Ditch the traditional
You've probably seen them. Maybe you've seen them at the gym, yoga class
or while running. They come in bright,
outrageous color schemes and even in black.
They're those strange looking "toe shoes," the Vibram FiveFingers. Depending on who you talk to, people think
they're ugly or cute, awesome or worthless, a new revolution or just the latest
fad. While the FiveFingers get most of the
attention (and weird looks), almost every shoe manufacturer today has some kind
of "minimalist" running shoe in its lineup.
When and why did this all start? Is it just a fad? Should you make the
switch? Are FiveFingers appropriate to wear at work? While the last question depends extensively on
your boss, we hope to answer the rest of those questions in this article.
How did it all start?
Probably the first elite
athlete to go barefoot was Adebe Bikila, who ditched the shoes and won gold in
the marathon at the 1960 Olympics.
Bikila said the team-issued running shoes bothered him so he decided to
continue his barefoot training. But, few
really followed in his footsteps. Later,
several athletic trainers and coaches started having their athletes warm up and
cool down barefoot, as they found that barefoot training improves foot strength,
proprioception (awareness) and even seemed to reduce injuries. Nike, after consulting with these trainers,
wanted to make a shoe that mimicked the feeling and support of being barefoot,
and created the Nike Free. A huge push
to the minimalistic running shoe phenomenon came about when Christopher
McDougall wrote "Born To Run."
Christopher was an avid runner but was always injured. He then went and followed the reclusive Tarahumara Indian
tribe in the Mexican Copper Canyons, who ran extremely long
distances (100+ miles) with very thin sandals.
As you can probably guess, he overcame his injuries and became pain
free. Around the same time, many people
started wearing the FiveFingers for their favorite running shoes. All of this started a movement towards the
minimalist approach to shoes, but why?
What's the difference
between running barefoot and running in shoes?
Luckily, as the barefoot and trend
grew, some groups have started to research the differences between running
barefoot and running with shoes. Researchers
from Harvard looked at several different groups of runners from USA and Kenya1. While everyone studied from the USA grew up
wearing shoes, many from Kenya never wore shoes or only wore shoes
recently. Researchers found that those
who grew up wearing shoes usually utilize a heel-strike while running,
whether barefoot or in shoes. However,
those who did not grow up with shoes usually had a mid-foot or fore-foot
strike while running. This
difference in landing made a huge difference in impact forces. Those with fore/mid-foot strikes had a much lower
initial impact accompanied with a gradual increase in load. Conversely, those with rear foot (heel)
strikes, whether in shoes or barefoot, had a very high jarring initial
impact with no gradual increase.
Basically, with a fore/mid-foot strike, the foot serves as a natural
shock absorber. However, when someone
heel strikes, this shock absorber isn't present, even with shoes. Theoretically,
this could translate into significantly less injuries if someone switches from
a heel strike to a fore/midfoot strike.
the large jarring "spike" when heel striking with or without shoes. In contrast, that spike is absent when landing on the forefoot while barefoot (upper right). This correlates
to a huge difference in impact force as shown in the bar graph.
What we know. and
might be saying "Less injuries? Sign me up!"
Well, it is important to note that we wrote it could reduce injuries
"theoretically." We can't know for sure
if it reduces injuries, as it has not been studied. What we do know, however, is that changes and
so called "improvements" in running shoes over the past 30 years have NOT
reduced injuries. About 60-70% of
runners in the 1970's suffered an injury as results of their training. How many of today's runners get injured? About
60-70%. While this is good for those of
us in business of pain treatment and rehab, it's more than frustrating for the
average runner. We'll have to wait for
the studies to see if "natural running" is the cure.
However, from the study of the
Kenyan runners who never wore shoes, we can say that running with a
forefoot/midfoot strike seems to be the natural way of running. Proponents against the minimalistic running
idea argue that while it may be more natural, today's world isn't very
"natural." People and tribesmen that
grew up without shoes did not work 40 hr/wk deskjobs, they did not run on
sidewalks and paved roads and they did not eat a pro-inflammatory diet. Both sides have valid points.
So Doc, should I run
we answer this, we should take a step back and realize all the so called
"magic" isn't in being barefoot or wearing Vibrams, but it's in the running form.
It's in the forefoot/midfoot landing, in the shorter stride length, and
in the higher cadence. Take a look at
what Christopher McDougall himself said in a recent interview2:
"I'm more interested in the future of
running form. I couldn't care less what people wear; I'm more concerned about
what they do. For too long, all we've heard about is what to buy; what's been
missing from the conversation has been how to run properly. I'm convinced that
the next big wave in running won't be footwear, but a surge in running coaches
who teach proper, gentle, barefoot-style form."
about it. we stress swimming efficiency while training swimming, we have
hundreds of drills to improve technique in sports like baseball and football,
and we spend hundreds or even thousands on improving our golf game. But how do most of us try to become a better
runner? We do nothing more than trying to go farther and/or faster. Something's missing.
So should I change my
absolute, 100% without question answer is. it depends. We're sorry to take the easy way out, but in
all honestly, no one has enough data to be able to make a definitive
answer. We will say, that if you're a
heel striker and happy with your times, have no injuries or only easily
manageable ones, why fix what isn't broken? However, if you are constantly
fighting injuries, feel inefficient while running, want to improve your running
times, or just want to be a more natural runner. give this approach a try. After all, you can always return to regular
running shoes and heel striking.
time Ironman World Champion Craig Alexander passing Terenzo Bozzone. Notice the
difference in running forms.
The Hard Part -
Changing Your Form
Several books have been written on this subject so we're just going to touch on a few points to help you get started.
1. Read those books on this subject! - Form is key,
so read all about Chi Running, Pose Technique and Evolution Running. Also check out the aforementioned Born to Run
as well as Natural Running by Danny Abshire.
Join your local library already!
Shoes - Most "traditional" running shoes have
large heel rises (more padding beneath heel than beneath forefoot - around 15mm
more). You'll need to find shoes with
minimal heel rise, which makes it easier to move towards a midfoot/forefoot
strike. Vibram FiveFingers have 0mm of
heel rise, New Balance Minimus have 4mm heel rise, and Nike Frees have around a
6-10 mm heel rise. Also, if you're an
overpronator (as judged by a professional), take a look at Newton's S series
which is a stability shoe with minimal heel rise (2 mm).
Take it Slow - Now is the perfect time to make
the change. Your summer runs and triathlons
are over, so it's time to re-start your running from scratch. The above books all have recommendations for
making the switch but you're going to have to drop your ego and drastically
cut your running distances. If not,
you'll risk injury and intense soreness.
And isn't one of the reasons we're making the switch is to possibly
Throw in some short barefoot runs - Running
barefoot will help you to adapt a mid or forefoot strike, or else your heel
will take a beating. But keep these
short (<0.5 mile) at first, or you'll be getting some painful new blisters
(the author is speaking from experience).
Well there you have it.
Hopefully you now have the information and tools to make your own
decision about barefoot/natural/minimalist/new-buzzword running. We honestly think this trend is here to stay
and will grow every year. Although, we
could be wrong. After all, Bikila
himself, after winning the gold in 1960, went on to set a world record at the
1964 Olympics... heel striking in shoes.
Drs. Jeff Remsburg and Thomas Cotter are
chiropractors at Active Health Solutions: Chiropractic & Rehab, located in
Prairie Village, Kansas. Their clinic focuses on combining cutting edge
chiropractic care with the latest in exercise and rehabilitation for pain
treatment and performance enhancement. You can find more information
about their clinic by visiting their website at www.ahsKC.com or by calling 913-341-1200.
Lieberman, D et al. Nature, 2010, 463(28) 531-535.
2. Interview with Christopher McDougall by Bill Katovsky.