Can Older Runners Naturally Adjust to Barefoot Running?

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Should we approve the barefoot trend? Continuing on our discussion “Barefoot Running: What Older Runners Think?“, which was sparked by recent findings that runners over 30 years old are prone to injury when they¬† transition from regular running shoes to minimalist shoes or barefoot running,¬† here are more views on this topic from real runners:

Michael, Boston: For me, this is pretty simple: the key thing is your running form; it’s less about the shoes (or lack thereof). As Harvard Prof. Daniel Lieberman has compellingly shown, he barefoot form is what our body evolved to use — land on your mid/forefoot, with your foot directly underneath your body. This means better balance, less impact force, and the proper alignment of your hip, knee, and ankle. The result is decreased injury in all three parts of the leg — a benefit I’ve personally experienced.

I happen to prefer Newton Running shoes, as they encourage a mid/forefoot strike and are warmer and provide more protection than no shoes at all. They are relatively expensive, but running outside is a lot cheaper than going to the gym.

It is true that it takes time — and perhaps even more the older you are — to adjust to using the proper (natural) running form if you’ve acclimated yourself to heel-striking by using highly padded running shoes. Your foot and calves in particular need to adjust a bit, so be patient. However, after six years of changing my running form, I’m a believer: less heel pain and fewer IT-band problems. And, I’m actually faster, as I’m using my muscles more efficiently.

Dave Holzman, Lexington MA: No, an older runner does not automatically shift to forefoot striking when barefoot. But anyone who has read Born to Run–as I did, before I started running barefoot at age 57–does know to do that.

However, there are probably other potential hazards. It took my calves about 3 months to get used to barefoot running, and I had to slowly work up to my usual distance (3 1/2-4 miles). (The bottoms of my feet got used to it much more quickly.)

Albert Lewis, Western Massachusetts: Running? Heck, at 72 I’m having trouble walking!

Carolina, NYC 7: My experience with a good trainer has convinced me anything is possible. It’s not too late!

Seth Borg, Rochester: As a physician, it is beyond me why running barefoot has become a priority for some runners. It may sound carefree and evoke images of running on sunny beaches but the toll it may take on one’s feet cannot be ignored. The concept that this is what we “should” do, as our distant ancestors had done, doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me. Well fit running shoes may help prevent plantar issues, and secondary ankle and hip pain.

People who use well-fitted running shoes may also have periods of foot pain. It is the price for repetitive activity. My guess would be that most, if not all, of us who regularly exercise induce episodic, undue strain on a muscle, a muscle group, or tendon and ligament attachments.

man-running-barefoot

Indeed, relative to the feet, as we age there is a loss of absorbing muscle in the bottom of the foot along with a tightening of tendons and ligaments. Beyond the localized pain that should be a warning we begin to adjust other parts of our normal stride, resulting in secondary symptoms, perhaps in the ankles or hips.

The take away to new pain is to “listen to your body”, its trying to warn you to avoid further damage. Listen up and lace up for protection.

The Pooch, Wendell, MA: Many of us were frequently and repetitively injured while wearing the conventional raised-heel, ultra-cushioned, “pronation control” shoe. Learning better form, wearing more minimalist shoes, or going completely barefoot has been successful for many people who were chronically injured in the old running shoe paradigm. If by “listening to the body,” you mean proprioception, then running with less shoe _increases_ proprioceptive feedback, and enables better changes in form.

Dave Holzman, Lexington MA: @Seth Borg

I recommend you read Born to Run.

@everyone

I recommend also Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run: A Natural History (the latter book does not deal with barefoot running, but it’s a fascinating book by a very interesting long distance runner (and professor)

Counter Measures, Old Borough Park, NY: Is this some sort of joke, appropriate for the day?! I would think that most older people, those let’s say beyond fifty five, educated in an America, when being roundly educated, meant something aside from, how much MONEY are you making, are aware of the effects that GRAVITY has had on all our body parts!!!

Catherine Kehl, Cleveland Heights, OH: I started forefoot running (not properly barefoot – I wear minimalist shoes for it) in my mid or late thirties. I wasn’t a runner before – heel strike running had always been pretty horrible for me (I kept trying, it kept sucking). In fact, the only thing that hadn’t been awful had been running in martial arts slippers where I ran in a more fore foot style. So I suspect my lack of ingrained habits made for an easier transition.

But I’m also kind of horrified by the assertion that if people just take off their heavily padded running shoes, it’ll just happen, by magic. This sounds like a lousy way to have good form in anything. Gosh, you mean you have to learn it? Ya think?

(And, caveats – I did manage to give myself a case of Achilles tendonitis. Mostly by being an idiot – if I’d let it recover properly after I developed the first symptoms, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I pushed it. Of course, I was learning to run at the same time.)

I’m still really a supplemental running – martial arts, yoga and biking are my primary means of exercise – but I’m also still at it, and I love it. (And it always feels like I’m getting away with something.)

Jerry, Undisclosed Location: Shoes are one of the earliest inventions of mankind. There’s a really good reason for this. Once you leave the beach there’s lots of stuff on the ground that cuts your feet. Wear shoes.

Just Sayin’, Washington DC: Whatever theory is or is not, it is not reality. What you expect to see is not necessarily what you will see when you perform a controlled study.

One can not make the statement that you would expect fewer injuries with forefoot strike than rear foot strike “theoretically”. You would likely expect different injuries with the different foot strike but not necessarily fewer. Well designed studies only can measure this. There has been no study linking the repetitive forces in running as being causative of injury.

In fact, the repetitive impact has been shown to be helpful in lessening osteopenia and osteoporosis. And well designed studies have shown less hip osteoarthritis.

And keep in mind, correlation is not causation. Carrying an umbrella when it may and does rain is correlated, but the umbrella does not cause the rain. At least not according to the prevailing theories…..

Tess Harding, The New York Globe: I was told by my podiatrist that as we age, the fatty pads on the bottom of our feet atrophy. this might also contribute.

Carolina, NYC: Since switching to forefoot walking I have gained muscle in my feet (which have grown a size) that protects them when walking in minimal shoes. I have also grown my own arch, which before needed a support.