The Barefoot Runner Conundrum …
Many of us have seen and are familiar with the funny shoes that look like frog feet and if you haven’t seen them, you most likely will at some point. The shoes to which I’m referring to are called the Vibram Five Fingers and have become extremely popular not just for everyday wear to the local grocery store or to Starbucks, but have also been used as a running shoe.
Looking at the Vibrams, you can immediately tell that it doesn’t really look like a running shoe. It doesn’t have the traditional thick cushion layer, the shoe strings, or the pronation support that we have come to associate with running shoes. It does have a super light mesh upper, a flexible high abrasion resistant outsole, and individual toe compartments – sort of like toe socks that can protect your feet from glass, for example. So it’s at this point that the question arises, “Should I run with my traditional running shoes or barefoot (almost)?” We’ll let you make that choice!
The concept of barefoot running has become increasingly popular as running related injuries have continuously persisted and possibly increased despite the abundance of medical technology and specially crafted running shoes. In addition, disciplines such as Chi running, POSE, and Evolution running as well as the popular book, “Born to Run,” by Chris McDougall, and the Vibram Five Finger shoes have all had a part in bringing the idea of barefoot running into mainstream thinking. The common denominator throughout is to return to nature’s original anatomic design of the foot in its natural state, which is fully equipped to handle the stress of running without any help (namely traditional running shoes). Proponents of barefoot running propose that because of the traditional running shoe, running form and economy is allowed to become sloppy as the shoe compensates for those inefficiencies. Unfortunately, though, those consequences are later felt in the all too common plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, and all the other “-itis” conditions felt by runners. So, the idea is that by re-teaching the foot to do what it was originally designed to do, the risk of injury will decrease as the body automatically adjusts to become more efficient.
With that said however, it wouldn’t be a smart move to donate all your current running shoes to Africa and replace them with either Vibrams or completely barefoot. Unlike the people groups who have spent their entire lives barefooting it, the western culture is not too familiar with the idea or the practice and so our feet and bodies are not quite ready for the shock. If you decide to give the barefoot running a shot, integrate it SLOWLY into your training and maybe just start off with once a week running a length or two of the field at the local track field. Don’t expect to hit the road with your regular mileage right at the start and it may even be several months before you are able to do that safely. Not only does your foot have to adapt to not having a nice thick layer of cushion, muscles have to develop to redistribute that impact and your running form has to adapt to become more efficient to handle that impact. All of that takes time.
Is barefoot running for everyone? No. There is a place for barefooting it and then there isn’t. For some people, a little adaptation is all that is necessary to be able to run barefoot and for others, physically and biomechanically, going barefoot isn’t an option at all. As a middle ground, it’s a great training tool to instill proper form and muscle memory while still using traditional running shoes for the longer runs.
Last note. Though the movement is referred to as barefoot running, purely for hygiene purposes, having some type of foot protection is probably a good idea rather than going completely barefoot – just a thought.
- 2011 Vibram Five Fingers Hit The Ground (crunchgear.com)