I field an inordinate amount of running related questions. From nutrition to preventing 'chafing', I've pretty much fielded every question fathomable related to running.
Recently though there is one question I have fielded more frequently than any other question. Simply put, the question is 'what do you think of barefoot running?'
The frequency with which I have fielded this question can be blamed almost exclusively on the popularity of the book Born To Run. This book spends an inordinate amount of time examining the incredible running abilities of the Tarahumara Indians who log countless miles on trails barefoot and/or wearing 'shoes' that provide very little support, cushioning, or stability(this is the very essence of most conventional running shoes).
The reality is that the incidence of running related aggravations/injuries has remained relatively static the past few decades despite incredible advances in running shoe technology.
So, is barefoot running a silver bullet? Probably not, but here are a few things to ponder if you're considering throwing on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers or Nike Frees.
Consider the fact that the majority of the elite marathoners come from Kenyan. Further consider that many of these runners grow up running a lot at an early age. Many run to/from school, they run to work, and run just about anywhere else they need to go.
Many Kenyans don't have shoes and log their miles completely unshod. BUT, consider the fact that they are also typically running on dirt trails which is a surface that is MUCH softer and more forgiving than asphalt/concrete (which is what most of us deal with every time we go out for a run).
At an early age, many eventual elite level Kenyan runners are naturally learning proper biomechanics/form by running barefoot. Additionally, their bodies are adapting at an early age to the demands of running barefoot.
For those contemplating strapping on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, consider the fact that you have NOT grown up walking or running barefoot. Like anything 'new', your body needs time to adapt to it. This means you need to be conservative, methodical, and cautious in how you proceed.
The Vibram Five Fingers
I own a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers and while I do use them periodically to walk around, I do have
reservations running in them which I will get to shortly.
For the uninitiated, the VFFs (as I will call them henceforth) are literally like 'gloves'for your feet. There is ZERO support, cushioning, or stability provided by these 'shoes'. Not only that, they are admittedly ugly as sin!
While the lack of support, stability, and cushioning can be perceived as a downside (and it absolutely is for many people), the upside is that the VFFs 'can' help you develop better running biomechanics/form by forcing you to land more on your midfoot/forefoot as opposed to your heel. Contrary to popular belief, running 'heel to toe' is not the way to go.
Not surprisingly, wearing something like the VFFs 'can' strengthen your feet and lower legs as these 'shoes' ask MUCH more of your feet/lower legs than a conventional running shoe.
BUT, this can result in STRAIN as well. If your body isn't used to running barefoot (which is effectively what you're doing with the VFFs), then you likely will find yourself with tight calves, achilles, and a litany of other issues if you're too aggressive.
Whenever someone claims they weren't 'built' to run or humans in general are not meant to run, I often point them to a great book called Why We Run: A Natural History.
This compelling book looks at running from an 'evolutionary' standpoint. Specifically, author Bernd Heinrich makes the argument that we are all built to run and run long distances at that.
Back when we were living in caves and we were hunters/gatherers, how did we track prey that was inevitably faster than us? We tracked them for miles and miles and miles over an extended period of time until said prey was spent and collapsed.
What does this have to do with barefoot running? Well, our ancestors weren't rolling in the latest edition of Nike Air Max running shoes. They were tracking prey without the luxury of shoes. Obviously, there are no records of running related aggravations/injuries to refer to, but the human race survived and evolved and it's all because of our ability to run! :) In all seriousness, you have to wonder where we'd be today had we NOT been able to run and track our prey.
Matt's Two Cents
Technically, I've never run barefoot. BUT, I contracted a nasty case of plantar fasciitis in 2006 that ultimately required surgery. 2007 was rocky from a running standpoint. While I was back on my feet, I wasn't running the way I had previously.
I had been prescribed uber-supportive, motion control shoes and custom orthotics. I ran this way for the first six months of the year and had an achilles tendonitis flare up that just didn't want to go away. As 2007 drew to a close, I was frustrated. 2006 and 2007 had largely been a lost cause for my running.
Entering 2008 I was determined to find a way to get back to the kind of running I had done in 2005 that resulted in the fastest marathon of my life. I did some research and found an article talking about how Vin Lananna (the then cross country coach at Stanford) always had his runners do some barefoot running a few times/week.
I also read about how many Kenyans trained barefoot and/or with minimal footwear. In a bold move, I eschewed my bulky, motion control shoes and custom orthotics and decided to embrace the Nike Frees which emulate barefoot walking/running, but are definitely a bit more substantial than the VFFs.
I started slowly. I logged only a couple miles here and there in the Nike Frees as I got used to feeling the ground in a way I never had before. Gradually, I started using them more and more and really came to love the 'freedom' I felt when I wore them.
It had been nearly THREE YEARS since I had run a marathon, but in the summer of 2008 I found myself wondering if I could give it another shot. I was feeling strong, my body wasn't complaining, and I was running almost exclusively in the Nike Frees.
After a pretty brutal training cycle, I ran CIM at the end of 2008 and managed to run the fastest marathon of my life.
I am not going to attribute my return to running at a high level EXCLUSIVELY to the Nike Frees, but I do know this...they helped...A LOT. I know my biomechanics/form improved for the sole reason that my proprioception improved. I could 'feel' the ground and my foot placement in a way I never had before. I became more of a midfoot/forefoot striker (which is what your body actually WANTS to do).
I also know they strengthened my feet and lower legs. I have not had an achilles flare up in nearly 3 years and aside from another brief/mild bout of plantar fasciitis in 2009, I have not had any serious running related aggravations/injuries.
I now run in a combination of Nike Frees and a few other pairs of more conventional running shoes that have a low profile and ask more of your feet/lower legs.
But, here's the thing...this is what worked for 'me'. I effectively used myself as a guinea pig with the Nike Frees because what I was doing prior to wearing them wasn't working for me. I also have been running on a regular basis for 20 YEARS! I am also pretty lean.
So, before you run out and grab a pair of Nike Frees, VFFs, or decide to go native (aka-barefoot), consider WHO you are as a runner. Have you been running for a long time? Have you been running for YEARS? Are you overweight? Are you out of shape? Are you suffering from an injury currently? What kinds of injuries have you had in the past?
Use common sense and good judgement. If you're smaller, athletic, in good shape, and have some reasonable running experience, I bet wearing something like the Nike Frees and/or VFFs occasionally/conservatively could help strengthen your feet/lower legs and/or improve your biomechanics.
But, honestly you can likely derive 'some' of these benefits by just walking around periodically in the Nike Frees or VFFs and even for those of you who are considering RUNNING in them, I'd encourage you to just try walking around in them for a couple weeks to 'prime' your body for the more aggressive/demanding act of running.