There's been alot of talk about barefoot running since Christopher McDougall published his book Born to Run a few years ago. The premise is that humans walked and ran barefoot for millenia, and that running injuries were not the plague they are now until the "sports shoe" industry developed all those high-fallutin' shoes with cushioned heels. McDougall himself had had to give up running due to injuries, but tossing his running shoes and learning to run barefoot allowed him to resume running without pain or injury. To help understand why, read this article about barefoot running, and watch the video with Harvard scientist Daniel Lieberman (chairman of the human evolutionary biology department) showing the impact of heel strike in a shod runner versus a barefoot runner.
Not everyone wants to run completely barefoot, and in response to the barefoot running premise, new minimalist sports shoes have been developed, the most well known being Vibram FiveFingers®. Such shoes have a thin rubber sole that lets you feel the texture of the surfaces you move on, and also lets all the joints in the feet have mobilty and play.
I ran some in my 20s, but haven't run for years - especially since my surgeon for a lateral tibial plateau fracture in 2003 advised against it. I became curiuos when other Rolfers™ on our community email forum began talking about barefoot running after reading McDougall's books. They reported that barefoot walking and running were completely synergistic with the ideas of Rolfing® Structural Integration: in our form of bodywork we are concerned with the natural alignment of the body, and the mobility and integration of body segments. They reported that in barefoot walking and running, your toe hinge functions as it should for push-off, because the toes are not engaged in a wad of leather and rubber. And they reported that the increased mobility of the foot was working its way up through the chain of muscles, fascia, and joints and improving issues with knees, hips, and low backs. At that point I went out and bought a pair of Vibrams, to give barefoot walking a try.
I remember my first walk in them. It was late evening, a damp and cold autumn night in Seattle, and I was tired and reluctant to go out, but I hadn't walked my dog yet. So I put on my new Vibrams, put the furry girl on a leash, and headed out for our usual 20-min loop around the neighborhood. Astonishingly, within a couple of blocks, I felt pure unadulterated joy surging through my body and I was wide awake. It seemed like having my feet in such deeply felt contact with the ground was awakening dormant energy and enlivening me. I've always believed in the mind-body-spirit connection, - it's what drew me to Rolfing - but this still surprised me, the intensity and immediacy of the response. I spend the entire work day barefoot, yet something about being "barefoot" and actually striding and moving with a purposeful gait was waking up my feet and my energy in startling ways. I've been a convert to barefoot walking ever since, and I've also noticed improvement in my knees. I'm even starting to run tiny bits again.
Besides McDougall's book, there's alot to read on the web about barefoot running, including this article from today's New York Times, where McDougall updates the barefoot running world on the importance of form for good effects and also mentions Dr. Lieberman's research on unshod runners in Kenya. In other words, it's not just the shoes (or lack of shoes), you have to re-learn how to move so that you minimize heel strike and move more to the forefoot. I believe that Rolfing sessions can greatly assist in this process as part of what keeps us in habitual movement patterns is the familiar tension patterns in the body. So I would recommend that anyone transitioning to barefoot walking or running read up on the available literature, but also schedule a session with a local Rolfer to work on, especially, the sole of the foot, the calves, the knees, and hips. Getting more freedom through these areas will make for an easier transition and quicker benefits, and also help to attain proper running form.
I have recommended minimalist shoes to any number of my Seattle Rolfing clients, and many take me up on the idea. (I recommend REI locally, because they have a great selection of minimalist shoes (not everyone likes the toes on the Vibram FiveFingers, and a shoe that fits like a second skin is key to the benefits), and because you can return shoes if you don't like them, even if they have been worn. One friend who switched to Vibrams has also found that she no longer has flat feet. This makes total sense, as the arch of the foot is based on a balance of muscles and fascia through the legs. Rolfers have known this and worked to "create" arches through balancing fascia, but my friend's story shows it can also be done through proper foot mechanics from barefoot running.