5 Things We Can Learn from Barefoot Running

Remember the barefoot running movement?

The promise of the pitter patter on pavement that meant freedom from those talismans of corporate greed we strap on our mistreated feet1. Poor things – and they’ve always loyally led us where we need to go despite the ill treatment we’ve heaped on them.

I just figured out why “dogs” is slang for feet1

dog shoes

Remember the day we all began running just as our ancestors ran millions of years ago?

Me neither.

Minimalism or Barefoot Running

born-to-run-barefoot-running

I read Born to Run not long after I ran my first official race in October 2010. The book hooked me – I wanted to either be reading the book or running. Not long after, I bought my Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs). I was like many others who’d read the book. I was a minimalist.

barefoot-running-shoes-VFFs

And my VFFs are comfy for kicking back, too

The theme of the book is in the title – Homo sapiens as a species evolved as runners. Christopher McDougall backs up this claim with a parade of scientists and studies. He gives us an awesome portrait of a Native American tribe that still maintains a culture based on running. And then there are the inspiring depictions of characters who run unbelievable distances.

Minimalist and barefoot running already existed when McDougall published his book in 2009. It may have become a big deal without the book. But it’s clear that Born to Run’s cynical history of the running shoe industry – paired with glamorous portraits of people running barefoot – gave the movement a monumental boost. It is an entertaining read and it will inspire you to get off the couch and grab your sneakers. Well, it’ll get you off the couch; as for the sneakers…

 

 

I know it started me down that gravelly path.

It didn’t take long for the shoe industry to catch on. Soon, most of the major brands had at least one minimalist model. They made boat loads of cash off of a movement that started as a reaction to their own faulty science. Many brands called their minimalist model “barefoot running shoes” without a hint of irony.

For the size of its impact, the minimalist or barefoot running movement is a blip in the history of running. In 2013, articles asking whether the barefoot running movement was over started to appear. The hype had died down, but many minimalist shoe models were still being sold.

In 2014, Vibram settled a lawsuit that alleged they had made false claims about the health benefits of running in their shoes. Many pronounced minimalism and barefoot running dead. But there are still minimalist runners wearing minimal shoes. There are still people running barefoot.

Minimalism and barefoot running is over as a fad, but the movement still has a pulse. There are still holdouts out there, and some of them are passionate and proud.

 

 

I still run in minimalist shoes, although I’m not out in my shed yelling about it. I’m not going to preach that all runners should be running barefoot. Mainly because I don’t run barefoot (or rarely). I do believe there are tootsies (and people) who aren’t meant to run without the support offered by a shoe. This may be my unscientific opinion, but there is also no conclusive research proving that minimalist running is beneficial.

But I confidently agree with this guy that the minimalist/barefoot running movement is the best thing to happen to running since Homo sapiens came down out of the tree to chase that antelope (I know, totally inaccurate portrayal of evolution!). Turns out, those people pattering around with unshod hooves had something.

1. Humans May Have Been Born to Run

At the base of the barefoot running movement is the idea that humans evolved to run barefoot. And they have been for centuries. This is true.  And the foot – with its arch – is a miracle of engineering.

Before competitive running, some experts believe, humans ran to survive. This is a safe assumption. The technology didn’t exist, so it is also safe to assume we ran barefoot. Or, at least, with minimal protection for our plates. Survival meant running after something we wanted to eat.

And running away from something that wanted to eat us.

The running shoe as we know it didn’t exist before the late 60’s or early 70’s. In the early days of track and field and the Olympics, runners were running in minimalist shoes. Although they didn’t call them that.  The shoes were flat, and had minimal cushioning.

2. The Running Shoe Industry isn’t on Our Side

At some point the history of running becomes the history of the running shoe industry. For the sake of entertainment, I’m going to drastically shorten our history lesson. The running shoe industry decided people would be faster if they lengthened their stride, thus covering more ground. To do this, the runner would have to land on his/her heel. Feel how bony your heel is? Landing on this without cushion would send a shock wave up your leg. Forget about speed; you wouldn’t run like that long. The answer to this problem was to stick a chunk of something under the heel to cushion the blow. And so the modern running shoe was born.

The modern running shoe was created with all the best intentions. But it evolved to become a race for the almighty buck as more and more shoe brands stepped in to compete for the running market. Since the “improvement” of the running shoe, many studies show the appearance of running related injuries .

What happened when the barefoot running movement took off was particularly telling. Most of the big shoe brands introduced their own “barefoot” or minimalist shoes.

You would expect something that was theoretically less than a normal running shoe to cost less. But, nope, these new models cost just as much, if not more.

And so the industry that caused the problem stepped in with the solution. And they continued to sell the models people were critical of to begin with.

The silver lining here is that now we know the industry is out to make a buck, so we can seek our running advice elsewhere. Then we can use this to find the shoe that meets our unique needs. And the shoe companies will have it, unless you’ve decided you’re doing the barefoot running thing.

barefoot-running-meme

3. There are More than Two Types of Feet

I didn’t get serious about running until I was in my late twenties. I was running to get in shape for other activities. First it was backpacking, then mountain biking. When I started, I would just throw on whatever sneakers I had and start running. I didn’t pay attention to the mileage I was putting on shoes, and I probably put on way too many. Whatever the reason, eventually my wheels were killing me. I went to a sporting goods store to buy some real running shoes. The salesman talked me into buying a pair of Asics stability shoes. A stability shoe has special mid sole to prevent your ankle from rolling in when you land. This is called over pronation. You can tell a stability shoe by an area of gray material that appears on the instep of the mid sole (circled in red below).

running-shoe-comparison

Many people over pronate, so I think the salesman felt he was making a safe call. It was also one of the more expensive shoes in the store. Coincidence?

Regardless of whether I had just been had, I bought my first pair of what turned into over a dozen pair of stability shoes. At the time the alternative was known as a neutral shoe. This was for people with normal arch, and just provided cushioning – especially in the heel.

Along came minimalism, and we learned there were more than two types of dogs, and, so more than two types of shoes. Important to this distinction was the concept of heel-toe drop. This had always existed, but no one believed it important enough to talk about.

In the beginning, running shoes were flat. Heel-toe was 0mm or close. As the running shoe was “improved,” companies added padding to the heel. This allowed for the heel strike that the industry told us was the ideal stride. The result was that the heel was 10-16mm (sometimes higher) than the toe.

barefoot-running-shoe-vs-regular

Heel-to-heel comparison (left shoe has 0mm drop)

The goal of minimalism was to return to 0mm. Initially, minimalist shoes went straight to the 0 heel-toe drop. It was later that I started to see what some referred to as “transition” shoes. These did not have the 0 heel-toe drop, but fell somewhere in the middle. I used a couple models in training and running my first marathon with 4mm heel-toe drop.

4. We Need to Learn How to Run

Minimalism and barefoot running taught me a lot about running at a time when I wouldn’t expect I would need to learn anything.

Technically, we don’t need to learn to run. Watch a toddler take off, or think back to running barefoot on the lawn as a kid. We were fast, and we were good. I remember running a long time as a kid, but don’t remember a single running-related injury. Unless you count the time I cut my big toe on some gravel.

Somewhere along the way, running got complicated. I point to the running shoe industry. All the advice on running had more to do with selling shoes than helping us run. But the end result was we started running differently, unnaturally.

We needed to re-learn how to run, and every expert had advice on how to do this. Once again, we were making things complicated. But research these methods, and you’ll find 4 key components…

barefoot running

Learning to run again is simple. But (full disclosure) I’m still tinkering. And that’s actually a good thing from my perspective. There are running experts, but no one has perfected running. I’d avoid the person who makes that claim. There’s always someone faster, or who can go further.

Perfecting form requires some time devoted to training and researching running. Which leads us to a final thing barefoot runners have taught us:

5. We Need Our Head to Run

Yes, it can be done without it.

barefoot-running-with-no head

OK… Not exactly what I’m getting at.

Plenty of people strap on their shoes and caper down the road without a thought to form. But, if you want to improve your speed, increase your distance, or even prevent injuries, you’ll have to think about your run. You need to think about your form, how you train, and your running goals. This thinking will occur before, during and after the run.

  1. Before a run is when you research form, training plans, etc.
  2. During the run is probably the most important time to use your head. Observe your posture and arm position. How are your plates hitting the ground (can you hear them)? See if you can figure out how often they’re hitting. And you do this all run long.
  3. After the run (and stretching) is a good time to review what went right and what went wrong. What can you change? What do you need to look into for next run?

Sound like work?

It is.

But it’s worth it. One of the greatest things I got from researching and trying minimalism is a new, full engagement with the sport. Spend an entire run focused on cadence, and you won’t have a moment of worry about that problem at work or home. It’ll still be there waiting for you when you get back, but you’ll be able tackle it with a refreshed mind and body. The meditative aspect of running is a great topic for another post. For now, you just have to put one foot in front of the other – 180 times per minute!

barefoot-running-trails

If Ronald McDonald ran trails, this is what he’d wear!

Are you just getting started? Have you been running a while and want to share your wisdom? Are you just interested in feet1 (in a wholesome way!)? Let me know what you’re trying to figure out, have figured out, or are wondering about. You can probably tell I can talk about this all day. I’d welcome the chance to learn more, or even help someone else.

Happy trails!

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1To appeal to a more international audience, I have researched, and will use various English slang for feet from around the world. I have typed this foot slang in aquaPlates is from Cockney rhyming slang and comes from the expression "plates of meat" (get it? plates of meat - feet).  It's one of my favorites. Hope this enhances your learning experience.
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