Athletic gear design, if anything, has gone in a completely opposite direction. Over the next 50 years several major brands infused technology and clothing together to create high performance athletic gear. Shoes have been the largest focus.
Interestingly though the prevalence of lower body injury has increased since the introduction of performance footwear from brands like Nike. This increase doesn’t seem to be correlated with more runners running more miles though. As some researchers would suggest, the energy costs of running are less when running barefoot and the prevalence of injury is less frequent as well. The basic argument being that the human foot is perfectly designed for running (without the aid of shoes).
Such research has created a somewhat underground group of runners that run unshod. They ditch the shoes and hit the road with liberated toes gripping at the surface to feel every detail of the road beneath them. Runner’s like Barefoot Ted have sold the barefoot method really well and his experiment has branched out into a new wave of barefoot runners.
My personal experience is that if wasn’t for running barefoot I wouldn’t be running today. With shoes it was just too painful and felt awful. The moment I took the shoes off and started training I felt amazing and my progress was dramatic!
There is no single correct way to run. However there are certain characteristics that seem to be common to most great runners. Striving to run like them will not guarantee you can become a great runner, but it will make it easier to become the best runner you can be.
High stride rate in relation to speed, a tendency to strike the ground on midfoot or forefoot, more time in the air and less ground contact time, knees bent during contact, relaxed and upright upper body.
Four out of five runners overstride, landing their feet ahead of their body, heel-first, causing running injuries. Barefoot runners can’t do it because heel striking is immediately painful, but runners in shoes keep doing it without noticing.
Christopher McDougal’s book “Born to Run” has done amazing things for my training. The four points “easy, light, smooth, and fast” have simplified what I am paying attention to on each run. I highly recommend this book for all runners, and anyone who likes a great true drama story. The book is about a group of Mexican ultrarunners called the Tarahumara.
- Easy – If it’s not easy, you’re working too hard. Slow down, take smaller steps, and simplify.
- Light – Be light on your feet. Your joints aren’t made to POUND into the ground.
- Smooth – Make your movements smooth and efficient. Excessive bouncing wastes energy. You want to move forward, not up.
- Fast – Fast will happen naturally when you master easy, light, and smooth.
I got it easy already, becoming light and smooth now. I believe that by the time I reach California I will also be fast. We will see.
Before you take off in your brand new Vibram Five Fingers, seriously consider going barefoot first. Build stronger feet and diminish your risk of injury. I trained barefoot for two weeks before buying my VFFs, and still run barefoot every once in a while, to make sure I am being able to “read” the environment correctly and maintaining proper form.
I like the VFFs very much and as of the time of writing this I have been doing most of my running on the VFFs but none of the walking. I feel that my heels take too much stress while walking.
That means: I run in VFFs, but to walk I prefer running shoes. Yes, it is funny!
In terms of pure physics you can measure the barefoot benefit by less weight and drag. Typical running shoe can weigh anywhere between 10 and 16 ounces. Take off the weight and you remove a bit of resistance. Assuming that you take 1,800 steps per mile (that’s roughly 3 feet covered in each stride length), you can expect to move a 10 to 16 ounce shoe about 47,000 times during a full marathon. Granted this can fluctuate depending on the runner, however you can expect well over 30,000 strides for just about anyone who runs a marathon. With a bit of simple math it’s easy to see how taking off 10 to 16 ounces of weight can add up.
For most runners though it seems that the primary motivation for trying barefoot running stems from a history of chronic running related injury. In a quest to run injury free runners are willing to try just about anything. Some turn to yoga. Others see sports therapists and/or chiropractors on a frequent basis. The majority of runners with injury turn to top of the line running equipment that’s coined as being the cure-all for maintaining a healthy running lifestyle. Our options include Custom orthotics, stability control shoes with massive heel and arch support, and the list goes on.
It’s not an entirely one-sided story though. I have noticed that my feet and calves get very sore. After my first 2 mile run barefoot my calves felt like they typically would do after a 10 mile run in shoes. I also occasionally felt a burning sensation in my left heel. Those problems disappeared after a few weeks of training.
Despite the unique soreness in my feet and calves I viewed it as a positive experience. The soreness told me that I was making them stronger and building them back to a natural state of incredible strength and dexterity.