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Old 11-Mar-2011, 04:32 AM
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benkei benkei is offline
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Barefoot running

For the last year or so, I have been part of a relatively new movement that many would describe as somewhat cultish. No, it isn't Crossfit (although I do partake in that once a week as well), it is barefoot/minimalist running. I have always hated running, I'm a fairly stocky guy with big legs and butt that has always been far more suited to sprinting and things involving power and speed than long distance running. My view on running changed dramatically, however, the day I read about a product called Vibram Five Finger (or VFF for short). VFFs are essentially gloves for your feet, which separate the toes. They have a thin sole of rubber and a variety of materials for the upper (depending on which model you choose) and offer no feet support whatsoever. No doubt you are wondering why the hell anyone would want to run without any support for their feet. Read on and I'll espouse the benefits of barefoot running and the folly of conventional wisdom on the wearing of shoes for said activity.

It all started back in the 1970s. Before then, all long distance runners wore very lightweight shoes with no support, forcing them to run as our ancestors ran before shoes were even invented. They ran very long distances - far longer than what would be recommended today. Fast forward and we have the founder of Nike theorising that a runner's stride could be made longer if you padded the heel, enabling the runner to land on it instead of the ball of the foot as nature intended. What happened, as we know, was an explosion in the world of running shoes, with all kinds of technological advancements coming out and promising to cure us of over pronation, under pronation, fallen arches and so on. We now have shoes that look like they came out of the space program, but for all this technology injury rates for lifetime runners are higher than ever. Here is the funny thing; for all the companies that make shoes, there has not been a single study produced that shows modern shoes prevent or reduce injury. That's a pretty big thing, no? The shoe companies have even been challenged to produce such evidence, but no one wants to come to the party, their silence speaks volumes. Contrast this with recent research espousing the benefits of barefoot/minimalist running and we have a dilemma.

So, what is the problem with running shoes? Well, the fact that we are not supposed to run in a heel striking motion. We have arches on the bottom of our feet for a really good reason: they are our suspension system. The arch is one of the strongest structures in nature, so strong it is often used to construct bridges, not to mention the amount used in buildings of the Roman Empire. It is all simple physics. In laymans terms, when you compress an arch (as happens when you land on the ball of your feet), all the force squeezes in on the uppermost point, which in your foots case is stored as kinetic energy. As the heel comes down the top of the arch is subject to the most pressure, before that pressure is released back along the arch, aiding you to then push off for your next step. So here we can see exactly where all the force goes - you land on the soft ball of your feet, and the shock is sent into the muscles of your foot arch as pressure, the energy of which is released as you push off for your next step. The more you run, the stronger the muscles in your foot become and the greater your feets efficiency in dispersing shock.

As you can see from the above description, running barefoot is extremely efficient while also being good for your joints because your arch is doing all the work, as it is meant to. Now, when you wear running shoes, things drastically change for the worse. Instead of your foot hitting the ground with your knees bent and arches exposed, ready to absorb the shock, your leg is straight with your heel outstretched. Your heel slams into the pavement (which studies have shown the cushioning in shoes cannot dampen) and the force of 2-3 times your body weight goes up through that heel, through your straightened outstretched leg and into your pelvic area, which will in turn affect your lower back. This is why so many runners suffer from plantar fasciitis, a condition caused by the motion of running in shoes. Doesn't sound too pleasant does it? In fact, not so long ago Nike sales reps showed up at the Stanford University's athletics training session only to find that the athletes (sponsored by Nike) were all running barefoot on the grass. When they asked the coach why they weren't wearing shoes, the reply was that they got injured less when they didn't. How was Nike going to sell the idea of not wearing shoes when they were a shoe company? Enter the Nike Free, designed to mimic barefoot running.

What you also miss out on when wearing shoes is sensory information. When you run barefoot, all the sensors in your foot come into play and start working to protect your body. You can't run improperly with bare feet, because your feet won't let you. The feedback will very quickly be one of pain until you run in the manner you were meant to run. When you wear running shoes, all that sensory information disappears, because you have essentially put a cast over your feet. What about broken glass, syringes etc you say? Err, well it's as simple as watching where you are running. You are generally better off getting away from roads and paths, as getting back to nature is where it is at for barefoot running. As I said before, I always used to hate running. As I got my feet accustomed to barefoot running, it became an almost religious experience. My favourite has become running in the rain on grass, the mud squelching between my toes and the cooling sensation on my feet feels absolutely amazing.

The greatest difference I have noticed in my running now is the feel and sound. I no longer feel exhausted after a run as I did in shoes because my body has not taken a pounding by running incorrectly. I also compare the sound of my running to others. Even when I am running on a path in my VFFs all I hear is a soft pitter patter when I touch down, compared to a very loud clomping when I hear anyone nearby running in modern shoes. Every time I hear it all I can think is that it cannot be good for you. Another great point about running barefoot is the price, it's free! Compare that to your space age shoes that you are supposedly meant to change every 6 months, adding up to about $400 a year, yikes! Treat your VFFs well and they will last you a year at the least, not a bad saving.

Before you rush out and embrace barefoot running (as you should), I advise you to hit up some runner's forums and the like to gain more information. The key is starting slow - barefoot running uses an entirely new set of muscles than what you are used to, so going hard from the outset is going to cause injury. You need to work up to it slowly to let your feet, achilles tendons and most importantly your calf muscles adjust to the load. You are also far better starting out with bare feet than with VFFs, because the soft skin on the soles of your feet will stop you from going too hard too fast, and they will ensure your technique is perfect.

Finally, I recommend you pick up a book called Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It is an absolutely fantastic read, the main part being a story (which I'll save for the review, stay tuned) but also mixed with short digressions on the history of running including shoes and such. I am not a runner and I couldn't put it down, so give it a crack, you won't be disappointed.

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Last edited by benkei; 11-Mar-2011 at 09:16 PM.
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Old 11-Mar-2011, 09:22 PM
Oldmike Oldmike is offline
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Or instead you could invest in a cheap pair of those old style basketball shoes, the ones with the canvas uppers and the white rubber toe caps (Chucks or Keds) Absolutely no ankle support and minimal padding. That way you could run like your immediate ancestors ie: you Dad/ Grandpa. That's all we had as running shoes until the "Great Running Shoe Explosion " of the 1970's
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Old 11-Mar-2011, 10:04 PM
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Custom Volusia Custom Volusia is offline
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I have Vibram Classics. Ran in them for about 8 months. Pushed to hard to start with and actual caused a bit of tendonities (SP?) after a few weeks. Got over that, started again, and had good results. Definetly different though!!

Not the only alternative running style though. There is also 'pose' running, 'chi' running..and a fourth one I can't remember the name of. All of them are good and just meant to offer an alternative for people that aren't natural runners.
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Old 04-Sep-2012, 09:03 AM
Sketco Sketco is offline
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I wonder if it's possible to toughen my feet enough that I could do my forest runs in bare feet.
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