The barefoot and minimalist shoe movement has been a hot topic in running circles for a couple of years now and seems to be more than a fad. In 2009 the "Barefoot Bible", Chris McDougall's Born to Run, was published and since then the debate has raged. Look for an answer on the internet and you'll find passionate and zealous views in both camps and heated forum debates. Trying to find out if barefoot running is for you, whether you should ditch your cushioned and motion controlled shoes or if it's just tree hugging hippy nonsense is almost impossible.
My own Minimalist Journey
Whilst living in London and running predominately on the roads I was stuck in a cycle of niggling injuries, frustration and expensive "solutions" such as gait analysis, ever more technologically advanced shoes and podiatrist appointments. After moving to the Peak District almost all of my running was transferred to the fells and trails and, despite increased mileage, the niggles simply faded away. I put this down to the variety of terrain and a more yielding running surface, even though the rocky paths and tracks were hardly forgiving. I then read Chris McDougall's Born to Run and, coming from an academic background in evolutionary science, the truths in what he, and the scientific minds supporting him, presented really hit home. I couldn't believe that I hadn't twigged earlier on but, by turning to the hills, I'd inadvertently stumbled onto the solution. Fell shoes are about as minimal as a running shoe can get with a flexible sole and almost no cushioning or support. It seemed that, as much as what I was running on, it was what I was running in that was making the difference. Inspired I went the whole hog, became a barefoot evangelist (bore) and either went barefoot or ran in Vibram FiveFingers. I soon realised though that I was gaining nothing by trying to be a purist barefooter and that a more balanced approach incorporating barefoot work as a training tool but running predominately in minimalist footwear suited to the terrain was the way forwards. 90% of my training is now off-road wearing Inov-8 BareGrips, 9% on the road and track wearing Inov-8 F-lite 195's and 1% barefoot strides on my local playing fields, usually at the end of runs, just to reinforce form and technique.
What's the theory behind it?
In 2004 biologist Dennis Bramble and anthropologist Daniel Lieberman made the front cover of the illustrious scientific journal Nature. By identifying 26 anatomical markers they concluded that, as a species, modern humans evolved to run long distances as persistence hunters. If that's the case, then the incidence of injury in modern human runners makes no sense. According to barefoot proponents, our problems stem from the late 1960's when Nike founder Bill Bowerman started tinkering with his waffle iron, came up with the "heel-toe" concept of "jogging" and developed a cushioned shoe that allowed us to run in that way. Jamming our heel into the ground in front of us is not how we evolved to run and, although cushioned shoes allow us to do it, it's completely aberrant for the rest of our anatomy. This creates all sorts of problems for our knees and hips and we're now in a vicious cycle of throwing more cash and technology trying to fix a problem that simply shouldn't exist.
Is there any evidence for?
Besides the anecdotal testimonials of numerous converts, the scientific evidence is quite thin on the ground. In 2008 Dr Craig Richards published a research paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which revealed that there have been no evidence based studies to demonstrate that cushioned running shoes make you less prone to injury. He went so far as to issue an open challenge to running shoe manufacturers to back-up their claims with peer reviewed data and is still waiting for any replies. A second study by Dr Bernard Marti of the University of Bern analyzed 4358 runners in the Bern Grand Prix, a 9.6 mile road race. He studied every aspect of their training in the year building up to the race and found that 45% had been injured. The most common variable for the injured runners was the amount they'd spent on their running shoes. Runners in highly engineered, cushioned and supportive shoes that cost more than $95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost less than $40.
Is there any evidence against?
There hasn't yet been a study that shows that barefoot running is bad for you. Equally though there hasn't been a study that shows it's good for you or your running either. Like the evidence for there are plenty of anecdotal stories to be found and, looking at some podiatry forum discussions, you'd be scared off even walking round the house in your socks. In truth barefooting for modern runners is still too niche for any strong conclusions to be claimed either way. There simply aren't enough people who've been running barefoot consistently for long enough for a valid study to have been carried out. Also studies into areas of Sports Science that investigate causal factors of injuries and injury prevention are notoriously difficult to conduct. You only have to look at the controversy and debate that stretching still evokes.
What are the potential dangers?
The most obvious danger of barefooting is potential hazards to the soles of your feet. These can range from the downright unpleasant such as dog muck to genuine dangers such as broken glass, thorns or sharp rocks. If you're going to try barefooting make sure it's on a trail or park where you're unlikely to encounter any of these. If you don't build up barefoot running gradually there are also a number of musculoskeletal injury concerns. Even small amounts of barefoot running can leave feet sore and fatigued but, too much too soon, may lead to plantar fasciitis, an inflamed Achilles tendon or strained calf muscles.
What are the potential benefits?
Run barefoot and you'll run how nature intended. No slamming your heel into the ground just a light, fast and more efficient forefoot strike. You'll strengthen and reawaken the muscles in your feet that have switched off and wasted entombed in shoes. Kicking off your shoes can be a fast-track way to a better running style, improved economy and speed. Many runners who've been plagued by injuries, such as plantar fasciitis, and have tried barefooting as a last resort have found a more natural approach is the cure to their ills.
What about minimalist shoes?
Minimalist shoes are nothing new. Take a pair of classic fell shoes or a genuine racing flat and you've got a minimalist shoe. Cushioning and support is stripped out and the differential in height between the heel and forefoot is kept to an absolute minimum. If you're already running regularly in these types of shoes, congratulations you're a minimalist runner! At the more extreme end of the minimalist scale you have barefoot simulating shoes such as Vibram FiveFingers and Inov-8's Evoskin. These are effectively foot gloves that allow your feet to behave as if unshod but give some protection. The biggest potential problem of minimalist shoes is they can let you do too much too soon. As they remove the early warning signs of overdoing it such as burning skin or sore feet, it's easy to push on to a more serious injury.
Are any top runners doing it?
For the potential benefits mentioned, many top running coaches have been encouraging their athletes to perform barefoot drills for years. Seven-time champion of the Western States 100 mile race and two-time champion of the Badwater Ultramarathon Scott Jurek uses it for warming up and cooling down after speed workouts, for injury re-hab work and for structured drills. Similarly ultra-running legend Anton Krupicka is renowned for his minimalist approach to footwear, often taking a knife to the soles of his shoes, and performs a large proportion of his staggeringly high mileage barefoot.
Should I try it?
If you're 100% happy with your running shoes, your running style and are injury free then probably not. If you're interested in seeing if some barefoot work could improve your running, have reached a dead end trying to sort out a persistent injury or are just curious what all the fuss is about, then give it a go.
Do I have to go 100% barefoot?
Barefoot Evangelists will say it's all or nothing but even author of Born to Run Chris McDougall draws the line at winter barefooting. The sensible opinion seems to be that 100% barefoot is more of a lifestyle choice and not about performance running. You're not looking to run barefoot all the time but use it to improve your running technique and make the move to lighter, less cushioned shoes. Tag your barefoot sessions on to the end of your normal runs but try to replicate the same technique and feeling of running barefoot to your shod runs. With time and after you've made the transition to less cushioned shoes, you'll just occasionally do barefoot sessions to reinforce good technique.
How should I incorporate it into my running?
Find a grassy field or park and, without thinking about it, just run. You'll instantly run better. It won't be 100% right because your feet, having been confined to shoes, will have become weak and lazy. Keep the pace high and think about maintaining good form. Lift your toes to meet the ground, don't over stride beyond your centre of gravity and concentrate on a fast pick-up with your hamstrings. Barefooting is incredibly liberating and addictive. It's amazingly easy to overdo it and, as your body takes time to adapt to the new loads, injuries such as calf strains are common. Start with three 3-5 minute sessions per week and then add a further 3-5 minutes to each session every week.
Any final words of advice?
The jury's still out on this one and will probably be for a while. The bulk of the anecdotal evidence from athletes and coaches seems to suggest that some barefoot training is a good idea, can improve your running and potentially reduce your risk of injury. No matter how hard you look, you won't find a definitive scientific answer to the debate and it really is a case of just giving it a go and seeing if it works for you. If it does great, but take it easy and don't become a barefoot bore. If it doesn't, at least you've tried it but don't try to put others off giving it a go.
Images and Video - Dave MacFarlane
The following is an interview with Chris McDougall author of 'Born to Run', planetFear spoke to Chris on the principles and thoughts behind barefoot running.
PF: What inspired you to write the book?
CM: "Seeing the way both the Tarahumara Indians and Caballo Blanco, their gringo drifter friend, float across canyon trails taught me that everything I'd ever been told about running was dead wrong. Running doesn't have to be dangerous for your knees; it doesn't have to hurt, or be a punishment for pizza, or require overpriced trainers and a certain kind of body. Running long distances is the only natural advantage that humans had for most of our time on earth, and it's still something all of us can still enjoy if we learn how to run quickly, gently and joyfully. My goal with Born to Run was to plunge readers into the bizarre adventure that I found myself in, and bring them out the other end believing that they can get as much of a kick out of running as I do now."
PF: Can you remember your first time barefoot, was it a "Road to Damascus" moment?
CM: "More Damascus than you can imagine. Keep in mind, I was a serious skeptic for a long time. I thought barefoot runners were show off weirdos who were missing the point. I believed that if you learned to run Tarahumara style, you could wear any footwear you preferred. That's actually correct, but I was the one who was overlooking a key point. Learning to run properly is so much easier without shoes. Your feet are wired with as many nerve endings as you have in your fingertips and lips, and nature doesn't dole out that kind of sensory apparatus willy-nilly. My first barefoot run was at 10pm one night after I'd spent hours reading research on how awful running shoes really are. I figured I'd try a little trot down the street just to see what it felt like. Three miles later, I was still going and having a blast."
PF: Do you run 100% of the time barefoot? If not, how do you split your time between Vibrams and shoes?
CM: "My rule for shoes is the same as my rule for clothes, apply as necessary. I run barefoot most of the time, because I love the sensation and it's great for keeping my running technique sharp. But if I'm heading somewhere gnarly, like a gravel road or a rocky trail, I'll throw on a pair of Fivefingers or racing flats. Basically, I go with whatever will give my sole a little protection without interfering with my form."
PF: What are your thoughts on the current wave of minimalist running shoes?
CM: "Way too expensive. I like the shoes, but I can't get my head around the idea that the teensier the shoe, the higher the price. I'll be much happier when it's easy to get a quality minimal shoe for about £10."
PF: People argue that a more natural approach to running is fine to gifted lightweight runners with perfect form but is not for heavier and bio-mechanically unsound plodders.. thoughts?
CM: "You're looking at the Giant Human Rebuttal to that nonsense. For years, I was told that I was too big to run, that of course I was getting injured because hefty fellas like me weren't designed to absorb all that impact, blah blah bullshit. The day I stopped listening to those know-nothing physios and learned to run lightly was the last day I ever got injured. Of course people are going to be heavy and bio-mechanically unsound if they rely on physios and trainers. But if they learn to run properly, a whole world of fun awaits."
PF: Can you give me some tips for perfect barefoot form.
CM: "The key is taking your time and not trying to muscle through any twinges. The beauty of barefoot running is that every twinge is a correctable mistake. When you feel sore or achy in shoes, you're told to buy new shoes. But when you run barefoot, everything you feel is related to what you're doing. If your Achilles feels tight, you can adjust your form and make the tension disappear from one stride to the next.
So you want to:
Be Quick. The longer you spend with your foot on the ground, the longer that foot is supporting your entire body weight. Lift each foot as quickly as you can, and you'll spend more time in the air than on the ground.
Be Light. Instead of clomping down on your heel, touch down gently on your midfoot, same way you would when jumping off a chair.
Be Invisible. Likewise, when you jump off a chair, you don't want to land with your feet all over the place. You want them nicely tucked under your hips, with your joints all stacked up to bend gently and absorb the impact. Same with running. If you can see your feet in front of you, you're doing something wrong. Your feet should be under your center of mass, then lifted straight up under your hips at each stride."
PlanetFear media is exclusively funded by our online store. Consider shopping with us by visiting the planetFear online store.