The end of winter is a celebration of sorts for a lot of outdoor enthusiasts, running perhaps topping this list. No more multiple layers, no more pitch-black early evening runs, no more boogers unknowingly frozen to the side of your face, no more gingerly picking (perhaps unsuccessfully) your way over icy patches on the trail. And for some, no more shoes. Yes, warmer weather dictates for some that it's time to bring back barefoot.
Well, barefoot running coming out of hibernation is good and bad news. Good if you're a barefoot or minimalist running veteran who's never had any problems, bad if you're a barefoot convert newbie who's never ran barefoot in your entire life but you read Born to Run over Christmas vacation, and now you're pretty sure that trotting merrily down the Santa Fe Trail sans shoes will cure the myriad of niggling aches and pains you've been dealing with for years.
It's that time of year when lots of local running store employees will start to see more and more folks come in and inquire, "So do you guys sell those...five...toe....shoe....thingies?" While wiggling their fingers. It's not terribly difficult to decipher what "shoe" they're referencing.
It's safe to say that the barefoot running topic has been beaten like a dead horse by now. What is the ideal heel to toe drop in a shoe? Should you even have a shoe? Shoes aren't natural after all. Shun the "foot coffins"! Shunnnn! But really, shoe vs. no shoe is not even really necessarily a "new" idea. It's just that a fellow by the name of Chris McDougal launched a book back in July of 2009 that really seemed to get the barefoot craze off the ground to a whole new level. While much of what he says has merit, much of it is also presented in such a way that it makes it sound as though running shoeless is the answer to every biomechanical issue in the book, which isn't the case. McDougal would argue that our ancestors didn't run in shoes and as a result they never ended up with osteoarthritis of the knee.
Maybe that's it. Or maybe it's because they died at 35.
Working at the BRC, I think a lot of my fellow co-workers would agree that there are some shoes that are straight-up over the top in terms of the technology that goes into them. But on the other end of the spectrum, you've got the shoes that literally are nothing but a piece of rubber between your sole and the ground which most people are not equipped to run in owing to their current mechanics, body composition, lack of strength, or all of the above. Still, you could ask ten different "experts in the field" of running footwear what the best choice is, and you'd probably get ten different answers. Really, what is the answer?
Generally speaking, in selling shoes we don't discourage a person in a standard running shoe to try minimalist or barefoot footwear if they ask about it, but at the same time we don't encourage it as an every-mile-of-every-run practice. Instead, the analogy we would often use in explaining how to employ less-or-no-shoe style running was that it's like a tool in a toolbox; supplement your running with it as you would weight training, drills or core work. Tack on 10 or 15 minutes of running barefoot or in flats on some grass after your main run. Yes, there are a lot of advantages to it because it will strengthen tendons, ligaments, and muscles that don't really have to do much work when running shodden. It will increase proprioception (your brain's ability to know where a body part is in relation to the rest of the body), thereby increasing balance, coordination, and thus efficiency. Where the issue lies however is when someone drops their running shoes cold turkey in favor of less of a shoe, or worse, no shoe, and their foot and body are unprepared for the stress that's to come. Next thing you know you've got more problems than you started out with.
I will confess here that in the most subtle way, I personally have discouraged a lot of people from going to less shoe simply owing to the fact that most people don't make a very good transition from beefy trainer to racing flat. It goes from one extreme--a shoe--to another--substantially less or no shoe. The key is gradual transition and gains in strength, and gradual doesn't mean 2 weeks, or even 2 months. That's a tough point to get across to a gung-ho-wannabe-minimalist--runner. And even after that gradual transition, not everyone's going to do well going minimal--and by minimal I mean less of a shoe, but not no shoe--but many people will benefit from it.
After taking a recent visit to nationally-renowned biomechanist Jay Dicharry in Virginia to sort out some of my own biomechanical abominations, I have to say that my view on the whole minimalist trend is a bit different than it was before. Having performed countless studies at UVA-Charlottesville on varying running footwear or lack thereof, arch supports, orthotics, and all of these things' relationships to injuries and the effects that they have on biomechanics and running efficiency, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone besides Dicharry who possesses such a wealth of knowledge.
After running some tests involving a treadmill and force-plates among a lot of other things, all while swathed in sensors placed all over the lower body and surrounded by infrared cameras and who knows what else, one of the first things Jay told me was after I stepped off of his treadmill was, "Dude, you need less shoe."
"Oh great," I thought, "Another barefoot junkie."
Not so, Jay himself professed that he would never run any workout barefoot or an any "zero drop" shoe. Less shoe doesn't mean no shoe. Barefoot is in fact less metabolically efficient when it comes to running than a middle of the road lightweight trainer. So if you're going for fast times, training barefoot is not your answer and truthfully, not realistic either. But let's say you're just looking for a way to become more efficient and biomechanically sound? Minimalism can help you there. But if you've been in a normal training shoe for the entirety of the time you've been running, then I'll reiterate, transition is key. On top of that and even more importantly, strength is key. You're not changing something small, you're re-learning motor movements that may have gone long neglected. No small task, to be sure. I figured this out the second I tried to move my big toe independently of the others, who knew that could be so difficult? I walked out of Dicharry's lab with a laundry list of foot and lower leg strengthening and balance exercises that have to be done on an extremely consistent basis before a step down in footwear can occur successfully. I'll admit that inside, I wept a little when I realized that this could mean an eventual end to my honeymoon with the Adidas Sequence. We've had a lot of good miles together. I could go on and on about everything I learned from Jay, but for the sake of keeping this article a reasonable length, I won't.
So the bottom line here is that if you're looking to lose your shoes this summer because Born to Run said so, not so fast. First you have to decide how much shoe you need to lose, and that's going to be determined by how much strength it's necessary to gain in your feet and lower legs to accomplish that, and that is going to be dependent upon how patient and diligent you are in putting forth the effort in making those gains and gradually implementing different footwear during a careful transition. And as an aside, if it ain't broke then don't fix it. If you're getting in miles injury-free in your Brooks Beasts or what have you, stay at it.
Most people that I know that have successfully transitioned to minimalist shoes started the process because of chronic running injuries. And they made that transition very slowly and very patiently (as I did). I started off with running huaraches and barefoot on grass. I literally ran 100-200 yards, and then took a day off in between, and then slowly added more time/distance. Needless to say, pushing it any more than that would have created other injury issues. Good news is that over time, foot and leg strength increased etc. I'm an advocate for barefoot and minimalist running, however I don't think I'll ever become a full time barefoot runner. For me, running barefoot is so much fun and feels so great, however I'm not going to hit the rocky trails that way. What I have found however is that it is the fastest way to develop a good "natural" running form, that easily translates to running in minimalist shoes to run faster and farther.
Great post.. thanks!
Here is a similar perspective - http://www.trismarter.com/articles/barefoot-running-so-easy-a-cavem...
In June 2011, I attended the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) National Conference and was fortunate enough to hear two experts discuss their work and research involving running injuries, specifically to the heel. Dr. Daniel E. Lieberman, Harvard University, and Dr. Irene Davis PhD., P.T, University of Delaware each offered valuable information for runners whether they run barefoot or choose to wear shoes.
This blog post offers perspectives on both sides and in the end we tend to agree with Shannon.