Barefoot Running for Rowers
Barefoot in the (Fairmount) Park
After months of indoor winter training, it's time to get back outdoors! One way to interact with nature and keep your training program fun and effective is running. As a cross-training tool, running is one of the most efficient ways to work your cardiovascular system. From a convenience point of view, you can't beat it -- just step outside your front door. Best of all, you don't need any special or costly equipment -- just a pair of regular running shoes. Or do you?
Recently, a new fad has emerged in this age-old form of conditioning called, 'barefoot running.' In his book, “Born to Run”, author Christopher McDougall argues that running bare feet (or with a light covering) is more natural than using running shoes. As tempting as it may seem to run with our 'god-given' body design, athletes should first consider several key factors before jumping in. What surfaces are you running on? What is your current level of strength, flexibility, and of course running fitness? Like any new method of training, it's better to introduce barefoot running into your program gradually, to ensure your body adapts at a natural rate. The alternative could lead to injuries, especially if you're exclusively a road-runner.
A recent study examined the differences between running with conventional running shoes versus running in barefoot shoes. The focus of the study was to observe how both types of shoes impacted running economy (the amount of energy expended running at a set speed). The study determined that conventional running shoes offered better economy (3 to 4%) than running in barefoot shoes. This is an interesting finding, but leads us to ask yet another question: how do new shoes compare to shoes with higher mileage?
In the same study, researchers also determined that new running shoes provide two key benefits over their well-seasoned counterparts: better shock absorption and running economy. Shock absorption is an essential protective element as it reduces the risk of injury, especially for runners logging 20 or more miles a week, where significant increases in injuries occur.
If you are considering bare-foot running, a few simple guidelines will help you ease into it carefully, and reduce your risk of injuries. First, plan to alternate your barefoot training days with regular running shoes. Second, and especially at the beginning, limit your mileage running with barefoot shoes. I suggest running about 25 to 30% of your regular mileage in barefoot shoes, then adding about 10% every week until you reach your goal.
Athletes who want to transition to barefoot running should also consider where they run. If you run exclusively on road surfaces, your body will need more time to adjust to the increased stress on your feet, knees and legs. Running on dirt and grassy trails can help reduce the overall stress to these parts of the body.
Also, keep in mind that whether you're running in conventional running shoes or barefoot shoes, your muscular system provides most of the shock absorption to the stresses of running. Running, by itself, doesn't promote very much muscle strengthening. In fact, for runners who go long and slow, running can actually reduce overall strength. In this respect, it's critical to add some resistive strengthening into your program. The additional strengthening will also improve your shock absorption ability, especially if you're running in barefoot shoes.
Running is a great cross-training tool for rowing. It's efficient, convenient and allows you to enjoy the great outdoors. As with all training activities, however, athletes must be careful to avoid injuries that could hinder their rowing. Balanced running makes the most sense, and includes running on different surfaces (grass, dirt trails and the road), as well as inclines (flat and elevated surfaces). Shoe wear is a newer variable in running with the introduction of barefoot shoes. Mixing up these variables leads to better balance and a reduction in training-related injuries. Enjoy the outdoors, train smart, and be balanced!