“Chronic Cardio,” as Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple and The Primal Blueprint calls it, is, according to us, one of the greatest fallacies of the modern fitness industry. Improper form in pursuit of cardio for the sake of cardio has created the need for further knowledge in barefoot and minimalistic running principles.
Everyone tells you that to get better at running, you just gotta run. If you were reading the bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, you might agree. Maybe if you just put in the 10,000 hours required to master a skill, you’ll be one of those “natural runners” everyone always talks about. The type of runner everyone envies.
The truth is, there’s a lot more to running than just doing it. More importantly is how you run. Over thousands of years, the human locomotive machine perfected the art of bipedal movement over land, through the natural selection of positive traits catering to it. Just as our gut evolved to work in symbiosis with the billions of bacteria that line it, and our immune systems evolved to conquer disease that would otherwise extinguish the human experiment on Earth, the human musculoskeletal system evolved to effectively move us from point A to point B… in search of food, shelter and expansion.
So why is it that after thousands of years of fine tuning, “scientists” (read: shoe and fitness manufacturers) have determined they can do it better? They believe that in the span of a few decades, they can improve on, or even negate the thousands of years of comprehensive troubleshooting we’ve already been through. And so, with the signing of a check, and contracting of a factory, the big shoe companies sold us on the idea that we aren’t designed to run… but that we can be… if we use their products.
Barefoot and Minimalistic Running Principles
Ever watch a child squat? It’s perfect. Ever watch an adult office worker? No? That’s because the vast majority can’t. To that same degree, there is a stark contrast between someone who has never worn shoes, and someone who was raised wearing Nike’s. The entire form of their motion is different.
Not only is it different. It is more efficient.
In Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s Pose Method of Running, available on Amazon, a name is given to what we believe is the humans’ natural running form: “Pose Method.”
The “POSE” Method
The method involves what we like to describe as a controlled, supported fall. In essence, the body leans forward at all times, commensurate with the rate of intended speed. As the body falls, the runner will pick his or her trailing foot up, directly underneath themselves. At the same time, the runner’s lead foot will extend directly underneath, replacing the support, and landing between the mid-foot and ball of the foot.
This “Pose -> Fall -> Pull” method is easily seen with sprinters. Since we are already conditioned to run incorrectly, it is harder to master at slower speeds. The benefits of this method largely revolve around the lessened impact of the lead foot. By landing midfoot to ball of foot, with the foot directly underneath the runner’s center of gravity, any remaining impact is effectively absorbed by one of the body’s largest built-in shock absorbers: The calves and hamstrings.
Instead of a heavily impacted “heel strike” (pictured), in which the shock of the impact is not so much absorbed as it is exploded upon the bones and joints of the lower leg, the forefoot strike provides a natural absorption and bounce, allowing the runner to nearly float on the surface they are running on… provided they maintain a forward lean at the ankle. When we talk about barefoot and minimalistic running principles, we are envisioning the POSE method.
The Wrong Footwear
The major shoe manufacturers would have you believe the correct way to run is by striking the heel of your foot on the ground as you push yourself forward with your trailing leg. They will also tell you that the reason behind your shin splints, stress fractures, and chronic knee pain, is that you don’t have enough padding on your $100+ running shoes. When you go to buy your fancy shoes, they come with anywhere from 1″-3″ of heel padding, which encourages you to strike with your heel even more, and thus perpetuates the cycle.
Instead of correcting the flaws in your running form, which were causing your injuries to begin with, the major shoe manufacturers encourage you to mask it with temporary corrective measures, all the while encouraging you to develop worse and worse chronic running injuries, and forcing you to buy shoes which allow you to compensate over and over again.
It is a brilliant marketing scheme, but unfortunately it is damaging generations of recreational runners by completely ignoring the essential barefoot and minimalistic running principles.
As a refugee, you should feel great without shoes on! It’s our natural form, and with a little practice you’ll find you enjoy running much more.
Fixing Your Form
Read Doctor Romanov’s book to start. Watch some videos to get a better idea of what it should look like. But ultimately, the best thing you can do is practice. Do not confuse this with meaning “more is better.“ The quality of your practice is much more important than the quantity. You must focus on mastery of the barefoot and minimalistic running principles in order to make this work.
We suggest you start barefoot on a soft grassy surface. Run no more than 400m at a time for the first few days or weeks. This will help the small muscles and bones in your feet get used to not being cushioned by layers and layers of superfluous padding. You will develop callouses and calcifications. Your tendons will stretch and heal. Pay close attention to your Achilles Tendon, which often times is the first sign of injury when you have begun the switch to barefoot running too quickly. Tendonitis is difficult and painful to recover from, so pay close attention, and if you notice pain, stop and rest.
Vibram Fivefingers KSO
If you are concerned about rocks, glass, sticks, etc. Or maybe you just don’t want to get your feet dirty. In this case our favorite minimalist shoes, which still encourage the proper running form are the Vibram Fivefingers KSO (men). The KSO stands for “Keep Stuff Out,” and just means they ride a little higher to keep out debris. They offer no padding between your foot and the ground, and provide a remarkable feeling of connectedness to the world you’re running in.
Your toes are individually pocketed, which allows your foot to completely bend, flex, grip and push off of every detail of every surface it touches. You will know instantly whether your form is in need of improvement. Without the padding of your ineffective, expensive shoes, your foot will provide you with instant feedback. It will tell you whether or not you are running and impacting the way you should be.
There are multiple models of Fivefingers available for selection as well as a few knock-off brands. Although we often sacrifice brand name for price, the original Vibram Fivefingers have earned a reputation worthy of our endorsement. Do not skimp here.
The shoes are also available in women’s sizes: Vibram Fivefingers KSO (women)
Nike Free Trainer
If old habits really die hard for you, and you just can’t shake the idea of wearing an actual shoe, then we think the Nike Free will fit your bill. Unfortunately, there are a few caveats. You’re going to have to pay the price that the major shoe manufacturers have milked out of the shoe industry. They’re not cheap.
But they are an effective alternative. Although they don’t replicate the ideal barefoot experience, they are an order of magnitude better than the standard foot-fare. They still encourage proper barefoot and minimalistic running principles on the whole.
The Nike Free comes in a few different models, from 1.0 to 5.0 and up. These numbers correspond to the thickness of the padding and cushion on the heel. We believe that less is often better, and being minimalistic and effective is one of the RefuGym mantras. If you can stomach it, go for the 1.0. They are stylish and at least marginally effective at improving your running form.
You can’t run effectively if you’re running wrong. This is why barefoot and minimalistic running principles are so important. Lots of major manufacturers tell you that you can fix what nature never broke, by funneling money to their pockets. Minimalistic running has been in and out of the mainstream, and unfortunately still has a faddish cloud surrounding it. But try it for yourself and see the difference.
Always remember to listen to your body as you transition into new training methodologies.
If it hurts stop and rest. Adjust your form if needed. Read up on your POSE Method literature, pick up some Vibram Fivefingers or Nike Frees and practice effectively.
We will cover treadmills and running alternatives in other articles.
In the meantime, stay free and enjoy your run!