Running without shoes doesn't only liberate your feet. It can actually strengthent hem and improve your form.
If you’re wondering why you’re beginning to see scores of people running with what looks like thick rubber toe socks on, you’re not alone. Welcome to the brave new world of “barefoot” running.
This minimalist style of running isn’t new, the Ethiopians have been doing it for some time; in 1960, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the Olympic Marathon in bare feet.
For the recreational running community, barefoot running was an oddity practiced by a very tiny minority of runners, until the runaway success of Christopher McDougall’s book, “Born to Run”, suddenly propelled the practice into popular culture.
“Born to Run” highlights a tribe of ultra-elite distance runners, the Tarahumara in the Mexican desert, famous for their ability to run tirelessly for days in bare feet, or in very rudimentary strips of rubber held in place with twine.
And therein lies the premise: that if a tribe of native Americans, for whom shoes are not customary, are such naturally good runners, then perhaps the very shoes that we wear, and which we depend on for performance, are in fact hindering our natural running ability.
Minimalist running can you take you to the next level.
These feet are made for running… bare
The theory goes that humans were naturally born to be able to run efficiently (think evolution and how our ancestors had to hunt over long distances and outrun big things with teeth), but over time our feet have been coddled and weakened by unnecessary cushioning and structure found in conventional running shoes.
The case for going barefoot is that these bells and whistles of the modern running shoe have slowly deprived our feet of their natural flexibility, sensitivity and strength. Avid followers of barefoot running have been saying that cushioned running shoes, with their raised heel, force a runner to adopt an unnatural and inefficient running gait.
How running shoes can hurt you
With a thick sole and a raised profile, the heel of the foot strikes the ground first, and barefoot advocates believe that the stress from heel-striking is the root cause of common running injuries, e.g. bad knees, strained tendons and tense muscles.
With barefoot running, the foot naturally strikes the ground at the mid-foot, near the ball of the foot, promoting a more natural and efficient running gait. Because all the supporting muscles and tendons have to work to stabilize the shoe-less foot, over time they become stronger and less prone to injury.
Barefoot fans also extol the added benefits of being able to feel the ground more, and many adherents report improved running performance and less injury.
Fits like a glove
Those thick rubber toe socks that you may have encountered are “Five Finger” minimalist “shoes” made by Vibram. They really aren’t “shoes” so much as a thin rubber outsole with a neoprene top to protect feet from cuts.
Vibram's Five Fingers shoes
In response, the usual suspects have turned out their own versions of minimalist shoes. Unlike the rubber toe socks that are the Five Fingers, these minimalist shoes still look like regular shoes, but are lightweight, with little cushioning, a flatter sole profile and a thin upper.
Popular models include the Nike Free, New Balance Minimus, Adidas Adipure Trainer and the Merrell Glove series.
To shoe, or not to shoe?
But is barefoot running for you?
The jury is still out on whether or not barefoot running is the long-term solution for improved running performance and a lower injury rate, but based on the empirical evidence of legions of barefoot fans, it is difficult to completely dismiss the barefoot phenomenon as a fad.
If you’re convinced that barefoot running is for you and are keen to get started, the key is to ease into the change – attempt o run your regular 10K in the Five Fingers, and you might find yourself in pain very soon.
A more conservative transition would be to first try on a pair of minimalist shoes, and if running in those feels comfortable and you’re able to maintain your running distance and speed, then the next stage would be to switch over to the Five Fingers gradually, by first walking, and then slowly building up running distance.
Few people make the full barefoot transition, and this may not even be very practical in Singapore, given the usual road debris and lack of long stretches of grass or unpaved ground to run on.
As you gradually make the transition to minimalist shoes, you should expect to feel greater muscles soreness at the initial stage, and will likely have difficulty maintaining your usual speed and distance until your feet and muscles adjust to your new running gait.
As a final caveat to barefoot running that you may wish to consider, some podiatrists believe that barefoot running is not for those with flat feet, overly high arches or bunions.
While barefoot running is possibly the most exciting thing in the running world now, general common sense should still prevail, and you should evaluate its apparent merits based on your own physical condition, and how practical it is for you.