In the last two years they’ve exploded onto the fitness scene. You’ve probably noticed them around town, at your local 10k, and running lightly on the treadmill at your gym. Who are “they”? They’re “barefoot” runners. This rapidly growing segment of running is pushing the boundaries on decades of accepted running practices and creating plenty of controversy in the process. Controversy or not, we’re always searching for an edge, so here’s the run down on this new trend.
What Is It?:
Ironically enough, barefoot running as it’s known today usually doesn’t imply being barefoot in the literal sense. Instead, it refers to the forefoot strike running form that’s typically used if running barefoot. Unlike the heel strike running form commonly used in modern running sneakers, a forefoot strike relies on shorter quicker strides where you land on the balls of your feet with your heel touching down after. Proponents report benefits such as reduced knee, back pain, and shin pain. Published research shows significantly less impact force to the body with each stride. The theory behind this is that, over millions of years, our feet evolved to walk and run just fine without shoes. The structure of your foot and lower leg are finely tuned to handle the stress of running and even running long distances. Whether that conclusively leads to fewer injuries, is still a matter of debate. Anecdotally the running style has passionate fans and is growing daily.
Barefoot running is hardly a new concept. For millennia, no one wore shoes, and to this day many people in the world go shoeless each day whether they’re walking or running. African hunters were reported to participate in persistence hunting barefoot. Greek athletes in the first Olympics didn’t wear cleats or shoes for their feats of athleticism. In the 1960?s legendary marathoner, Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon in record time running completely barefoot, just as he’d trained for the race. All the way until the 1970?s most runners ran in nearly flat shoes that weren’t much more than track spikes. With the advent of the modern running sneaker, shoes became bigger and more tech focused. Options like motion control, springs in the heel, and custom orthotics became the norm. Throughout this a small group of runners such as Barefoot Ken Bob, bucked the trend and ran completely barefoot or in home made minimal footwear such as socks wrapped in duct tape.
A combination of events in the last five years has really pushed barefoot running over the top. In 2005, Vibram, a 75 year old Italian soling company, launched an odd-looking shoe with individual pockets for each toe called FiveFingers. Essentially it was a rubber sole that mimicked the shape of a foot, and runners quickly adopted it as a way to get the benefits of running barefoot while protecting their feet from cuts and abrasions.
In 2009, Christopher McDougal blew the lid off of the sport. Throughout his entire life, he was told by coaches and friends that he just wasn’t “made” to run. So he set out to prove otherwise by studying the reclusive Tarahumara Indians. Members of this specialized tribe were known to take ultramarthon-length runs for fun — well into their retirement years — wearing nothing but thin pieces of rubber for shoes. His diligence eventually paid off and culminated in him finishing a 50 mile run through punishing canyon terrain in Mexico with some of the premier ultra runners in the world. The resulting book from his experience, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, was an instant success and remained on the New York Times Bestseller lists for four months straight.
The final piece to the catalyst puzzle was a research professor of Human Evolutionary Biology from Harvard, Dr. Daniel Lieberman. Dr. Lieberman published findings in 2010 from his study of the foot strike of both barefoot runners and those wearing modern running shoes. He found that those who ran barefoot typically used a forefoot or midfoot strike, those in sneakers predominantly ran with a heel strike. In addition, those who ran with a forefoot strike had significantly lower impact force to their strides than the heel strikers.
Out of these three events sprang a new push in the running world to run more naturally and and allow our anatomy do as it evolved to.
How To Do It:
Start slow! The number one problem people have when starting to run with a barefoot style is starting out too fast. It requires lower leg and foot strength that a life time of wearing shoes has ill prepared us for. Doing too much right at the start can leave you with with injuries, so approach it like any new sport and listen to your body. Merrell, makers of some of the best hiking shoes, recently launched their Barefoot collection and their companion website contains excellent tips on safely getting started with barefoot running.
First thing, know what to look for in a good barefoot running shoe.
- Minimal heel lift: You want the shoe to be as close to neutral as possible. A raised heel makes it difficult to run with a barefoot style and prevents you from being in touch with the ground.
- A generous toe box: Toes are often ignored and stuffed into shoes. They help provide balance and feedback on your terrain. Good barefoot style shoes have enough room for your toes to flex and splay as you walk and run.
- A thin/flexible sole: The goal of barefoot running is to replicate the biomechanics of running truly barefoot. So, the more minimal the sole, the better you can do this.
- A thin/flexible upper: Just like the sole, you want the upper of your shoe to allow your foot to move freely as if completely barefoot.
There are a few different barefoot running options out there now. One of our favorites is the new Merrell Barefoot Sonic Glove. Merrell was one of the first footwear companies to identify the barefoot running market, and actually partnered with Vibram (makers of FiveFingers), to develop the soling platforms for their Barefoot collection. The Sonic Glove easily fills the criteria for a good barefoot running shoe. It features a flexible softshell upper that wicks moisture away from your foot, a completely neutral platform, and minimal 4mm of EVA midsole giving you just enough protection while not negating ground feedback. Throw in a TC-1 Vibram rubber sole with enough traction to easily transition from road to trail and you’ll be more than ready to try this new, and ancient way of running.
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