So, you’re looking to learn more about barefoot running or find a barefoot alternative to wear before totally going the way of a cave man?
Whether the current media attention being given to barefoot running has peaked your curiosity or your own running has come to a halt from annoying running injuries (think IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis or low back pain), learning more about the theory behind barefoot running can help you become a better runner.
In this article I touch upon:
- how the barefoot running phenomenon started
- differences in biomechanics between running barefoot and running in traditional running shoes
- current barefoot running research
- how to prepare your body to start running barefoot and prevent injuries once you have started barefoot running
- how to improve your running technique to assist the transition to barefoot running
- barefoot alternative running shoes that protect your feet without altering natural, barefoot biomechanics
Barefoot Running Background
The foot is an amazing yet complex structure made up of 26 bones and numerous ligaments and tendons. We survived for thousands of years without shoes. How did humans get by without $100 runners and expensive orthotics that we typically rely on today? When you were a child, spending hours playing barefoot was the norm. Remember those days? Minimalist shoes for walking and running have been taking off in the last few years. Companies such as Nike, Ecco, Vibram and New Balance have all gotten into the act, not wanting to miss out on this movement towards natural movement.
Nike performed extensive research back in 2005 when they had dreams of simulating the biomechanics of barefoot running. Of course, telling everyone to run barefoot would have put them out of business. In their research they examined the biomechanics of ten different men and women while running barefoot on grass. The results showed an increased range of motion abut the foot and the ankle; the entire foot was engaged in a natural manner.
Be sure to read the book ‘Born to Run‘, by Christopher McDougall, which provides some further great insight into how the barefoot running phenomenon got to where it is today. I also recommend listening to Christopher’s presentation entitled ‘An Evening With Christopher McDougall‘ where he discusses the barefoot phenomenon that has been created, largely from his book.
Running barefoot versus shoes
Running barefoot is different. You will quickly notice that running barefoot changes the way your feet plant on the ground. With cushioned running shoes, you tend to land more on your heels while when barefoot, you tend to land more on the front of the foot.
Other differences researchers have notice when running barefoot include a shorter contact time with the ground and lower impact forces with the ground. It is no surprise that some of the fastest runners you see have a style that simulates running barefoot.
Image from The Globe and Mail. Click to enlarge.
When running or walking barefoot, the deep intrinsic muscle within the feet are utilized and become stronger and more flexible. Wearing shoes that contain inflexible, cushioned soles inhibits our ability to engage these muscles. Tight calf muscles and shortened Achilles tendons may also result from shoes that have an elevated heel. This can result in muscular imbalances and throw your posture off to a point where it can lead to lower back problems.
Barefoot Running Related Research
In a study performed by Michael Warburton of the University of Queensland in Australia, he reported that running in shoes appeared to increase the chance of ankle sprains and the development of plantar fasciitis. Energy expenditures were also stated to be less when running barefoot. While this would not be that noticeable to a recreational runner, it could make a profound difference to a professional.
In another study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicinein 2008, Dr. Craig Richards could not find any evidence-based studies to illustrate that running shoes make runners less injury prone. None. Dr. Richards even contacted many of the major running shoe companies to see their peer-reviewed data, which supported company claims that their running shoes increased performance and decreased the risk of injury. He did not receive even one response.
Harvard professor, Daniel Lieberman, on barefoot running
Barefoot Running Injury Prevention Program
Before ditching your running shoes and making the transition to barefoot running, be sure to check out this barefoot running injury prevention program, which was published by the Running Injury Clinic in Calgary, Alberta. Significant influence is placed on strengthening the muscles around the ankle joint.
Learning the Skill of Barefoot Running (by Terra Plana)
So, does this mean that wearing shoes is a bad thing? Not necessarily. Our bodies are savvy enough to adapt to changes. Wearing shoes allows us to have a heel strike, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Biomechanical research however, does show that heel striking can slow a runner down and be more stressful on your joints. Also, shoes are essential to protect our feet from glass, stones and harsh weather conditions.
While developing shoes that so radically go against their main purpose, I am sure the whole concept has and will continue to meet some resistance. Companies cannot sell ‘barefoot’, so developing shoes that best simulate running barefoot is the next best thing!
Here are some barefoot alternatives for you to check out:
Vibram Five Fingers
Yes, they may look ridiculous, but the Vibram Five Fingers are amazingly popular and have received lots press attention as a barefoot alternative. They can be worn for exercise, play or just hanging out. As you can see, even the toes can move freely. It is advised that you gradually increase the amount of time in them as the muscles in your feet will need some time to adapt to their increased demands.
Less is better with the Saucony Hattori which is set to be released later in 2011. Looking to expand on their minimalist momentum from their successful Kinvara, Saucony hopes to have similar success with the Hattori. Most lightweight racing flats weigh approximately 200 grams, while the Hattori weighs a mere 127 grams! The Velcro-style closure helps eliminate much of the weight. Watch for it!
The Nike Free looks like a traditional running shoe, but its sole allows a higher range of motion at the ankle and the ball of the foot. I have a pair of Nike Frees and love them. They are extremely comfortable and feel like a second layer of skin when on, but with a sole to protect my feet from glass, rocks and other possibly harmful objects in the street or park. My favorite barefoot alternative.
Newton Running Shoes
Newton shoes are designed to mimic the advantages of barefoot running; you run faster when you are striking on your forefoot and not landing on your heels the company states. The link to their company website provides a nice visual of the biomechanical differences between forefoot and heel striking while running.
Newton Running Shoes
Terra Plana – Vivo Barefoot – Evo
This is Vivo Barefoot’s first barefoot alternative running shoe. Minimalistic, stylish and accompanied with ample protection from the urban elements. There are four different colours to choose from. Terra Plana also make great casual shoes that provide the benefits of going barefoot. For my full review of the Evo, click here.
New Balance Minimus
The Minimus is a barefoot-inspired shoe from New Balance that will not be available until March 2011. New Balance stated that they are looking to deliver a “closer to barefoot” running shoe that is very light (under 8.5 ounces) and has low heel height. A typical running shoe has a heel height of 12mm while the New Balance Minimus‘ heel height 4mm. Research indicates that the lower the heel height, the more likely a runner will strike on their mid-foot.
New Balance Minimus Life Shoe
Here is a great preview of the New Balance Minimus: Meet NB Minimus: An interview with Katherine Petrecca
A video of ultramarathon runner Anton Krupicka and a sneak peak the New Balance Minimus Trail Shoe.
In February 2011, Merrell will release its Barefoot Collection. Merrell has teamed up with Vibram (maker of the the Five Fingers) to launch a minimalist outdoor trail running shoe called ‘Barefoot’. There will be six different models in Merrell’s barefoot range. From the streets to the trails, look for Merrell’s barefoot alternative to provide traction suitable for any type of terrain. Read more on Merrell’s website.
Check out the Merrell Barefoot iPhone Training App
Merrell Women’s Barefoot Pure Glove
Mizuno Wave Universe 3
I own a pair of the Mizuno Wave Universe 3’s. They feel very similar to my Terra Plana Evo’s, but with a little more cushioning. They are amazingly light as well. When I received the box in the mail, I was sure that the company I purchased the shoes form had forgot to put them in – that’s how light they are. I feel that the Mizuno Wave Universe is a good shoe to start with if you’re looking to give minimalist or barefoot running a try.
Mizuno Wave Universe 3
Altra Running – The Instinct
The Instinct by Altra Running comes out in March 2011 and is a “zero drop” (the sole is the same thickness at the heel and forefoot) barefoot alternative running shoe. Weighing only 9 ounces, the Instinct has a unique foot-shaped design. In short, it’s designed like a foot – imagine that!
Altra Running – The Instinct
A new barefoot alternative option from Fila. There is a great review of the Skele-Toes on Birthday Shoes, which I encourage you to check out.
The Fila Skele-Toes are cheaper than Vibram Five Fingers and contain one less spot for your toes (the smallest two toes are combined for ease of entry).
A relatively new barefoot alternative from Brooks. Enjoy the benefits of ample cushioning coupled in a lightweight, minimal package.