YOGA: THE NEW BAREFOOT RUNNING

Barefoot running garnered a lot of attention a few years ago with the development and release of a plethora of minimalist footwear.

Then the craze got curbed. Mixed reviews poured in, including a new class of injuries that may have been caused by the so-called “barefoot” shoewear (or may have happened anyway?).

What’s a runner to do?

First, the evidence: There is good news for minimalist-shoe enthusiasts. A recent systematic review (the highest caliber of research), which did meta-analysis on 14 controlled trials, shows significant, small beneficial effects on “running economy” for those lightweight shoes and being barefoot, compared with heavy shoewear. The same benefit was seen with minimalist shoes as compared to conventional running shoes. (“Minimalist shoewear” was defined as weighing less than 440 grams. “Running economy” measures oxygen use and has been shown to be a good predictor of race performance.)

Why would the difference be so slight? Minimalist footwear is structurally vastly different from cushy or rocker-bottomed shoes.

One answer is that barefoot running or minimalist shoes are good for some, but not for all.

Barefoot and minimalist running is probably not for you if you have one of the following situations:

  • Hyper-flexible feet. For example, with each step, the medial arch collapses, then rebounds as your foot is suspended in air. Overpronation or underpronation (supination) may fall into this category.
  • A history of severe or multiple ankle sprains. Targeted rehabilitation exercises and physical therapy can help, but if a ligament is loosened, it never bounces back to its original size.
  • Arthritis in the knee, specifically between the femur (the thigh bone) and the tibia (the shin bone), that could become more painful and worsen more quickly with the increased impact
  • High impact surfaces — i.e., predominantly concrete sidewalks

In my work as a physical therapist and yoga teacher, I have seen a LOT of bare feet. 

Feet, like hamstrings, function best when they have a balance between suppleness and stability. Beneath our shoes, many feet are not so balanced: wooden, lifeless, and inert are some adjectives that come to mind.

A whole swath of the population spends more than 90 percent of their day in shoes, which are often uncomfortable and rarely broad enough to allow toes real wiggle room. Some continue to wear shoes in the home or switch to houseshoes. Although this is appropriate in a handful of occasions, barefoot time daily is medicinal for most of us.

One of the theories around why barefoot running works is the engagement of intrinsic foot muscles. These muscles fall asleep in standard footwear because the shoes do the work for us. The body is exceedingly efficient, and when muscles are not used, they atrophy, lose wiring to the brain and tighten up.

Between sweat, stink and sleeping muscles, our feet need to breathe. A little barefoot time daily helps on multiple fronts.

Which is where yoga comes in. Whether or not you are a minimalist runner, yoga can help keep the feet supple and strong (because, face it, you are not likely to do a separate set of foot intrinsic strengthening exercises outside of rehabilitation).

Yoga asana (poses) — usually practiced in bare feet — requires single-pointed attention to detail. Many styles of yoga cue spreading of the toes, an activation of the toe abductors, which helps the foot adapt to uneven surfaces and steady you when upright. Toe flexors and extensors are activated alternately as well. Yoga’s balance poses require intrinsic and extrinsic muscle firing, which may stabilize ankles after sprains and support the arches of the feet.

If you pronate or supinate, or face any of the above conditions, you may benefit from more supportive shoes during your runs. A little time on your yoga mat will help you counter your tendencies and prevent them from getting worse. 

If your knee cartilage shows signs of wear and tear, attention to the muscles of the feet in yoga may reduce symptoms via tiny shifts in your biomechanics.

Runners can benefit tremendously from cross-training in general and from yoga specifically because of its variety of movement, attention to detail and barefootedness.