8 points on barefoot running

8 points on barefoot running

Talk about fitness long enough, and the question will invariably come up: "What do you think about this whole barefoot / minimalist running thing?"

That's a very loaded question in these circles, and one which can easily be discussed and debated all day long - much like religion, politics, and education. I could write up my answer as a 10,000 word manifesto, but I doubt anyone would spend the time to read it. So let's see if I can boil my thoughts down to a few bullet points.

1.) What shoes do I wear when I run?

My current favorite is a pair of Luna Sandals - a thin sole of leather top & rubber bottom with a single strap of leather for the strap. (I upgraded to the elasticized leather for quicker and easier fitting.) I ran 9 different 10K's in these during April and May of this year, and I had a couple days in there where I ran multiple runs totaling 9 and 10 miles in a single day.

From March 2010 through March 2012, I ran exclusively in Vibram Five Fingers. My longest run was a 10 miler on Thanksgiving Day, 2011.

Sprinkled in throughout the last couple years I've run a couple dozen miles in bare feet, but I've done these in mostly short doses of a mile or so at a time.

Yes, it's safe to say I've embraced the minimalist movement.

2.) Am I fast?

I don't generally run for speed; I run either to prepare myself for one leg of a longer triathlon, or I run for the enjoyment of running. But on the occasions I do push myself, I'm about average.

On my 10 mile race last November, I crossed the 6 mile mark at a 7:40 pace, and I finished the race at an 8:12 pace.

On one particular training run in early 2011, I ran 2 miles in 13:59.

Maybe one of these years I'll put a speed goal onto my fitness goals list and give my pace some intense focus, but I haven't done that yet.

3.) Why did I switch to minimal shoes?

First of all, I don't love shoes, so the thought of less shoe doesn't put me off.

In January and February 2010, as I was getting off the couch and back into shape while training for my first triathlon, I noticed that my knee would start hurting badly at about the 2 mile mark. Anytime I ran more than 2 miles, it became excruciating. I figured I would be able to muscle through it on race day, but my hopes of beating my friends & training partners were quickly being dashed. I assumed my knees were just getting old - 40 years of athletics had worn them down, and I was headed for knee replacement surgery at some point. Oh well, wathca gonna do?

One day I saw a guy wearing VFFs, and the way they looked just made sense to me. I started researching them online, and I bought my first pair a couple weeks later. My research had turned up several anecdotal stories of people getting "healed" after running in these, so I was cautiously optimistic about trying them out.

Now, keep in mind I've spent most of my life in flip-flops or bare feet on the weekends, at least for the summers, so my feet weren't completely atrophied. I probably got a little lucky here.

Anyway, I put them on and gingerly ran my first mile. Hmmm, I thought, different, but not bad. I kept running. By the end of the first week my knee paid had disappeared completely. By the end of the 2nd week I was routinely running 4 pain-free miles at a time, and I was hooked.

I bought another pair, and wore them almost exclusively for the next year and a half.

4.) The simple (over simplified) case FOR minimalist.

Our bodies have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, without shoes. We didn't start wearing shoes at all until the last few thousand years.

We didn't start wearing big cushioned, thick padding running shoes until Nike invented them in the early 1970's. This was the first time in human history that people could run by landing on their bony heel first, rather than the padded area of their mid-sole.

Many of the modern running injuries did not exist before Nike's new running shoes, and the number / percentage of running injuries has not declined at all. In fact, the big-brand running shoe companies cannot produce a single study showing the use of their shoes prevents injuries. Also, all of the major running shoe companies have begun marketing their own versions of minimalist shoes, showing they're more concerned about market trends than they are about proving their traditional running shoes prevent injuries.

As a running society, we have become slower at distance running since the 1970's.

In countries where they don't wear shoes until much later (ie: teenagers), they have fewer injuries and they run faster marathons.

5.) The simple (over simplified) case AGAINST minimalist.

There are a growing number of people talking about how they made the switch to barefoot or minimalist running and then they got injured.

Keep in mind, however, that the human foot is an amazing part of the body, where dozens of bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles all work together to propel us forward.

The foot muscles are just like any other muscle, and will atrophy if they aren't used. Imagine if you haven't used your arms for a couple decades, then you suddenly start throwing your body weight around, for a few hundred reps. Think you might pull something, or end up at the doctor's office for an arm injury?

6.) Supporting documentation online.

I mentioned being over simplified above because there are too many articles on this subject to even read - there's probably enough information for a doctoral thesis, and there's new research and articles being published daily. If you want to spend some time getting a little more well versed in the topic, I'd start with these:

BirthdayShoes.com - a website dedicated to the minimalist shoe movement, with an active forum, scores of well-written articles, and more links out than you can count.

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall - the best-selling non-fiction book that started it all. 1 part anthropology and history lesson; 1 part science and research; and 1 part riveting story line with great character development. It's difficult to have an intelligent discussion with somebody who hasn't read this book, because you can't even begin a discussion without first being at the same starting point, and this book provides the starting point.

Vibram Five Fingers - the toe-shoe maker's website has a trove of information on the subject; I'd start here.

7.) Some conversations I've had.

Compare the messages, and the messengers, below:

My doctor made a comment when I wore VFFs to an appointment. She said she had been a runner most of her life, and had never been injured, until she decided to run a marathon and started wearing really expensive running shoes to train in. She asked about my vibrams, and said she had been researching them and was likely to buy a pair.

One day last month, while running in my huaraches sandals, I passed an elderly man riding his bicycle. He became agitated with me, saying (loudly) that I can't run in those things, and he should know because he was a podiatrist for 50 years! I didn't want to argue, so I kept running, but the whole episode was ironically funny.

8.) Final thoughts.

It's not the shoes; it's your form. Some of the greatest distance runners in the history of mankind wear modern running shoes. But if you examine their form, they look exactly like the greatest distance runners who don't wear modern shoes. Bash your heel into the ground, thousands of times in a row, and you're body isn't going to like that - regardless of what you wear. Let your foot perform the way it was designed to do, and you'll enjoy running a whole lot more - regardless of what you wear.

If you go out in your driveway and try to run barefoot, you'll quickly change your stride to accommodate for not having any padding; otherwise it hurts really bad. Keep that barefoot stride, and you can wear whatever you want.

Personally, I can't imagine ever wearing thickly padded Nikes again.

-Chris Butterworth