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Take a sensible approach to taking off your running shoes, says Running School performance director, Mike Antoniades.

In 2009 a fantastic book, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, was published and became an international bestseller. Its core message that barefoot running is an exhilarating experience seemed to touch a rich vein and the book spawned an explosion in barefoot running.

One step at a time

Anyone who has run barefoot on sand or through soft grass can testify that there is something exciting about running barefoot – a sense of freedom. Nevertheless, from working at the Running School and seeing thousands of runners of all ages and abilities, I fear that barefoot running is in danger of becoming a fad, and a damaging one at that. I also worry that for every well-informed writer there is on this subject, such as Christopher McDougall and others, there are a growing number of coaches promoting barefoot running in the wrong way.

You can’t just throw away your running shoes, take your socks off and automatically change your run technique – that just doesn’t happen. It also doesn’t work if you buy a new pair of minimalist shoes and think that you are going to run better.

Changing your stride

Many people who move to barefoot running tend to automatically run on the balls of their feet. This is because it’s less painful to run on the balls of the foot than it is to run heel to toe when you’re barefoot. Also, you’ll find your feet spend less time on the ground because you take shorter, faster strides to avoid the pain. If you haven’t been taught how to run or developed good movement from a young age you’ll also have a tendency to land ahead of your centre of gravity and put a lot of stress on the front part of your foot, or your Achilles tendon and calf. This often leads to injury, which is why barefoot running isn’t for everyone.

The only thing that changes when you throw away your running shoes and go barefoot is the way your foot lands. But your footfall isn’t the be-all and end-all of running technique.

First and foremost, running technique is about movement patterns. If you practise the correct movement, your body learns the correct movement. If you practise an inefficient movement, it will learn an inefficient movement and as soon as you try to increase the volume or the intensity of an inefficient movement your injury risk dramatically increases.

Running technique is about your whole body. How your arms move determines how much balance and forward momentum you get and affects the length of your stride. How you use your torso and how good your dynamic core is determines how much time you spend on the ground and the amount of force that travels through the ankle, knee, hip and back. How your legs move determines your stride frequency, stride length and how much force you hit the ground with. How your feet land can determine how efficient you become in transitioning from one foot to another, how much you brake when you land and how much force goes through your body.

Practice makes perfect

Running technique equates to so much more than the way your foot lands. It makes no difference whether you’re wearing shoes or not, good technique is vital. It can be developed and perfected and the better you are at that skill, the more efficient you become. Like everything in life, the more you work at something the better you become at it.

In fairness, barefoot runners and its advocates do usually say that it takes between six to 12 months to make the transition from wearing training shoes to running barefoot. This is fine, but people are impatient and want everything today. So they rush into barefoot running, get hurt and then can’t run at all.

Barefoot running is an interesting and exciting development that will no doubt continue to grasp the imagination of many. But remember the key to happy and fulfilling running is to have good movement technique, whether you wear trainers or not.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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