The answer appears to be found with our interference with our most evolved "running tool", the human foot. Our bare foot is an engineering miracle demonstrating a perfect example of a dynamic load bearing arch. However, since the early 1970's, the dawn of jogging, the invention of heel-to-toe running by Nike and the advent of the super cushioned/highly supportive running shoe, we've been trying to correct something that needed no correction. We're not supposed to heel strike and, seeing as a running stride creates a load of twelve times our body weight, an inch of rubber "cushioning" isn't going to make a jot of difference. In fact, studies have shown that the more cushioning there is, the harder we plant our foot. Also, talking from an architectural perspective, the last thing you'd do to an arch is stick a load of unnecessary support underneath it as it actually weakens the structure. It seems as if all of the cushioning, motion control and orthotics might actually be the cause of all of our running ailments rather than the supposed cure. I've talked now to a least four or five runners who'd thought that injuries such as plantar faciitis and runner's knee had ended their running career and, having tried every shoe/orthotic, were on the point of chucking it in. Bare-footing was their last desperate roll of the dice and now their happily running injury free. Think about it, you wouldn't wear a pair of thick gloves to rock climb so why do the same to your highly evolved and sensitive "running hands"?
More about the theory behind bare-footing can be found in Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run.
The problem is though, unless you live near an endless sandy beach or thistle free grassy meadow, then pure bare-footing isn't an option. Glass, thorns and dog mess make bare foot running a highly risky pastime. However, Vibram Fivefingers http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/ offer a real life alternative.
Designed originally as a deck shoe, their scope as a "running shoe" was soon hit upon and the range expanded to accommodate this. I arranged to visit the North of England retailer Naked Ape in Sheffield, to be fitted for a pair. It is possible to order a pair online but, based on my fitting experience, I'd strongly recommend going in person. Normally I'm a 45 in fell shoes but, after trying on numerous pairs, my Fivefinger's size came in at a tiny 42! I know some folks who have ordered online and have had issues with rubbing but I haven't had any such problems. The Fivefingers consist of a minimal mesh upper, individual toe pockets and a thin Vibram rubber sole. Getting my individual toes into each of their pockets was a real struggle but shop owner Wayne Biney assured me that as my feet adapted and the shoes moulded to my feet it would become a lot easier.
Rather than following the recommended advice of breaking yourself into them gently, I opted for a tougher first up test. Six miles of rough, rocky and muddy off-road running with just shy of 1000ft of ascent. Setting off from the house on the road, I immediately noticed my foot strike shifting towards my forefoot/toes and my legs naturally flexing to give a much softer gait. Once off road, I started with a steep climb and could sense my feet working for balance/grip and I felt that I was climbing more efficiently. The soles, although appearing smooth, are micro-razored to provide a fish-scale like grip. Climbing, the grip was good on rock, grass and mud and although I could feel rocks through the soles my feet seemed to naturally protect themselves and adapt to the terrain. Onto the tops, some flatter running on grassy trails and I really felt as though I was flying. My stride was light and fast and I felt a joyful feeling of fun, freedom and connectivity with my body and the environment. My exuberance was brought to a swift end however as I discovered a weakness in the grip when trying to descend on wet grass and took a spectacular tumble. Dusting myself off, I ran off with a tad more caution and the massive grin soon return to my face. On soft mud I could feel the gloop deliciously oozing up between my toes and, even on a sustained rocky stretch, although I felt my foot-strikes they were never painful. The next morning, I felt a little sore in my calves but nothing too bad. I'm naturally quite a fore-foot striker anyway and have read reports from heel-toe'ers that the calve tightness/soreness can be quite bad initially. But, you will adapt and that's the point. With a more measured introduction to bare-footing than I adopted, this shouldn't be a problem.
Several weeks on and I can definitely see that the Fivefingers have had a positive impact on my running. I'm tending to use them for my easy paced morning runs where my form can be lazy as they force me to run properly. My feet are becoming stronger and the lighter running style I'm developing is noticeably better for my knees and hips. I don't think I'll end up doing all my running in them but there's no doubt that the form they give me is transferring to more efficient running when I do put shoes on. Also, they really do give a child like joy to running and make you want to head on out. Wayne was right that getting them on gets easier and now it takes a matter of seconds. Most of my running has been on trails although I have also run on the road and on a gravely canal towpath with no problems. I chose the KSO (Keeps Stuff Out) model that provides protection against grit and other debris entering the shoe and even when mud and water has come right over my foot the inside stays clean.
The Fivefingers KSO retails at £98.99
Naked Ape is at 96 Pinstone Street, Sheffield, S1 2QH
Tel: 0114 2739777
The PlanetFear Star Rating Explained:
* A poor product with design and functionality problems. Not recommended.
** An average product. Recommended only for its low cost or as a back-up item.
*** A good product. Certainly worth considering, although better products may be available at the same price.
**** An excellent product and among the best available in its category. Highly recommended.
***** An outstanding product defining the cutting edge of outdoor technology and design. You won't find a better one!
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