A focus of the book Born To Run is that running injuries have skyrocketed partially due to the increased use of unnaturally-padded running shoes. Though the sporting goods industry would have us believe otherwise, millions of years of natural selection has molded the human foot into the ideal mechanism for supporting weight and distributing impact force during distance running, an activity unique to humans.
I used to run frequently to stay in shape, but I always had nagging injuries such as foot pain, shin splints, and metatarsal stress reactions. I attributed this to having flat feet, and every year I would buy a brand new set of heavily-padded shoes and wonder why the injuries continued to mount. After searching for ways to end this cycle, I decided to try minimalist running shoes and have not looked back since buying my first pair of Vibram Fivefingers. I go “barefoot” for both distance and sprinting, and have used these shoes for a half marathon, scores of 10-mile runs and hundreds of hours of lifting in the gym. My recurring injuries have completely subsided.
Barefoot running is a big adjustment, requiring changing footfall patterns to run on a different part of the foot. Padded shoes encourage us to land on the heel and then slam the rest of the foot down, creating an unnatural deceleration that can lead to injury. Barefoot/minimalist shoes promote running on the middle of the foot, distributing the force of impact more evenly throughout the body.
When switching to barefoot-style running, it’s best to temporarily ramp down both distance and frequency. There are muscles and tendons in the legs that are underused with a heel-first strike in conventional shoes, so some minor soreness for the first week or two is normal. Once your footfall is altered and you have acclimated to the shoes, though, your legs will be stronger and less reliant on unnatural padding.
Besides added resistance to injury, barefoot running gives a more natural feel to the exercise, and a more minimalist running experience. The shoes make economic sense, costing $100 for a pair that will last for several years, unlike normal running shoes that are supposed to be replaced multiple times a year under normal use. They are waterproof and machine washable, and take up less space during travel.
Going “barefoot” is not only beneficial for runners. Wearing Vibrams in the gym gives you better feel for the ground, improving balance and creating a slightly lower center of gravity on compound lifts such as deadlifts and squats. I used to do these exercises in sneakers, but noticed an immediate improvement in stability after switching to the barefoot shoes.
Though Nike and other mainstream companies have begun to emulate Vibram’s design, the shoes are still fairly counterculture and you’re going to get some weird looks from time to time. Barefoot running may not be for everybody, but in the long term it may help you to avoid injury and get more out of your runs.
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