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Relearn Running

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-06-2014 Rajat Chauhan

The running craze has hit India recently, but in the US and UK, running became a passion for people in the 1970s. Simultaneously, the soles of running shoes started getting thicker and more cushioned. There are running shoes today that have soles as thick as 65mm.

It was Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen, a 2009 book by award-winning writer Christopher McDougall, which made a case for barefoot running. He was opposed to the idea of thick-soled running shoes. It helped the sales of minimalist shoes, Vibram FiveFingers shoes to be specific, go through the roof. These shoes have the five toes in separate compartments and the sole thickness is as little as 5mm.

The idea behind barefoot running is to be more grounded, literally, and connect again with our natural surroundings. The soles of the feet have the most nerve endings in the body. But from the time we are very young, we are taught to put a barrier in between our feet and the earth, that is, wear socks and shoes.

The companies that manufacture running shoes make all kinds of claims, ranging from “they make you run faster” to “they tone your buttocks”. These claims have landed the companies in trouble because they were proved to be incorrect. In recent years, shoes with minimal cushioning (Vibram) and traditional well-cushioned shoes (Skechers USA, Inc. and Reebok International) have faced class-action lawsuits in the US, with settlements ranging from $3.75-40 million (about `22-240 crore).

In my opinion, just finding fault with the companies is not fair. If you really want to improve your running, then work on your technique—and that is possible if you let your bare feet touch the surface.

Some people will argue that they have been wearing running shoes for decades. But just because you have been doing something for a while does not make it right.

Our running gait isn’t natural now since most of us have been sitting on our butts since the age of 3 or 4, and have deactivated the magnificent gluteus maximus (butt muscle), which has now been shown to exist only to make you run.

The cushioned soles of running shoes can be compared to car bumpers. You tend to be a little less careful when the car has bumpers. If you remove them, you will be more careful when you drive.

It’s the same when you run barefoot using the natural running technique (see images)—you tend to land softly and this puts less pressure on your ankles, knees, hips and back. If you wear heavily cushioned soles, however, you will be less careful about how you land. If you are a reckless driver, no amount of technology will be able to hide your flaws. The same applies to running shoes.

We all need to go back to the basics and learn the natural style of running. If you run barefoot only as a drill, it’ll make you a better runner, no matter which running shoes you wear.

A word of caution though. Initially, barefoot running can cause shin pain as the calves get overworked. In a short period, though, the calves will become accustomed.

Rajat Chauhan is an ultra marathon runner and a doctor specializing in sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and founder of Back 2 Fitness. He is also associate editor, British Journal Of Sports Medicine.

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