Back to Nature: Barefoot Running

Back to Nature: Barefoot Running


Running barefoot seems like the most natural way of going about the most natural of human movements. There was a point in history when humans were the greatest endurance runners in the world. While we were never the fastest, the human ability to cool the body by sweating rather than panting allowed us to chase prey until it dropped from heat exhaustion. Collaboration on such hunts eventually led to language and technology. Running helped us conquer the world; all without the help of shoes.Many runners, and shoe companies, are trying to get back to that minimalist ideal.Is the hype of running barefoot well deserved? Are our naked feet really our best mode of transportation? Or have we upgraded them to the point that they no longer function the way they were designed to? It’s no secret that wearing shoes changes the way we move. We take longer steps and land with more force on our heels when we exercise in trainers.

Wearing shoes also increases the energy cost of running. A study by Burkett LN, Kohrt M, Buchbinder R, for Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found that oxygen consumption during running increased as the amount of mass added to the foot increased. Research has also shown that an extra 100 grams of weight on the feet decreases running economy by one percent. In that case, 10-ounce shoes can make you five percent less efficient while running.”This has been called ‘the perceptual illusion’ of running shoes,” says Michael Warburton, an Australian physical therapist. “With shoes, your body switches off to a degree, and your reaction time decreases.”

One of the main ideas of the minimalist shoe and barefoot movements is that they can help prevent injury. While traditional shoes elevate the heel above the forefoot encouraging heel strike, a low-profile design will provide barefoot-like movements and increase ground feel.

When runners aren’t wearing shoes with built-up soles, they tend to land in the middle or toward the front of their feet rather than on their heel and researchers believe that such midfoot or forefoot striking results in less impact on the body. Training without shoes also allegedly strengthens your feet, ankles, and lower legs, improves balance and helps prevent injury.

“You realize, even as someone who works out a lot, that your feet aren’t really that strong,” says Kristi Mathews of Denver, who started running and exercising in Vibram FiveFingers (minimalist shoes) last year.

Running barefoot is still a common practice in many parts of the world. Some of the most talked about proponents are the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico who tackle 100-mile races well into their geriatric years. Christopher McDougall started the most current wave of barefoot popularity with his book, Born to Run, in which he explored Mexico’s Copper Canyon to learn from the Tarahumara. His suggestion is that we don’t need smarter shoes, we need smarter feet.

Much of the positive feedback on barefoot running comes from personal experiences. There has been little hard scientific proof of health benefits. Just taking off your shoes does not mean you will immediately attain perfect running form but, with the slow incorporation of barefoot work, you may alleviate some of the nagging problems many athletes face.

“It’s definitely different,” says Mathews. “It was kind of a slow transition to get back to where I was with my old shoes, but now I feel like I’m getting more out of the work I’m putting in.”

Minimalist-style running shoes are now an almost $2 billion industry. These shoes are meant to mimic the experience of running without shoes, yet protect your feet from dirt and debris.

While the Vibram FiveFingers (the ones that look like techy toe socks from a middle school sleepover) are definitely the most iconic in the barefoot training world. Companies from Merrell to Nike are also toting “minimalist” shoes that can sometimes look like no more than really fancy socks. Along with shoes, there are entire fitness programs based around the idea of going sans footwear.

Established in New York City in 2000, the willPower Method is toted as the original foot fitness program claiming to be a synthesis of barefoot physical training, emotion and integrity. While their advice to go slow and first try a “foot discovery” period before jumping into barefoot training is a good idea, you still need to pay for any actual exercises or substantial advice.

One caution when trying out a more minimalist regime seems to be to go slow. Try a half mile at the end of your regular workout without shoes on. Check the rules at your gym if you’re running on a treadmill. Unless you’re on a beach or a golf course, it’s recommended to use caution when going barefoot outdoors. Minimalist shoes or even sparse moccasins stave off cuts and possible infections.

“I feel more connected to what I’m doing now,” says Mathews of her new minimalist running style. “I’m just that much closer to the Earth.”

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