball of the foot striking runner. I had been adhering to my sports chiropractic routine for mobility, and 2 – 3 times a week, I incorporated ankle stability exercises due to a mishap during a trail race. Nothing fancy about the programming; I was generally the same runner. I averaged 35 – 45 miles a week, with a few scattered races, but this last year I've used less topical ointments and somehow unknowingly distanced myself from insoles.
Consistency was the most significant factor in progress. There have been various bouts of pain, but I didn't take more than a couple of days off at a time. The repetitiveness over the last few years, I believe, has made an enormous difference. My body has finally begun to adapt to the load from running. The intricate web of muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding and supporting the lower extremities have become strong and responsive.
Where big companies and marketing failed me and my feet
The first moment I felt pain or discomfort, I felt the need to purchase the quick-fix option, and this notion was fueled by brands and companies pushing the need for maximum comfort, support, and cushion.
It took me a few years of running to make the correlation that "maximum," when it comes to your insole or shoe build, means that your foot and ankle demands are significantly decreased. When you hand the duties of stability and performance over to a material object, your muscles will respond accordingly by funneling strength elsewhere, creating imbalances. This works against your body's natural rhythm and response, which may lead to pain or injury.
We were born barefoot, and we were born as minimalists. Not to say that you need to transition to zero drop trainers if you're currently using insoles or running in high cushion/ support running shoes, but it's something to consider if you suffer from pain related to running.
How to find your natural gait patterns and stride
Take your shoes off and walk around. Go outside in your backyard and run through the grass. Do you notice anything different?
Our body's response when running barefoot is to land on the ball or midfoot because this allows your foot to absorb the shock and naturally propel you forward in motion. Many insoles are designed with exaggerated cushion, which prevents your foot from moving and absorbing shock naturally. Shoes are also built with added cushion, and some may have carbon fiber plates that act like mini springs assisting the foot in motion.
While purchasing insoles, high cushion, or carbon plated shoes may provide initial relief if you suffer from pain and discomfort, it's essential to consider that these products may decrease your foot strength and mobility when running.
How to transition to running without insoles or high cushion shoes
Our goal here is to slowly return to your body's natural foot strike and gait pattern. Pick one day out of the week to alternate to a pair of properly fit running shoes with the original insoles in place. You may need to cut your typical run distance or time in half and plan on walking as needed.
What you will begin to do is engage stabilizer muscles in your lower leg and foot that the insole or high cushioned shoe had previously supported.
Treat this like a 6 – 8-week strength-building routine:
Week 1 – 1 day half distance/ time as your typical run
Week 2 – 1 day full distance/ time as your typical run
Week 3 – 2 days half distance/ time as your typical run
Week 4 – 1 day full distance/ time, 1 day half distance/ time as your typical run
Week 5 – 1 day full distance/ time, 2 days half distance/ time as your typical run
Week 6 – 2 days full distance/ time as your typical run
Everyone is different. What works for some won't work for all. When I began running, I quickly fell into the habit of listening to the mainstream and ignoring my body's needs. If you have pain or discomfort, and it affects ambulation, consult with a medical professional with experience in running. More isn't necessarily better. Allow your body time to adjust, and the progress will naturally follow.