Last week a good friend posted a video explaining the benefit of Vibram Five Finger shoes, made entirely by fans. At first I was hugely cynical, after all they do look completely ridiculous. However, my friend is a bit of a fitness fanatic and I figured he probably had some good reasons for converting to “barefoot running.” With this in mind I began to do a little research and discovered there might actually be something to this whole Barefoot thing. Below I have put together a guide on how to get started. Personally I plan on picking up a pair to try it out for myself, but we would love to hear if any of you give it a try too.
Since the 1960s athletes have been competing in races barefooted and, with the recent increasing wave of interest in barefoot running, many people have raced to purchase minimalist shoes and jumped, quite literally, feet first into the sport. The reason being that with natural, ‘shoeless’ running, the lateral edge of the human forefoot is the part which strikes the ground with the most force. Running in padded shoes typically alters this as more emphasis is placed on the heel and the area towards the back of the foot – which has been claimed to cause more stress on the heel, knees and hips. Therefore many athletes became interested in the sport to strengthen the foot and help improve speed.
Although not strictly a shoe-less sport, there are various ways of tackling barefoot running; some runners wear specially adapted socks, some opt for running moccasins (like outdoor bedroom slippers) and some use minimalist shoes that resemble ordinary running shoes but are constructed from very thin, unpadded materials and have a flat sole with minimal tread. It isn’t, however, as simple as changing your running shoes.
It’s Not ‘Ready, Steady, Go’….
Going from padded, structured running shoes to minimalistic ones is quite a physical change for
your feet and not one which should be presumed easy or natural. It is essential that you train the foot and leg muscles gradually to run in such minimalistic shoes to help reduce injuries and lessen metatarsal stress. Due to the design of barefoot running shoes it is actually recommended that you alternate; training in barefoot shoes whilst running in your specialised running shoes. As Daniel E. Lieberman*, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University states, “If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles.”
Choosing Your Minimalist Shoes
The first consideration when choosing your first pair of minimalist running shoes is the thickness, or profile, of the sole and heel as you want your feet to immediately sense and communicate to your brain the type of terrain you are on, adapting to a natural running style. Avoid shoes which have a built up heel as these encourage you to over point your toes when running, which could lead to foot damage.
Secondly, think about the flexibility of the sole and check there is no arch support. Barefoot running is all about training your foot arch to naturally flatten so a stiff sole and arch support will only preventing the muscles from acting in this way. A good way to test this is by seeing if you can twist and bend the sole of the shoe with ease. Obviously it needs to protect the sole of your foot from the environment, but flexibility allows your foot to become more familiar with the ground.
Thirdly, remember that the lighter the shoe the better. If the shoes weight is distributed unevenly
(i.e. heavier at the toe or heel) it will cause a bias tendency in the way the foot moves with the shoe and go against its natural movement.
It is advisable to go for a mid-sole level to begin with. The Nike Free Run range has a helpful 10 point number scale which helps identify the thinness of the soles – for example models with a 3 in the name will be more flexible than those with a 10 (which is the thickness of an average running shoe), making the range a good starting point for first time minimalist shoe buyers. Alternatively, Saucony have the Kinvara or Mirage shoes which are also mid-point shoes.
For the more extreme, hardened barefoot runner, the Saucony Hattori shoe claims to be Saucony’s lightest general purpose running shoe ever, or try out the Vibram 5 Fingers shoe which was the first of its kind on the market and the shoe of choice for many barefoot runners. Sportsshoes.com has a large range of minimalist shoes and is a good place to compare models if you are unsure.
First Steps ‘Barefoot’
As is normal before any running, stretch your hamstrings and calf muscles. Lieberman also suggests that it is a good idea to massage the arches of your feet as this helps in the breaking down of scar tissue and healing.
To begin barefoot running, it is a good idea to try it first on a hard, smooth surface such as a tennis court or running track – rather than a bumpy street. Your feet will naturally adjust to moving on this surface by forefoot striking, rather than the heel striking we tend to do in padded running shoes.During your first barefoot run do not exceed more than a quarter of a mile as your foot muscles will tire more rapidly. Leave a ‘rest day’ between each training session and remember that training your feet to run in this way will take time so build up distances by no more that 10% each week. If at any point you experience pain, stop!
Due to the focus on footwear padding and support in today’s shoes our feet have adapted to these luxuries as ‘the norm’, making barefoot running almost an unnatural, new feeling for us. Our feet have evolved to run in specialist shoes, so it will take time for them to adjust to minimalist running and they will be in discomfort to begin with. Sore, tired muscles are normal, but bone, joint, or soft-tissue pain is a signal of injury and if any of these occur, stop running immediately and see your chiropodist.
It is important that you continue to wear your padded running shoes when running long distance
or partaking in any race whilst you train your feet to run barefoot. Only when you feel 100%
comfortable running barefoot and experience no discomfort at all can you start to run in minimalist shoes more often.
Running shoe specialist Saucony highlight that minimalism is isn’t an end, it’s actually a means – and many footwear retailers agree. Brett Bannister, MD of Sportsshoes.com, believes that, “Minimalist shoes can be built into your training regime to help strengthen your feet and leg muscles, but you still need to pick the right shoes and be careful to make the transition slowly.”
Minimalist shoes are very much an excellent training aid which can be incorporated into your
running routine to great effect, but not the be-all and end-all of your running routine. Going back to basics with barefoot running is an exhilarating experience and definitely one you should embrace – just remember to play it safe!