Barefoot Running: Natural and Healthy or plumb foolish?
What is Natural?
Running shoes have come a long way in the latest few decades. We've come to believe we need them to compensate for biomechanical flaws. Of course the shoe companies love this. Now we have shoes that look perfectly fine, but the "expert" will prod it, shake his head, and inform you that the midsole (the part you can't see) is squooshed, the more expensive shoes squoosh faster but work better when they work, you shouldn't try to replace it, and that your only recourse is shelling out $100 or more (again!) for a new pair of shoes that will really only be optimal for around 350 miles.
Any time there is a self feeding deal like this going on, it is always good to question the origins of the premise. The well-ingrained idea that special expensive shoes are absolutely essential to distance runners hasn't even been around for fifty years. Some readers may remember the barefoot long distance Kenyan runners who created such a buzz in Olympics in the 60's and 70's when third world countries were just beginning to field teams for this peaceful athletic gathering. They were hastily written off by the then emerging sports shoe industry. "Oh well, it's fine for those Africans," was the undertone. They start it from an early age and they are used to it. Just think how much better they'd be if they'd use our cool western high tech shoes. In fact, efforts were made to get elite African runners to endorse various brands.
Some astute observers of animals vs. humans report that, while humans are pretty pathetic compared to animals at sprinting, there are very few animals that can outlast a human in a test of endurance, and that we are naturally equipped for it. Why else would we have so many sweat glands to shed heat, such relatively huge rears (glutes are engaged in running but not in walking,) so many boingy tendons, and so little body fur?
A new movement is emerging: one that espouses barefoot as the natural style of running and long distance running as a natural activity for humans, and also makes the preposterous claim that it's a way to cut down or eliminate musculoskeletal injuries. They tout the example of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who allegedly run hundreds of miles into their 80's in nothing more than homemade sandals, and never get hurt!
A study in barefoot biomechanics
Dork's try at barefoot running
I had heard some amazing claims made by a friend who got himself a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. This is a minimalist shoe design. It is rather like a glove in that it has a separate pocket for each toe. Given the vast differences I have observed in the length and arrangement of people's toes I asked myself, "How could that ever work?" and wrote it off initially as a quirky fad. But I've been hearing reports from people I know that it actually facilitates running and forces you to have a healthier shorter barefoot stride with a different footstrike pattern.
What prompted me to try the barefoot were several factors: (1) I have a pair of running shoes that are on their last legs, thanks to running on concrete bike paths. (2) My legs were feeling dead, and, although I didn't have a serious injury, I attributed it to the hard surface, despite the shoes. (3) I don't want to buy a new pair of shoes that I would have to take home when I leave Australia. (4) I am one of these people who experiments on myself.
However, I am not totally foolhardy. Even though the advice given to beginning barefooters is to start on a hard surface, there was no way I was going to take my naked feet out on concrete. The grassy surface of the local cricket pitch seemed way more inviting. The pitch is reasonably flat, and I vetted it for needles and other hazards before attempting to run barefoot on it.
Barefooted running naturally pulled me into a shorter stride. As you see in the frame by frame portion of the video above, the runner's forefoot strikes just a fraction before the heel drops. It feels to me like my whole foot hits at the same time, but I think the forefoot hits just a skosh before the heel does. Gone is that feeling of rolling from heel to toe, and gone is that squishy feeling that the shoes are absorbing some of the shock. If the shoes are absorbing any energy, it stands to reason that that energy is not available for propulsion. My feet feel lighter barefoot. That stands to reason as well. Even though running shoes are made as light as possible, they still weigh something. The force of that weight is multiplied by placing them at the end of a lever such as a leg. With each stride you are lifting a small weight. Over the course of a 10K run, that's a lot of reps.
I went and ran three miles on the cricket pitch my first time out barefoot. I have pretty thick skin on my heels and on the balls of my feet, but apparently not on the toes. I had to stop because my toes were getting a little raw. I put the shoes back on and finished the run shod. It's horrible going from barefoot to shod. It was very difficult to maintain the same gait with shoes on and it felt funny.
Of course, barefoot running is not without hazards. I have stepped on a couple of bees or some type of vicious Australian stinging insect. (Never saw the critter, just the stinger it left behind.) There have been a couple of sticks and rocks but I've coped with them. Barefoot running just naturally lends itself to more fartlek i.e. varying the pace randomly for variety. Pace running (that's speeding up to a pace where you have slight discomfort) seems easier barefooted. The shoes seem to want to pull me into a treadmill like slog where I neither speed up nor slow down. I often run in socks instead of totally barefoot. The socks protect my feet from the superficial hazards. My preferred cricket pitch is not perfectly maintained, and it does have its dry bare earth bits and also a few sticker weeds.
I intend to get myself a pair of Vibrams when I get back home so that I can tackle rougher surfaces. But meanwhile, running on dry and rather spiky grass is toughening up my soles.
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