Thursday, January 28, 2010

Humans Were Born To Run Barefoot

Article from National Public Radio. Here's the NPR Link to the All Things Considered audio of the program about barefoot running.

January 27, 2010

Humans are excellent two-legged walkers. It's one of the things that make us such successful creatures.

And there are some scientists who say we're naturally born runners as well, that our bodies evolved to run. Now, anthropologist Dan Lieberman, one of the proponents of the "human runner" school, concludes that we do it better without shoes.

He says human ancestors needed to run well — both away from big animals and after small, tasty ones, for example. He based that view on fossil bones. But lately he's been studying runners — living ones.

Video: A Look At Running With And Without Shoes

Shoes Or No Shoes, That Is The Question

It started at a lecture he gave before the Boston Marathon. A barefoot runner — someone who runs long distances without shoes — peppered the professor with questions he couldn't answer. So Lieberman took him to his lab at Harvard University. He had him run over a flat metal plate that measures the collisional force of a footfall. Lieberman says runners generate a lot of collisional force.

"Most runners, when they land and they heel-strike — they land on their heel — they generate this sudden impulse, this sharp spike of force. So it's like someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer, about 1 1/2 to 3 times your body weight," he says.

Two runners: one with shoes, one without.
Benton et. al.

Most shod runners land on their heels, which generates a sudden, sharp spike of force. Barefoot runners land farther forward, closer to the ball of their foot, which exerts much less force in comparison.

But Lieberman was surprised by the extremely low force readings made by the barefoot runner.

"He ran across the force plate, and he didn't have [a high spike], and I thought, gee, that's really amazing, and it kind of makes sense because that spike of force hurts, and I wonder if other barefoot runners do that."

So Lieberman tested several groups of runners: Kenyans who'd been walking and running barefoot all their lives; Americans who grew up walking and running in shoes; and some who had switched from shoes to running barefoot.

On The Ball

Lieberman found that runners in shoes usually landed heel-first. Barefoot runners landed farther forward, either on the ball of their foot or somewhere in the middle of the foot, and then the heel came down — much less collisional force.

And people who switched from shoes to barefoot running eventually, without prompting, adopted the barefoot style. Lieberman, who runs marathons himself, says the reason is simple.

"It's pain avoidance. It's very easy to do. I mean, your body naturally tells you what to do," he says.

Running shoes dampen the shock of a heel-first landing, so that's probably why shod people run that way, Lieberman says.

But is that the most efficient way to run? Lieberman thinks not.

"Turns out that the way in which barefoot runners run seems to store up more energy," he says.

More Spring Out Of The Step

To understand how that works, I talked to anthropologist Brian Richmond at George Washington University. He points out that the human foot has an arch with ligaments inside that stretch and contract with every footfall.

"It allows the arch of the foot and the calf muscles to act as a better spring and to store up energy, and then give it back in the beginning of the next step," Richmond says.

Think of a compressed mattress spring pushed down and then released. Richmond agrees with Lieberman that the front-first landing of barefoot running probably capitalizes on that spring mechanism more than heel-first landing — it gets more spring out of the spring.

Richmond, in fact, has discovered fossilized footprints dating back 1 1/2 million years. Those human ancestors who left them had an arch. They were walking when they left the prints, but Richmond suspects that when they ran, they landed front-first.

"It looks like this is how our ancestors have been running for a million years or more," he says. "It's only been in the last 10,000 years that we've had any kind of shoes, really."

Lieberman published his findings in the journal Nature. He received research funding from a company that makes "minimal" shoes, which mimic barefoot conditions, but he adds that he received no personal income from the company. He also says he's not taking sides over which style of running is better or safer.

"I mean, I think we have to be really, really careful about what we do and don't know. We have not done any injury studies; this is not an injury study," he says. That's next.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How to transition to running in minimalist shoes

I’ve had several questions about my minimalist transition, how to’s, etc. So I thought I’d look back and try to put it in a generalized “how-to” post, based on my experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I put it into a generic 8 week program to be full time in a minimalist shoe in 2 months. I personally made the full transition in 6 weeks, but please keep in mind, I’m an ultrarunner and typically run a minimum of 2000 miles a year, compete in a least 6 ultramarathon races per year and have been doing this for nearly a decade. So, my transition may be a bit quicker than most. However, if you spend time barefoot and re-learn your proper running stride (barefoot), listen to your body and don’t overdue it giving your body time to adapt, I truly believe you can do this. And, it won’t take as long as you might think. Happy natural running!

Read the rest of the article on Jeff Brownings blog!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why expensive trainers could be worse than useless

Western runners, of whom 90 per cent suffer injuries every year, would be better off leaving their sneakers at home, and running barefoot.

By Chris McDougall
Published: 7:00AM GMT 12 Jan 2010
(photo by Luis Escobar)

Science and sceptical runners are catching up with something the Tarahumara Indians have known for ever: your naked feet are fine on their own. According to a growing body of clinical research, those expensive running shoes you've been relying on may be worse than useless: they could be causing the very injuries they're supposed to prevent.

Perhaps the best research in the field has been going on for hundreds of years in a maze of canyons in northern Mexico. There, the reclusive Tarahumara tribe routinely engage in races of 150 miles or more, the equivalent of running the London Marathon six times in the same day.
Despite this extreme mileage, as I learnt during several treks into the canyons, the Tarahumara are somehow immune to the injuries that plague the rest of the running world.

Out here in the non-Tarahumara world, where we have access to the best in sports medicine, training innovations and footwear, up to 90 per cent of all marathoners are injured every year.
The Tarahumara, by contrast, remain spry and healthy deep into old age. I saw numerous men
and women in their seventies loping up steep, cliffside switchbacks on their way to villages 30 miles away. Back in 1994, a Tarahumara man ventured out of the canyons to compete against an elite field of runners at the Leadville Trail Ultramarathon, a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains. He wore homemade sandals. He was 55 years old. He won.

So how do the Tarahumara protect their legs from all that pounding? Simple – they don't. They
don't protect and, most critically, they don't pound. When the Tarahumara aren't barefoot, they wear nothing more cushioned than thin, hard sandals fashioned from discarded tire treads and leather thongs. In place of artificial shock
absorption, they rely on an ancient running technique that creates a naturally gentle landing. Unlike the vast majority of modern runners, who come down heavily on their foam-covered heels and roll forward off their toes, the Tarahumara land lightly on their forefeet and bend their knees, as you would if you jumped from a chair.

This ingenious, easy-to-learn style could have a profound effect on runners, not to mention the multi-billion dollar running-shoe industry. Ever since Nike created the modern running shoe in the Seventies, new joggers have been repeatedly warned that their first step should be through the door of a speciality store. Without proper footwear, they're told, crippling injuries are inevitable. Take this recent comment by Dr Lewis G Maharam, "the world's premier running physician" as he's known, and medical director for the New York City Marathon. "In 95 per cent of the population or higher, running barefoot will land you in my office," Maharam said. That's because only "a very small number of people are biomechanically perfect."

Shortly before the New York City Marathon, David Willey, the editor of Runner's World magazine, broadcast a similarly dire warning on the radio. "If a lot of runners or all the runners out there in America did that tomorrow [ran without shoes], the vast majority of them would get hurt very quickly and would have to stop running for a long time." And why? Because, Willey said, "the vast majority of people are not blessed in that way. They've got some biomechanical inefficiencies."

This logic has at least one major flaw: the vast majority of runners, "blessed" or otherwise, are getting hurt anyway. The injury rate among all runners has hovered somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent for the past 40 years. You'd expect casualties to decrease as technology improved, but you'd be wrong: there are more heel and Achilles' tendon injuries now than ever, even though Adidas sells a trainer with a microprocessor in the sole to customise cushioning, and Asics spent $3 million, and eight years – three more than it took the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb – to invent the awe-inspiring "Kinsei", a shoe that boasts "multi-angled forefoot gel pods" and an "infinitely adaptable heel component".

Astonishingly, there's no evidence that any of this technology does anything, which may explain why Nike ads never explain what, exactly, those $190 shoes are supposed to do. In a 2008 research paper for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr Craig Richards, a physician at the University of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that after scouring 30 years' worth of studies, he couldn't find a single one that demonstrated that running shoes made you less prone to injury.

So if shoes aren't the solution, could they be the problem? That's what Dr Daniel Lieberman, the head of the evolutionary anthropology department at Harvard, began to wonder. Humans, after all, are the only creatures that voluntarily cover their feet, and we're also the only creatures known to suffer from corns, bunions, hammer-toes and heel pain.

Last spring, Lieberman recruited Harvard students for an experiment: he had them kick off their sneakers and run every day in either bare feet or wearing a thin, rubber foot-glove called the Vibram Fivefingers. The results were remarkable. Once their shoes were taken away, the students instinctively stopped clumping down on their heels. Instead, they began landing lightly on the balls of their feet, keeping their feet beneath their hips and bending at the knees and ankles. Without knowing it, they were mirroring the Tarahumara.

Lieberman was so taken by his discovery that before long, he was startling undergraduates by loping past them in bare feet for miles at a time through the streets of suburban Boston.

In Germany, meanwhile, the world's leading researcher in human connective tissue, Dr Robert Schleip at the University of Ulm, began a similar experiment to see whether he could end his own battle with plantar fasciitis, a vexing heel pain that is almost impossible to cure fully.

"If you encase the foot in thick shoes," Schleip says, "you not only lose ground awareness, you limit your natural elasticity." Schleip began slipping out of his shoes to run barefoot through the parks of Berlin. Soon, his heel pain vanished, never to return.

So harmful are running shoes that you're better off walking in high heels. That's the conclusion of a study published this month in PM&R, the journal for the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. A team of researchers put 68 young adult runners on a treadmill, and found that they suffered 38 per cent more twisting in their knees and ankles when wearing shoes than they did in bare feet.

"Remarkably, the effect of running shoes on knee joint torques," the lead researcher said, "is even greater than the effect that was reported earlier of high-heeled shoes during walking."

Similarly, a study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness in March 2009 found that even when running on hard surfaces, barefoot runners experience less impact than runners with shoes because – as the Harvard students discovered – they naturally take shorter strides and bend their knees and ankles. No one needed to feed those numbers to Abebe Bikila, the two-time Olympic champion, or Zola Budd, who held the
5,000 metre world record and competed for Britain in the 1984 Los Angeles Games: both preferred running in bare feet.

Sceptics like to argue that runners bring injuries on themselves by doing their miles on hard, man-made surfaces and being less athletic than marathoners of yore. That reasoning ignores the fact that barefoot humans got along quite well on hard terrain for two million years, running on cement-like surfaces like the sun-baked African savannah, the beaten-dirt trails of the Amazon, and the stony canyons of Mexico.

When it comes to novices, no one has more experience than the military and less margin for error. For centuries, armies have had to train out-of-shape recruits to cover marathon distances on their feet. Rather than dispensing plush trainers, the military took another route. As described in the classic military text The Soldier's Foot and the Military Shoe, all new recruits are taught to land lightly on the balls of their feet. They keep their feet under their hips, swinging their legs in a quick, light shuffle to a beat of 180 strides per minute – which, not surprisingly, exactly matches the ancient running rhythm of the Tarahumara.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Running Shoes More Damaging Than High Heels?

The following is an article from the New Zealand Herald.  Interestingly, we're not barefoot runners here but we are forefoot runners and try to use minimal shoes.  This barefoot running phenomenon is very interesting and instructional so we enjoy reporting on it.  Many people are looking at barefoot running as an option so we hope we can provide some insight here to help people determine if it is right for them.
From the New Zealand Herald:
The average running shoe used by millions of jogging enthusiasts does more damage to the joints than tottering along in a pair of high heels, researchers have found.
Although running shoes protect the foot by cushioning the impact, they impose greater stress on the joints in the ankle, knee and hip than running barefoot, they say.  The finding will dismay the tens of thousands of runners in training for the London marathon next April, many of whom will have spent large sums on state-of-the-art running shoes.  
The researchers tested 68 adults of both sexes who were observed running on a treadmill, wearing a typical running shoe "selected for its neutral classification and design characteristics typical of most running footwear" and barefoot.  They measured the forces ("torque") exerted and found they were 54 per cent greater at the hip, 36 per cent higher at the knee and 38 per cent higher at the ankle than when running barefoot.  Writing in the journal of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, they say the construction of modern running shoes provides good support and protection of the foot itself but neglects the effects on the joints.  
The authors from JKM Technologies, manufacturers of footwear, and the department of physical medicine at the University of Virginia, say: "Remarkably, the effect of running shoes on knee joint torques during running (36 - 38 per cent increase) that the authors observed here is even greater than the effect that was reported earlier of high-heeled shoes during walking (20 -26 per cent increase)."  
"Considering that lower extremity joint loading is of a significantly greater magnitude during running than is experienced during walking, the current findings indeed represent substantial biomechanical changes."  
What is needed, they say, is a footwear design that reduces forces on the joints to that of barefoot running, while still cushioning the feet as traditional shoes do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Inspirational Video "Race for the Soul" Available Online

"Race for the Soul", an inspirational video about the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, a 100 mile trail race in California, is now available for viewing online. The video is available on YouTube in six installments. Check it out below:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

This information is from Clynton Taylor's website which has some great information on barefoot running and other running related concerns.

From Clyton Taylor:


This program is based upon the experience of barefoot runners and coaches and my personal experience. It has not been endorsed by any medical or sports professional. It is not designed to take the place of medical advice. As with any running program, listen to your body and stop and assess if you experience discomfort.

As part of my quest to become a runner once again, I decided I needed to learn to run barefoot. The benefits to doing so are numerous. I began to read up on others’ experiences with beginning to run barefoot.

There are many tips out there on how to run barefoot, with more being offered up on a daily basis. The growing success of the book Born to Run is certainly fueling this, as are folks’ positive experiences with running barefoot. Some of these tips can be confusing or downright contradictory to one another, though, which can kill curiosity and interest in giving it a try. Or worse yet, people end up injuring themselves and giving up. The confusion can make putting a barefoot running program together for yourself rather difficult.

After reading many of the tips and personal experiences out there and trying barefoot running myself, I realized nothing – at least what I saw – quite met my needs. I wanted a simple, easy-to-follow program; a system of guidelines based on the tips from the best barefoot runners and personal experiences alike. So I decided to put together what I’ve learned into a barefoot running program of my own. I am sharing this program with you for two main reasons:

  1. Since I had the need for such a program I figured others might as well. I want to help others enjoy the benefits of barefoot running while avoiding the pitfalls.
  2. As is the case with any activity, if we share knowledge with one another around barefoot running, we all stand to benefit. I want to continue to learn tips and tricks from fellow runners so I can get better and pass them on at the same time.

Now, I’m no expert – not a doctor, a running coach, or even an experienced marathon runner. In fact, I’m a relative newbie when it comes to running (I’ve had a number of setbacks that has stopped me from running my first marathon). What I offer here, though, comes from reading hundreds of posts, articles, and research reports about running barefoot.

In creating a barefoot running program for myself, I chose a common model for weaning ourselves off of a bad habit: a 12-step program. As has been outlined in previous posts of mine and in a number of articles lately by the national media and in Born to Run, running shoes can be quite addictive, and harmful.

But I’m not here to bitch, complain, or toss blame around (I’ll leave that for other posts!). My goal with this post is to help you begin to enjoy the benefits that come from at least including some barefoot running in your training program. And who knows, in the process you might even be convinced that running barefoot is right for you like I’ve found. But that’s a decision you need to make for yourself.

A Note For Experienced Runners

Running barefoot can be particularly difficult for experienced runners. The usual feedback of fatigue – aerobic overload – won’t work. Your foot and calf muscles will likely fatigue before you’ve even broken a sweat. I’m sure this program will look incredibly slow to you. However, I’ve seen many runners try and run barefoot too far too soon and suffer for it. Take it slowly and you’ll have the best experience over the long haul. Fortunately, you don’t have to stop your regular running to begin to practice some barefoot running.

12 Step Program to Run Barefoot


  • Be patient and stay committed. Your body will thank you.
  • Take a break for a day after every barefoot running experience. This will enable you to assess how you are doing and give your muscles a rest if you experience some soreness.
  • Each step builds on the work done in the previous one. Skip any step and you will risk hurting yourself.
  • The program is on the long side. This is to help you avoid sore muscles or worse, injuries from over-worked calves and foot muscles. If you do feel significant pain, go back a step until the pain subsides.
  • The program is designed to help you transition to barefoot running from regular running without making you stop. You can add this program on top of your existing running plan until you reach your desired barefoot distance.
  • The program is designed for runners at every level, though it should not take the place of a beginner running program.
  • These steps are designed to help you transition from running in shoes to barefoot, but will also work to transition to minimal shoes, though it is recommended that you do some barefoot running to learn the right form.

Woman Stretching on Beach Yoga Mat

I. Prepare Your Body

Running barefoot is perhaps one of the most natural things you can do. However, it’s not something you can start doing immediately (unless you’re a child or walk around barefoot at least a few hours a day). You need to prepare your body. Running barefoot will require the use of a number of muscles in your feet and legs that have been dormant for years – ever since you began wearing shoes. You will need to prepare by exercising these muscles.
Please note that the following steps can be added to an existing training program – you do not need to stop running in shoes all together, though that wouldn’t be a bad idea.

1. Walk barefoot in the house.

Take your shoes off (well, that was pretty obvious!). Walk barefoot in the house while you go about your normal activities.
2 hours everyday for 1 week

2. Walk barefoot outside.

Walk outside on a soft surface like grass, soft dirt, or firm sand. This will start to get your foot used to different surfaces and work new muscles. It’s not unusual for your feet to feel quite sensitive at this stage. There are thousands of nerve endings in your foot, and they’ve been covered up for awhile. But you’d be surprised at how quickly your feet will once again become accustomed to a variety of surfaces.
30 minutes everyday for 1 week

3. Perform feet, leg, and breathing exercises.

Ok, you don’t have to get quite as limber as the woman in the photograph above, but you do need to stretch and work out your feet and leg muscles to prepare them for new use. Continue to walk around barefoot in the house and outside. Add some specific exercises into your workouts. Choose exercises that target your calves and feet. Squats, heel raises, and jumping lightly on the balls of your feet are particularly good for this. Jumping rope hits all the right muscles, too.

As is the case with any sort of running, it is very important to run relaxed. If you are tense, you will experience pain and possible injury. Practice breathing with your abdominal muscles going out when you breathe in, and pulling in when you breathe out. Focus on relaxation while you breathe.
30 minutes each day for 1 week

Barefeet Running

II. Learn the Stride

You are now ready to try barefoot running. The key is to take it slowly. One of the biggest mistakes people make when giving barefoot running a try is to overdo it. Another frequent mistake is thinking that it’s all about the lack of shoes (or at least wearing minimal shoes). In truth, the lack of shoes are only a small part of what running barefoot is all about. When running barefoot, the biggest change is often in form. With most people, the whole body will need to move differently. To run successfully, you will need to learn this form (see graphic below for more details).

Proper Barefoot Form GraphicProper form: Land on your forefoot, below your center of gravity, then quickly bounce your heel down on the ground and up off again. Your foot should kick back high behind you. Lean forward slightly and keep both knees bent at all times. Your stride will be shorter and your cadence higher. Keep your body relaxed at all time.

The good news is that your body already knows how to run properly – you just have to let it show the proper form to you. With a little practice and patience, you’ll get it.

Note: while you can still run in a barefoot manner with some minimal shoes on (like Vivo Barefoot, Vibram Five Fingers, or FeelMax), you should first run completely barefoot to learn the proper form. Even 3mm of covering under your foot and mere ounces of weight can block some necessary stimulatory feedback.

4. Run 100 feet on grass.

Some people will tell you to only run barefoot on a hard surface (Chris McDougall, the author of Born to Run, and Barefoot Ted, for example). They recommend this not because they want you to hurt your feet, but because grass still provides you with too much freedom to run incorrectly – heel first.

While this is true, I suggest that you start running on grass because you need to strengthen your foot muscles. The muscles in your arch, among others, have probably atrophied considerably over the years in their “shoe casts.” Barefoot is not just about proper form, it’s also about using all of your muscles. The problem with telling folks to immediately go to concrete or some other hard surface is that too often, people suffer from sore feet, then they give up. Spending some time running on the grass will help you strengthen these muscles first and enjoy some of the immediate benefits of running barefoot.

Note: You should run at a much slower pace than you are used to during this phase.
3 days for 1 week

5. Run 20 feet on a hard surface.

Your first run on a hard surface barefoot should be very brief – think feet, not miles. Seek out a hard to semi-hard surface, like packed dirt or clay, or even asphalt. On grass, you might have gotten away with landing on your heel. Do this just once on a hard surface and you’ll quickly learn not to do it! There’s no room for error when you’re on a hard surface. As Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, explains, “Running barefoot on a hard surface will make you run correctly.”

Focus on landing under your center of gravity, touching your heel down briefly. Your cadence will be higher and your heels will likely kick up higher behind you as well.
3 days for 1 week

6. Run 100 feet on a hard surface.

After you’ve included some barefoot running into your routine, you can up the distance to around 100 feet. I know, you are dying to go further. But your calves and feet will thank you for continued patience.
3 days for 1 week

Mountain Trail

III. Increase the Distance

Now that your body has learned the correct stride and can do it naturally on any surface, it’s time to slowly begin to introduce longer distances to your barefoot running plan. If you want to run in minimal footwear, now would be an ok time to try it. Make sure you read about the different types of running shoes out there first (post). If at any point you experience pain, and it does not subside during your rest day, go back a step for a week.

7. Run 500 feet.

It’s now time to begin to increase your distance with every run. Start by running about 500 feet. If that goes well, continue to increase your distance each day by 500 feet or so.
3 days for 1 week

8. Run 1 mile.

You have now reached an important milestone, quite literally. Start by running a mile. Remember to take it slowly. Stay loose. Breathe. If 1 mile goes well, you can increase by a tenth to a quarter of a mile with every run.
3 days a week for 2 weeks

9. Run 2 miles.

Start out by running 2 miles, then increase your distance by a quarter of a mile with each run.
3 days a week for 2 weeks

Barefoot Runner Trail

IV. Maintain Yourself

Congratulations! You are running barefoot and no doubt reaping many benefits for it. These final three steps focus on helping you stay well and injury free while further building up your strength. If at any point you experience pain, and it does not subside during your rest day, go back a step for a week.

10. Run 5 miles.

Continue to increase your distance. Make sure that if you fatigue, your stride does not suffer. Keep focused on lifting your knees, treading gently, and landing beneath your center of gravity throughout your run.
3 days a week for 1 month

11. Run 8+ miles.

Continue to increase your distance. And it’s ok to smile while you run – that’s the way it’s meant to be!
3 days a week for 1 month

12. Teach someone else to run barefoot.

One of the best ways to learn something well is to teach it. Find someone who’s curious about and interested in trying out barefoot running. Pass on your learnings and create a plan with them. Commit to being their coach and cheerleader for the next 12 weeks. You will not only find it enjoyable and rewarding, you will continue to better your own stride by watching and giving feedback to your new barefoot running buddy.
1 day a week forever!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Benefits of Barefoot Running

This is from Clynton Taylor's very nice running website

It’s All So Confusing!

The world of running, and especially running shoes, can be a confusing one. And now that many of us are considering running with minimal shoes (shoes that are close to running barefoot), it can become overwhelming. I’ve done a fair amount of research over the past month or so and want to provide you with what I’ve learned. Hopefully this will bring some clarity to you as well.

My aim with this post is twofold. First, I want to clearly outline the benefits of running barefoot, or at least with minimal shoes. Second, I want to provide you with a list of minimal shoes that are currently on the market. I hope this will help you save some time, or at least amuse you while you’re here. As always, please provide feedback and additional content you feel I should include on the page in the Comment section below.

Pile of Running Shoes - Cropped

A Running Reframe

As many of you are aware, I’ve been on a quest to be a runner for a number of years now. I run for a few months, then suffer a major setback, the latest of which is a large disc herniation (L5-S1). The near constant pain with this last injury has kept me at home for a few months now, and obviously off the trails. Without the ability to run (for a lot of the time it was quite difficult to even walk), I began doing the only thing I could: reading about running and watching running movies. Oh, and living vicariously through all of you, who are out there doing awesome running.

Lying in bed, dreaming of the day I could once again run (hopefully pain free this time!), I learned a lot. Then, as anyone who’s been in contact with me will know, I discovered the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and devoured it. To say the book changed my life is no overstatement. It altered the way I think of running and eating. Heck, it even changed the way I think about the meaning of life! Chris describes how we, as humans, are intricately designed for endurance running, like no other animal on the planet. This not only gives me solid hope that I will run again, it also makes me confident that I will be able to reach my ultimate goal, to be able to run long distances (ultramarathons). Instead of being gripped by fear and loathing when I think of running, brought on by years of over-doing it and suffering injuries (both physical and emotional), I now feel a sense of joy. I visualize the human body doing what it’s meant to do: fluidly moving across the plains and up mountains, hair blowing in the wind, sun dancing off of the leaves and petals, eagles soaring overhead… (ok, maybe some of this euphoric vision is induced by narcotic pain killers , but not all of it). I now get that running is a part of living, and living is a part of running.

Less Is More

This profound realization, that all of us are born to run, is coupled with the biggest reframe I have experienced in my life: When it comes to running shoes, less is more. I was incredibly skeptical at first when I encountered the notion of running close to barefoot. I first heard of Nike’s Free running shoes a couple of years ago. I instantly dismissed the product, classifying them as corporate America’s lame attempt to capitalize on a small, niche group of hippies. Well, if you’ve read Born to Run or my previous post, The Sole of the Problem, you will realize that I wasn’t completely wrong. Nike and other shoe companies are trying to make money from foot problems they mostly created with thick, cushioned soles. If you look back at recent history, people didn’t suffer much, if any, plantar fasciitis before Nike created what we now know and wear as running shoes.

These and other insights based in data and introduced to me in Born to Run completely flipped upside down what I thought were running truths. I’ve come to realize that barefoot running and running in minimal shoes is not just something that hippies do as a stand against the way most of the world views life. Indeed, many of the top endurance runners and college running coaches have been practicing and espousing the virtues of barefoot training routines for years (Anton Krupicka is perhaps the most successful barefoot/minimal runner today – he just broke what many thought was an unbreakable record at the White River 50 mile race). They espouse barefoot running because research and personal experience has proven to them that feet and legs work best when they are in contact with the ground, unimpeded by large, clunky, and heavy running shoes.

A growing body of scientific research shows that runners experience less injuries and faster times when they run barefoot or with minimal padding. In fact, research published in Sports Science in 2001 by Michael Warburtin points out that, “Laboratory studies show that the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4% when the feet are not shod.” Translate the energy saved into time over a run and you are going to experience a personal record. Add the reduced chance you’ll suffer an injury and it’s a big win for us runners.

Barefoot on Grass

The Benefits of Running Barefoot

Based on what I’ve read so far, there are three key benefits to running barefoot at least some of the time, and avoiding thick running shoes at all times. They are:

  1. Shock Absorbtion: Thick, heavily-padded running shoes that we have come to rely on allow you to land on the heels of your feet, so you do. This causes all sorts of shock damage to the foot, leg, and even the rest of the body on up. To understand the danger in this, imagine you’re on the roof of your house. Now jump off and land on the heels of your feet. Ouch, right?! It’s no different landing on your heel thousands of time every run. In contrast, landing on your forefoot softens your whole landing. Your feet and legs flex like a car’s shock absorber and naturally absorb much of the impact.
  2. Lighter Strike: It’s hard to wrap our brains around this next reason for running barefoot, yet research (some of which was conducted by Nike) shows that our bodies, inherently seeking feedback,strike the ground harder the more padding we have on our feet. The foot has over seven thousand nerve endings in it, and each one needs to feel the body strike the ground. If you are barefoot, those nerve endings get the feedback they need with a light strike. However, if you are wearing a thick shoe, your body needs to strike harder in order to feel the ground through the padding. It’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught, but the more padding you wear under your feet, the harder your foot pounds the ground. If you run barefoot, you will naturally run light like a cat. And that’s better for your whole body.
  3. Muscle Strength: There are literally thousands of muscles in each foot, yet most of them aren’t used when we’re wearing arch-supporting shoes. The best example I’ve heard to explain why supporting the foot is bad, is that of wearing a cast. I remember when I broke my arms and wore a solid cast for six weeks. Besides the smell, what I remember most is how small and limp my arm was when they cut the cast off. I could barely lift a pen with my arm! While not as extreme a situation, when your feet are constantly held in place by shoes, the muscles atrophy. It’s quite simple, when your foot muscles are strong from use, you run more powerfully and swiftly. And when you run barefoot, all of your muscles get a chance to do what they are designed to do.

Other reasons for running barefoot include running with a shorter, more healthy gait, literally being in better touch with your surroundings, and not depriving yourself of the physical pleasures that come with being barefoot (is there anyone who doesn’t enjoy walking barefoot on grass?). The fact is that the foot’s an incredible system, capable of doing anything that we need it to. I think Ted McDonald (a.k.a. Barefoot Ted) said it best: Our feet, eyes, and mind are an incredible set of tools, if we just use them.

I decided that the best thing for me is to run barefoot some of the time, and the rest of the time to run in minimal footwear. I chose a pair of black Vibram Five Finger KSOs. I am sure, after ample practice, feet can handle any surface. However, I want to give my feet a little stronger protection against puncture wounds. I will post a review of my Vibram Five Fingers a little later on, once I am able to run again. I have to say, though, that walking in them is very enjoyable.

Minimal Shoes

There are numerous running shoes out there, and a growing number of shoes that claim to be like running barefeet. Many companies, including Nike, are trying to jump on the barefoot bandwagon. Be wary of marketing spin. Don’t purchase any shoes without doing your research and ideally giving them a test run first.

Before we look at some specific shoes, let’s review a couple of definitions. First, barefoot running is just that, running with nothing on the feet, even socks. Running in minimal shoes means wearing something on your feet yet still allowing them to flex as they would if they were completely sod-free (no significant padding or arch support).

Here are some shoes I consider to be minimal:

Vibram Five Fingers KSA Black

Vibram Five Fingers
KSO model shown, 5.7 oz

You either love the way they look, or you think they’re the nastiest things to hit the footwear world since plantar warts. If you get past their look, though, you realize they are damn close to going barefoot. The reviews from all sorts of folks are quite positive. I love how I can feel the warmth on the sidewalk in the sun, then the coolness of the grass in the shade. I also like that people look at me in a peculiar way (though I don’t get many stares as I am in Northern California, after all).
> Birthday Shoes is a blog by Justin Owens. An advocate of Vibram Five Fingers himself, the site covers all things Vibram five fingers. There are numerous reviews on his site of all of VFFs.
> Barefoot Ted has recently reviewed the new Vibram Five Finger Treks which are made of kangaroo skin which provides a little more insulation.

Feelmax Panka

Panka model shown, 4.2 oz
Feelmax, a Finnish company, makes a full range of minimal shoes. Of all the minimal shoes I’ve seen, the Feelmax are likely to be the best for colder temperatures (excluding the Vibram Five Finger Treks, due out in September 2009). And since they come in a variety of browns and blacks, they likely provide the best chance to get away with wearing minimal shoes in casual business settings.
> Barefoot Runner has a review posted of the Planka.

Vivo Barefoot White and Blue

Vivo Barefoot by Terra Plana
Root Sport Leather model shown.
These are arguably the most beautiful minimal shoes out there. They are at once fashionable and functional (though I have not tried a pair on). Of all of the minimal shoes I’ve seen, these win hands down for aesthetics (I drool over the keyboard every time I see them). The Root Sport Leather model also comes in white and green. An added bonus is that the shoes are made of much recycled material. Their running specific shoe which will be called E V O comes out later this year and will surely be a strong contender.
> Living Barefoot took the Acqua’s for a spin and wrote up a review.

Asics Budokan WhiteBlue

Asics Running Flats
Budokan model shown
Asics creates some running flats and minimal shoes for martial artists that could also be used for running. You will have to take each shoe case by case and try them on to determine if there is too much padding or arch support. Note that many of the big running shoe companies also create their own version of a racing flat.

Feiyue1 114x50 custom Barefoot Running: Not just for bums and hippies.

Lo model shown
This Chinese brand with it’s origins in 1920s Beijing became popular with parkour enthusiasts (an adventurous form of urban running and jumping first popularized in France) in France in 2006. The shoes are loved for their functionality and heritage, and of late, as a fashion statement. They have little to no padding, much like a classic Converse.

Skora 89x55 custom Barefoot Running: Not just for bums and hippies.

Skora Footwear
While this company hasn’t launched a product yet (website says they will in 2010), it’s sure to be a very compelling one. Being developed by the folks behind Barefoot Running, the “shoe” will certainly be extremely minimal, and quite likely like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Can’t wait to learn more!

Other Shoes

Other shoes that claim to be all about the bare foot, but I’m not sure whether they would actually be good or not, due to too much padding and support:

Nike Free

Nike Free
The story of how Nike tried to make money off of the foot problems they helped create in the first place is well documented in Born to Run. It’s incredible to me that they call these shoes barefoot, since they are very thick in the heel. Even on their blog, the header photo shoes a person striking heel first. It just seems like marketing fluff, to me.

Newton Running

Newton Running
The heels of Newton shoes are still too thick, but the design of the shoe does promote forefoot running, as the company actively does.

Ecco Biom

Ecco Biom
Ecco, a Danish company best known for their comfortable shoes, have teamed up with triathlete Torbjorn Sindballe to create the Biom. While the shoe looks interesting, you can quickly tell that it still provides too much support. While all of the marketing talks about the foot’s natural movement, they say that the shoe is a “replica of the human foot.” Too bad you have to pay $170 to get a replica of something you already have.

Inov8 Racing Flats

inov8 Racing Flats
f-lite 250 Racing Flat shown
inov8 is an English company founded on the philosophy that the bare foot is an incredible system to begin with. They claim that the inov8 shoes allow the foot to flex like it does barefoot. It’s hard to believe, though, that you would receive full flex in these shoes, but maybe I’m wrong. It weighs just under 9 ounces (or 250 grams, hence the name).

Teva X-1 Evolution

Teva Ultralites
X-1 Evolution model shown, 10 oz
Teva, of course, began by making sandals for active use, including water activities. They now carry a full line of shoes for outdoor activities. Their heel is still quite large to be good for you.

New Balance
New Balance MR790.

New Balance Trail Runners
MR790 model shown, 5 oz
Owners of these trail running shoes are very enthusiastic about them, talking about how light and thin they are. However, you can see they still have quite a lot of height in the heals, and per the New Balance website, the shoe still contains a log of cushioning.