Barefoot running is all the rage these days, and since I’m a fan and April is health-nut month, I thought I’d write up some of my knowledge and experiences with the barefoot scene.
Barefooting is popular among the paleo/primal crowd because it’s based on evolution. I’m not a podiatrist, so I won’t get into too much detail, but the short, in-favor argument is that human feet are not meant to be encased in rubber and other synthetic materials. Our ancestors evolved and survived without footwear, and they still managed to hunt down wild beasts and drag the carcasses back to camp.
To me, this perspective makes sense. Our barefoot gait is unnatural when we walk or run with conventional footwear. Specifically, when we run with shoes on, we tend to reach with our foot, landing on the heel before transferring our weight forward onto the ball. This is called heel striking, and it explains why runners often experience knee problems and shin splints.
See this post on MDA for a comparison video of barefoot and shod gaits.
Our body’s natural shock absorbers are not in the heel. Try this: stand up, and lift your toes off the ground, so that you’re balancing on your heels. Now, bounce up and down without letting your toes touch the ground. Super awkward and uncomfortable, right?
Now, lift your heels off the ground instead, and bounce on the balls of your feet. See? Much better.
When you heel strike, the impact of your foot hitting the ground travels up the leg and into the knee. That hurts. When you land on your forefoot first, the impact is absorbed much more efficiently.
See this video from the Natural Running Center for more about the principles and physiology of barefoot running.
Now, yes, you could probably learn to forefoot strike while wearing your latest pair of stylish and expensive Nikes. But, why fight evolution? If the theory of barefoot running makes sense to you, why wear a product that inhibits the habits you want to develop?
Modern footwear works against the natural design of the foot, which makes for less efficient movement.
Bare-footwear: Working Out
Of course, your feet might not be ready for total barefooting. Fortunately, a variety of companies have put out shoes to help simulate a barefoot experience. These shoes usually have a larger-than-normal toe box or individual toe slots, which allow your toes to spread out as nature intended, rather than being cramped together inside a Reebok. They also feature “zero-drop”, which means virtually no arch support. This is also good for your feet, as you rely on your arches for support, rather than allowing your foot muscles to atrophy via the artificial arches provided by modern shoes.
The preeminent brand of barefoot shoes is the Vibram Fivefinger, and they’re what I recommend for barefoot exercise. Vibram is known for their well-made soles, which will protect your feet from rocks, glass, etc. while still allowing you to run barefoot-style. They have a ton of different models, styles, and colors, so you’ll have no trouble finding a pair that suits your particular workout and fashion sense.
If I were to recommend one model of Fivefingers, it would be the KSO. “KSO” stands for “Keep Stuff Out” — hence the closed mesh upper and strap. These are Vibram’s most popular model, and they’re incredibly versatile. You can use them for running, yoga, water sports, and pretty much everything in between. Other Vibram models are designed for more specific activities.
Sizing a pair of Fivefingers can be slightly tricky, as you’ll be measuring your feet in inches rather than relying on a standard sizing system. See Vibram’s website for sizing tips. It’s best to try a pair on in person. I’ve found particular success at REI, although Fivefingers seem to be in the window of all major outdoorsy stores now.
I never liked to run until I bought my KSOs, and now I love it. Running barefoot is very freeing, and it makes the experience much more fun, especially if you can find some good trails. Sprinting is also a great workout.
If you’re self-conscious about wearing “those weird toe shoes”, there are other, subtler options. See Justin Ownings’s great site, Birthday Shoes, for a wide selection of brands, styles, and reviews.
Bare-footwear: Casual Wear
Running around and working out in a pair of Fivefingers is great, but you’re probably not enough of a badass to wear them in public or to the office. Understandable. Fortunately, several companies have put out barefoot shoes that work well for casual use.
I’d been looking for a good pair of casual barefoot shoes for a while, and I finally purchased a pair last month: the Tough Glove by Merrell.
I love these shoes. I’ve owned many different Merrells, but these are my favorite by far. They’re subtle, good-looking, and ultra comfortable. They have a Vibram sole. I can wear them with jeans or dress pants, and they let me avoid weird looks from non-barefooters while still giving my feet all of the barefoot benefits. I ordered mine from Zappos in my regular 10.5, which felt great, but seemed a little long in the toe. I exchanged them for a size 10, and they’re a perfect fit. I never want to take them off.
Getting Started with Going Barefoot
If you’ve been wearing modern footwear all your life (as most of us have), you’re going to need to give your body time to transition to the barefoot way. Runners, you will need to learn how to run barefoot. Specifically, be conscious of your gait. Watch the natural running video to get an idea of what to look for. To some degree, wearing barefoot shoes will naturally change your gait, but you still need to be mindful of it when first starting out until you develop good habits and form.
Speaking of just starting out, take it slow and easy at first. You’re going to be using muscles your legs have probably forgotten about, and you’re going to feel it. Don’t try to do your entire five-mile routine on day one, and don’t be afraid to let your feet rest. Take it slow, learn good form, and build up to longer distances. Once you get into it, you’ll probably never go back.
If you’re interested in barefooting, the above links are great resources. In addition, check out the following:
- How to Make the Barefoot Transition | Mark’s Daily Apple
- Daniel Lieberman’s Harvard Study on Foot Strike Patterns
- Birthday Shoes
- Barefoot Ted’s Adventures
- Newton Running