If you’ve been running for a while, you’ve probably invested a lot of money in running shoes over the years. Traditional running shoes are designed with a significant amount of shock absorbency built into the sole, the purpose being to reduce the degree of impact that your feet have to deal with. Different shoes use different substances to cushion that impact, whether it be gel, air or any number of patented wonder-materials.
Recently though, the wisdom of using heavily cushioned running shoes has been called into question. The debate really started to rage when Christopher McDougal wrote his best seller, Born to Run, back in 2009. McDougal’s research led him to Mexico where the Tarahumara tribe run insane distances wearing simple sandals. Despite the distances, rough terrain and apparently inadequate footwear, the tribe members almost never suffered running related injuries.
Put simply, we run very differently barefoot than we do when we’re shod with expensive, heavily cushioned running shoes. Try it yourself. Simply jog around your home barefoot and you’ll notice that you stay up on the balls of your feet rather than throwing yourself forward onto your heel. This is, arguably, the natural way for us to run, the way our bodies are designed to run without shoes.
Of course you wouldn’t really want to be pounding the pavement wearing nothing whatsoever on your feet, unless you like the idea of tearing your toes to shreds. Which is where the explosion of barefoot running shoes comes into play.
While the majority of running shoes still have soles stuffed full of marshmallows or such like, barefoot running shoes offer very little in the way of cushioning and a far greater degree of flexibility. Barefoot shoes are designed to allow your foot freedom of movement, moulding themselves to your contours and flexing as your foot flexes. Barefoot running shoes tend to have a flat sole, making it easier for you to run with a mid-to-fore strike, as opposed to the traditional heel strike.
Vibram Five Fingers are probably the most widely recognised barefoot shoes, since they essentially look like rubber feet, but there are many other options available. Last year I met up with the folks at Cotswold Outdoor to talk about the new trail running centres at certain stores. I walked away from that meeting with a pair of Merrell Trail Glove running shoes, and I decided that I’d give barefoot running a try.
If you’re used to a traditional running style it’s imperative that you transition to a barefoot technique slowly and gradually. But like so many others before me, I didn’t heed that warning. Instead I tried to push as hard as I could to maintain my regular pace. My reward was a pulled calf muscle that kept me side-lined for a few weeks. So, I’ll reiterate – make your transition slow and gradual, your body will thank you.
Once you abandon the long strides that accompany a heel strike running style, you’ll notice how much less strain your body is undergoing thanks to the reduced impact. You see, although heavily cushioned traditional shoes protect your feet, those heavy impacts are transmitted elsewhere, like your ankles, knees and spine.
Advocates of barefoot running insist that once mastered, the style will literally eradicate persistent aches and injuries, and in my experience, that’s absolutely the case. I often used to pickup ankle injuries and suffer twinges and aches in my knees when running regularly – 20-years of martial arts takes its toll on your joints. Since switching to barefoot running I haven’t suffered a single injury (bar the initial self inflicted pulled calf muscle).
I also find myself being far more careful when picking my running line. When you’ve got thick-soled running shoes on, you need to give little thought to the terrain you’re traversing, since those cushioned soles will protect you from pretty much anything you’re likely to step on. However, the thin, flexible soles on barefoot shoes transmit every nuance of the ground you’re pounding straight through to your feet.
So, you need to be far more careful about where you’re stepping, because landing on a sharp stone can be very painful indeed. The good news is that when you’re running your favourite trails, the desire to save your soles (so to speak) will make you even lighter on your feet, and reduce the impact on your joints further still.
When you first switch to barefoot running you’ll probably feel as if you’re going incredibly slowly, and at first you will be. But as you get used to it, and your feet and muscles adapt, you’ll soon claw back that pace you were used to. If you’re a cyclist, just think of the shorter strides as a higher cadence in a lower gear – it might feel inefficient at first, but in reality you’re putting far less strain on your knees.
The debate will no doubt continue about whether barefoot running is better for you than the traditional long stride, heel strike method, but I definitely find it more natural and less of a strain on the rest of my body. If you find yourself picking up regular niggles in your ankles, knees or back, it’s definitely worth giving the barefoot technique a try, but just remember not to push yourself too hard, too soon.