Feet: Should you Bare your Sole?

You've heard it, maybe considered it, the barefoot running hype. Introduced years back when Nike launched the Free it seems now that every shoe company on the planet has their own version of a barefoot style shoe - most popular perhaps is the Vibram Five Finger. Articles are plentiful about if you should/shouldn't/maybe consider barefoot running for yourself. Disclaimer: I hold no degree in kinesiology, biomechanics, medicine, or podiatry - I have however seen a lot of feet having worked for a major running store and have also been lectured (in the friendly way) by some very intelligent people like Reed Ferber. I also run with numerous different people who all have unique foot makeups, and run at various speeds and distances. Disclaimer: I have a lot to say about this subject so be prepared to read.

My ugly feet.
So, if shoe companies these days aren't promoting 'toning' shoes (yes, walking = nicer legs, duh) then they are hyping up barefoot or minimalist styles, aiming to lessen heel strike and get you running through your mid to fore-foot. So should you make the switch? My answer: don't unless...

1. You are willing to commit the time and effort needed to adapt. When Nike Free's first came out there was actually a training program that came in the shoe box. But I can only assume most people ignored this as injury rates started soaring when people wore them for 20km the day after purchase. Remember when exercise balls first came out? Remember trying to do 10 sit-ups on the ball and thinking those were the hardest 10 sit-ups of your life. But now you do all your core exercises on the ball because you practiced and went slowly? Minimalist and barefoot shoes - think of them like a fit ball for your foot.

2. You are willing to commit training the rest of your stabilizing muscles from your neck to your feet. You know those guys at the gym who only work their biceps and chest? If the only thing you do to strengthen your body for running is minimalist/barefoot shoes - you are that same person, but instead of being a gym rat you're an endurance junkie, both of which, in my opinion, are dumb. Training the rest of your stabilizing muscles means moving in a fashion other than running. So you have to move laterally in a dynamic fashion like bounding off a bosu or strengthen your upper body & core by doing chin-ups. Better yet, find a qualified instructor and get some expert ass kicking like I do once a week.

Ladder drills, Excellent for agility, Excellent for running

3. You aren't training for a race. I would say leave adaptation to 'off' season. This gives you the ability to scale back and work on changes to form and technique over manageable distances. When you are constantly increasing your mileage you are putting enough stress on your body never mind trying to rewire and reprogram your body to run in a fashion it doesn't naturally resort to.

I need you to know I am not against the barefoot/minimalist movement. I intend to keep my child barefoot as long as possible so her feet learn to strengthen naturally. I too see the benefits of running in minimal shoes provided your plan to get there is calculated and realistic. Take these two runners for example:

Case Study #1: My husband. For four years now Stu has been trying to 'correct' his stride by running like the pros. For four years now, Stu has been battling nagging injuries like calf spasms and other such tweaks and pains. He has gone from a stability shoe, to a neutral shoe, to racing flats - and wants to continue down to running barefoot. Previous to this he ran... injury free. Stu doesn't really have an 'off' season and doesn't really have a plan always - he'll just jump out the door and do 14km without having ran for over two weeks. Sure he can do it but... after 10 days of all out effort he needs rest week. Pacing is not his specialty. I'm not trying to hack on him - he is slowly learning from his mistakes - I'm telling his tale as a cautionary one.

Case Study #2: Me. For four years now (for equal comparison) I have had one running related injury. My piriformis acted up when I attempted to train for a half marathon over a one month period. Overuse yes, too much too soon, yes. Change in running form, no. Actually, I'm convinced I got a pair of defective shoes because I still can't run in that pair even though there's less than 300km on them and they always make some part of me hurt - new shoes, same style, no problems. Over the past four years I have gone from a mid-weigh, mid-cushioning neutral shoe to a light-weigh, light-cushioning neutral shoe. I did train in a race flat for one off season and did a couple 5km races in them but otherwise feel quite happy in my current kicks. I'm not trying to say I'm perfect because I've made mistakes too - I'm telling my tale to say hey, proceed with caution into this barefoot/minimalist world, and definitely don't try to train for your first ever half marathon in four weeks.

Transitioning to barefoot/minimalist shoes does not guarantee to solve existing injuries or guarantee to prevent further running injuries. The idea that we all have the same 'natural' running form or the ability to run that way isn't as simple as shoe manufacturers make it out to be. Injuries are often complicated and sometimes have more to do with other aspects of our bodies than our feet alone. Many injuries start in the hip area - should we all be wearing minimalist underwear or better yet, going commando? See, the problem/solution is not what we wear but how we innately move. Posture, movement, and function are often years of repetitious movements ingrained into our muscle memory and re-training isn't as simple as new shoes.

Is there an ideal running form? Yes - I wrote about it a while back here. Do I try to remember those principles and apply them to my running, yes. I do know though, that at 30 years old I am pretty efficient, enjoy running, and while I want to gain speed and strength, I understand I'd rather be a lifer than get injured or burn out. Last night at our Personal Best clinic at Strides an enthusiastic bouncing chap named Travis coached our workout. Travis typically coaches pimply-faced teenagers who are still young enough to be molded like play dough into scholarship achieving track stars. Lined up in front of him last night were 97% women between 30 and 40 who were most likely in the clinic to be accountable to doing their speed work for eight weeks straight. I'm not saying that we shouldn't aim to focus our form on high knees, quick leg turn-over, arm-pump, and getting up onto our mid and fore-foot. I am saying that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, or change it.

What I'm really trying to say is, don't get sucked into the hype and risk messing with the good thing you have going. If you are comfortable in your shoes, running injury free, and loving it, stick with what you're doing. That being said, I fully intend to make a calculated plan for an entry into minimalist training this winter, after Vegas. Like any changes we try to make in running, if you want to run barefoot or change your stride, do so slowly and with a plan. There are plenty of good articles, coaches, trainers, and other resources. I suggest focusing on one aspect at a time - maybe leg turnover rate or how you move your arms. Tomorrow, I am heading out for a 17km run and I am going to focus on the last bit of beautiful fall weather we're having and dream of the delicious dinner we are going to be having with our friends tomorrow night.

Further Reading (though this is very very limited)
Wikipedia description
Runner's World
Shoe Reviews by Brand

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    I wear my NB minimus shoes for walking only (I usually wear them at Strides) I love them, but will likely never run in them.

    I've been in a neutral, moderate cushioning shoe forever and have been injury free for 10+ years... including 8 marathons. Haha, it may not look pretty, but it seems to work for me.