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Barefoot Running: Not Just for Bums and Hippies

The world of running, and especially running shoes, can be a confusing one. And now that many of us are considering running with minimal shoes (shoes that are close to running barefoot), it can become overwhelming.

I’ve done a fair amount of research over the past month or so and want to provide you with what I’ve learned. Hopefully this will bring some clarity to you as well.

My aim with this post is twofold.

First, I want to clearly outline the benefits of running barefoot, or at least with minimal shoes. Second, I want to provide you with a list of minimal shoes that are currently on the market. I hope this will help you save some time, or at least amuse you while you’re here.

As always, please provide feedback and additional content you feel I should include on the page in the Comment section below.

A Running Reframe

As many of you are aware, I’ve been on a quest to be a runner for a number of years now. I run for a few months, then suffer a major setback, the latest of which is a large disc herniation (L5-S1).

The near constant pain with this last injury has kept me at home for a few months now, and obviously off the trails. Without the ability to run (for a lot of the time it was quite difficult to even walk), I began doing the only thing I could: reading about running and watching running movies. Oh, and living vicariously through all of you, who are out there doing awesome running.

Lying in bed, dreaming of the day I could once again run (hopefully pain free this time!), I learned a lot. Then, as anyone who’s been in contact with me will know, I discovered the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and devoured it.

Born To Run

To say the book changed my life is no overstatement. It altered the way I think of running and eating. Heck, it even changed the way I think about the meaning of life!

Chris describes how we, as humans, are intricately designed for endurance running, like no other animal on the planet. This not only gives me solid hope that I will run again, it also makes me confident that I will be able to reach my ultimate goal, to be able to run long distances (ultramarathons).

Instead of being gripped by fear and loathing when I think of running, brought on by years of over-doing it and suffering injuries (both physical and emotional), I now feel a sense of joy.

I visualize the human body doing what it’s meant to do: fluidly moving across the plains and up mountains, hair blowing in the wind, sun dancing off of the leaves and petals, eagles soaring overhead… (ok, maybe some of this euphoric vision is induced by narcotic pain killers , but not all of it). I now get that running is a part of living, and living is a part of running.

Less Is More

This profound realization, that all of us are born to run, is coupled with the biggest reframe I have experienced in my life: When it comes to running shoes, less is more.

I first heard of Nike’s Free running shoes a couple of years ago, but instantly dismissed them. I classified them as corporate America’s lame attempt to capitalize on a small, niche group of hippies. Well, if you’ve read Born to Run, you will realize that I wasn’t completely wrong.

Nike and other shoe companies are trying to make money from foot problems they mostly created with thick, cushioned soles. If you look back at recent history, people didn’t suffer much, if any, plantar fasciitis before Nike created what we now know and wear as running shoes.

These and other insights based in data and introduced to me in Born to Run completely flipped upside down what I thought were running truths.

The Truth About Barefoot Running

I’ve come to realize that barefoot running and running in minimal shoes is not just something that hippies do as a stand against the way most of the world views life. Indeed, many of the top endurance runners and college running coaches have been practicing and espousing the virtues of barefoot training routines for years (Anton Krupicka is perhaps the most successful barefoot/minimal runner today – he just broke what many thought was an unbreakable record at the White River 50 mile race).

They espouse barefoot running because research and personal experience has proven to them that feet and legs work best when they are in contact with the ground, unimpeded by large, clunky, and heavy running shoes.

Uphill Running at Sunset

A growing body of scientific research shows that runners experience less injuries and faster times when they run barefoot or with minimal padding. In fact, research published in Sports Science in 2001 by Michael Warburtin points out that, “Laboratory studies show that the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4% when the feet are not shod.”

Translate the energy saved into time over a run and you are going to experience a personal record. Add the reduced chance you’ll suffer an injury and it’s a big win for us runners.

The Benefits of Running Barefoot

Based on what I’ve read so far, there are three key benefits to running barefoot at least some of the time, and avoiding thick running shoes at all times. They are:

1

Shock Absorbtion

Thick, heavily-padded running shoes that we have come to rely on allow you to land on the heels of your feet, so you do. This causes all sorts of shock damage to the foot, leg, and even the rest of the body on up.

To understand the danger in this, imagine you’re on the roof of your house. Now jump off and land on the heels of your feet. Ouch, right?! It’s no different landing on your heel thousands of time every run.

In contrast, landing on your forefoot softens your whole landing. Your feet and legs flex like a car’s shock absorber and naturally absorb much of the impact.


2

Lighter Strike

It’s hard to wrap our brains around this next reason for running barefoot, yet research (some of which was conducted by Nike) shows that our bodies, inherently seeking feedback,strike the ground harder the more padding we have on our feet.

The foot has over seven thousand nerve endings in it, and each one needs to feel the body strike the ground. If you are barefoot, those nerve endings get the feedback they need with a light strike. However, if you are wearing a thick shoe, your body needs to strike harder in order to feel the ground through the padding.

It’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught, but the more padding you wear under your feet, the harder your foot pounds the ground. If you run barefoot, you will naturally run light like a cat. And that’s better for your whole body.


3

Muscle Strength

There are literally thousands of muscles in each foot, yet most of them aren’t used when we’re wearing arch-supporting shoes. The best example I’ve heard to explain why supporting the foot is bad, is that of wearing a cast.

I remember when I broke my arms and wore a solid cast for six weeks. Besides the smell, what I remember most is how small and limp my arm was when they cut the cast off. I could barely lift a pen with my arm! While not as extreme a situation, when your feet are constantly held in place by shoes, the muscles atrophy.

It’s quite simple, when your foot muscles are strong from use, you run more powerfully and swiftly. And when you run barefoot, all of your muscles get a chance to do what they are designed to do.


4

Other Health Benefits

Other reasons for running barefoot include running with a shorter, more healthy gait, literally being in better touch with your surroundings, and not depriving yourself of the physical pleasures that come with being barefoot (is there anyone who doesn’t enjoy walking barefoot on grass?).

The fact is that the foot’s an incredible system, capable of doing anything that we need it to. I think Ted McDonald (a.k.a. Barefoot Ted) said it best: Our feet, eyes, and mind are an incredible set of tools, if we just use them.

I decided that the best thing for me was to run barefoot some of the time, and the rest of the time to run in minimal footwear. That’s why I chose a pair of black Vibram Five Finger KSOs.

I am sure, after ample practice, feet can handle any surface. However, I want to give my feet a little stronger protection against puncture wounds. I will post a review of my Vibram Five Fingers a little later on, once I am able to run again. I have to say, though, that walking in them is very enjoyable.

Minimal Shoes

There are numerous running shoes out there, and a growing number of shoes that claim to be like running barefeet. Many companies, including Nike, are trying to jump on the barefoot bandwagon. Be wary of marketing spin. Don’t purchase any shoes without doing your research and ideally giving them a test run first.

Before we look at some specific shoes, let’s review a couple of definitions. First, barefoot running is just that, running with nothing on the feet, even socks. Running in minimal shoes means wearing something on your feet yet still allowing them to flex as they would if they were completely sod-free (no significant padding or arch support).

Here are some shoes I consider to be minimal:

Vibram Five Fingers KSO

KSO model shown, 5.7 oz
You either love the way they look, or you think they’re the nastiest things to hit the footwear world since plantar warts. If you get past their look, though, you realize they are damn close to going barefoot.

The reviews from all sorts of folks are quite positive. I love how I can feel the warmth on the sidewalk in the sun, then the coolness of the grass in the shade. I also like that people look at me in a peculiar way (though I don’t get many stares as I am in Northern California, after all).

> Birthday Shoes is a blog by Justin Owens. An advocate of Vibram Five Fingers himself, the site covers all things Vibram five fingers. There are numerous reviews on his site of all of VFFs.
> Barefoot Ted has recently reviewed the new Vibram Five Finger Treks which are made of kangaroo skin which provides a little more insulation.


2

FeelMax

Feelmax Panka

Panka model shown, 4.2 oz
Feelmax, a Finnish company, makes a full range of minimal shoes. Of all the minimal shoes I’ve seen, the Feelmax are likely to be the best for colder temperatures (excluding the Vibram Five Finger Treks, due out in September 2009).

Since they come in a variety of browns and blacks, they likely provide the best chance to get away with wearing minimal shoes in casual business settings.


3

Vivo Barefoot by Terra Plana

Vivo Barefoot White and Blue

Root Sport Leather model shown
These are arguably the most beautiful minimal shoes out there. They are at once fashionable and functional (though I have not tried a pair on). Of all of the minimal shoes I’ve seen, these win hands down for aesthetics (I drool over the keyboard every time I see them).

The Root Sport Leather model also comes in white and green. An added bonus is that the shoes are made of much recycled material. Their running specific shoe which will be called E V O comes out later this year and will surely be a strong contender.


4

Asics Running Flats

Asics Budokan White

Budokan model shown
Asics creates some running flats and minimal shoes for martial artists that could also be used for running. You will have to take each shoe case by case and try them on to determine if there is too much padding or arch support.

Note that many of the big running shoe companies also create their own version of a racing flat.


5

Feiyue

Feiyue

Lo model shown
This Chinese brand with it’s origins in 1920s Beijing became popular with parkour enthusiasts (an adventurous form of urban running and jumping first popularized in France) in France in 2006. Feiyue shoes are loved for their functionality and heritage, and of late, as a fashion statement. They have little to no padding, much like a classic Converse.


6

Skora Footwear

Skora

Skora is certainly a compelling company, promising seamless comfort, anatomical forefoot fit, and light-to-medium cushioning from their latest range of footwear.

The company was developed by the folks behind Barefoot Running, hence the minimal design, and focus on developing a product that’s neutral, flexible, and lightweight.

Other Shoes

Other shoes that claim to be all about the bare foot, but I’m not sure whether they would actually be good or not, due to too much padding and support:

1

Nike Free

Nike Free

The story of how Nike tried to make money off of the foot problems they helped create in the first place is well documented in Born to Run. It’s incredible to me that they call these shoes barefoot, since they are very thick in the heel. Even on their blog, the header photo shoes a person striking heel first. It just seems like marketing fluff, to me.


6

Newton Running

Newton Running

The company talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to minimalist shoes. As you can see, the heels are far too thick.

Newton Running footwear is much better suited to marathons, ultramarathons, 5Ks, triathlons, trail runs, group runs, and track workouts.


3

Ecco Biom

Ecco Biom

Ecco, a Danish company best known for their comfortable shoes, have teamed up with triathlete Torbjorn Sindballe to create the Biom. While the shoe looks interesting, you can quickly tell that it still provides too much support. While all of the marketing talks about the foot’s natural movement, they say that the shoe is a “replica of the human foot.” Too bad you have to pay $170 to get a replica of something you already have.


4

inov8 Racing Flats

Inov8 Racing Flats

f-lite 250 Racing Flat shown
inov8 is an English company founded on the philosophy that the bare foot is an incredible system to begin with. They claim that the inov8 shoes allow the foot to flex like it does barefoot. It’s hard to believe, though, that you would receive full flex in these shoes, but maybe I’m wrong. It weighs just under 9 ounces (or 250 grams, hence the name).


5

Teva Ultralites

X-1 Evolution model shown, 10 oz
Teva, of course, began by making sandals for active use, including water activities. They now carry a full line of shoes for outdoor activities. Their heel is still quite large to be good for you.


6

New Balance Trail Runners

New Balance MR790

MR790 model shown, 5 oz
Owners of these trail running shoes are very enthusiastic about them, talking about how light and thin they are.

However, you can see they still have quite a lot of height in the heals, and per the New Balance website, the shoe still contains a lug of cushioning.

What Do You Think?

Have you tried any of these shoes? Would you suggest any shoes not included here?
Have you integrated barefoot running into your training at all? Do you want to?
What other benefits of barefoot running would you include?

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