As a kid there were few things better than running barefoot through the grass in the summer. While this was fun, is there a benefit to running barefoot now as a distance runner? Working in the athletic shoe industry, I have been closely following the recent trends in minimal footwear. While the Vibram 5 finger “shoes” were the first big hit in the minimal running category, many other companies have followed suit in search of the success the 5 fingers had. There are now upwards of 30+ different minimal running shoes from a number of different athletic shoe manufacturers.
I would like to take a minute to educate you on the difference between a typical running shoe and a barefoot or minimal shoe (If you are not already well versed). A tradition running shoe has a 12-16mm drop from the heel to the toe. In a minimal running shoe the drop is anywhere between 1-5mm depending on which shoe it is. I just learned in a meeting last night that the Vibram 5 finger is not a zero drop but instead has a 1mm drop from heel to toe. The purpose of having the minimal heal drop is to better resemble your barefoot as well as make it easier for the runner to naturally forefoot strike. The forefoot strike has been looked at as more favorable than a heel strike when running because it promotes forward movement and can have less impact on you kinetic chain (i.e ankle, knee and hip joints). The other main difference between a traditional running shoe and minimal footwear is the soft cushion in each one. A typical running shoe is padded pretty heavily with soft cushioning to absorb impact while running on the road. While some minimal shoes offer a small amount of cushioning most of these shoes are low profile and don’t have much cushioning at all.
Ok so now for the question you might be asking yourself; Should I be running barefoot or at least in minimal footwear? Just a quick disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a podiatrist, my knowledge of this subject comes from being a personal trainer, a competitive runner and working for a company who has one of the more successful minimal running shoes on the market right now. That being said, my answer to that question is maybe, sometimes. Ha, probably not the answer you were looking for but I don’t t believe that there is a definite yes or no answer to this question. I do know that the claims can sometimes be confusing. barefoot running or running in minimal foot wear is not going to cure your irritated knee, shin splints or inflamed achilles. While I do believe that occasionally running barefoot on softer surfaces can be beneficial, too often I see people that think running barefoot or switching to a minimal shoe will completely cure all of their running related ailments. This is most often not the case. Many times I will work with a larger runner (275+ pounds) who believes that his knee irritation is related to his foot wear. This is probably not true and brings me to another point. Bare foot running and minimal footwear is not desirable for a large runner. When we run on concrete the impact we take on one foot is 2.5x ones body weight. That means that for a 300 pound person, running bare foot the shock that their ankle, knee and hip joints are experiencing is equivalent to approximately 750 pounds. A runner like this needs a buffer between their foot and the road which will take some of the initial shock. “Yeah but Jon, isnt this how we were born to run? surely our ancestors didnt wear shoes when they were primitively hunting.” Yes,this is correct with a few exceptions.
1. 10,000+ years ago years ago there was no such thing as concrete. Yes I’m talking to you, guy who does road races barefoot because he’s looking for a more natural experience.
2. After our ancestors were done running down whatever animal it is that they had just ran down, the meat would last over a week. Therefore for a few days of running there was almost double the amount of rest.
So When should you be running barefoot? As I said above, I do believe that one can benefit from a SMALL amount of barefoot running. I think that running barefoot does make you more aware of your stride and your initial striking point on your foot. Again, a mid-foot strike has been looked at more favorable to its heel striking counter part. I agree that it does promote forward motion and can potentially put less stress on ankle, knee and hip joints. I ALWAYS recommend running barefoot on a soft surface, preferably grass or a very forgiving trail. The purpose of these short (10-15 minute runs, 1-2 times) per week will simply make you more aware of your running mechanics. “What if I already Have a minimal shoe?”. If you have bought a minimal shoe and plan to run in the shoe, I strongly suggest you do about 30-45% of your running in it. Especially if you are running any more than 30 miles a week and EXTRA especially if you are doing any running at all on concrete. Start of slow and progress even slower.
So if for some reason you are still reading, the main Idea I want to emphasise is… Don’t buy into all the hype the minimal running shoe. While I do think there are benefits of SMALL amounts of barefoot running I would not recommend anyone running more than 25 miles a week barefoot or in minimal footwear. Hopefully this helped. Train Safe and stay injury free.
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