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Guide to (Almost) Barefoot Running

I was casually asked by a fellow Crossfitter what the deal was with Vibram FiveFinger shoes. Lots of Crossfitters seem to like them, and we’ve got about four or five members at our box who swear by them. So here’s the theory behind why people like them and why you should try them out or at least try going barefoot more often. 

When you run in the average running sneaker, the excessive padding in the heel makes it difficult for a person to strike the ground using the balls of his feet. Instead, he ends up heel-striking, which basically means all of his body weight is jolted through his major joints (ankles, knees, hips) with every stride. But when a person runs barefoot (or nearly barefoot, as in the case of the Vibram FiveFingers), heel-striking is uncomfortable and the person adopts a stride where he lands on the balls of his feet; this is called mid-foot striking. If you take a look, you’ll see that your foot is basically composed of two arches: one that travels the length of your foot (from heel to toes) and the other that travels cross-wise (from the bony protuberance at the base of your big toe to the one at the base of your pinky toe). An arch is one of the strongest shapes in nature. As force applied to the top of an arch, the arch gets stronger and can flexibly accommodate the force. Your feet are the same. There’s 19 muscles laid out in all directions throughout your foot, connecting 26 bones, and each muscle and bone works in concert; they are finely evolved to handle impact and stress. So when a person wears shoes that are excessively cushioned and constrain your foot from naturally spreading over and gripping the ground as he steps, his foot muscles atrophy instead and his gait changes as well. These changes can result in maladaptive compensatory changes throughout the leg musculature and even back musculature, since postural adaptations occur as well. By going barefoot or nearly so, foot muscles strengthen and the aforementioned gait and musculature changes can revert to normal.

If you want to try running in Vibrams, go for it. But give yourself the option of alternating between pavement and grass or dirt and between mid-foot and heel-striking on either surface. When I ran a 5K a month ago in my Vibrams for the first time, hitting the pavement was hard, in both senses of the word. Luckily the sidewalk had a grassy strip running alongside it, and I alternated back and forth, going as long as I could on each. And yes, mid-foot striking feels good at first, but then you tire and revert back to heel-striking, which is another reason to alternate surfaces. Then, you can’t heel strike in Vibrams for very long on concrete, so you’ll switch back to grass and restart the mid-foot striking. The day after my first 5K in Vibrams, my feet were sore, but not intolerably so. I reminded myself that maybe we weren’t really meant to run on such a hard surface that doesn’t absorb or deform when a foot strikes it. If you think about it, of course a person can wear super cushioned sneakers so that he can’t feel the hard pavement, but what kind of long term consequences will he feel in his joints and back? Or even in the short-term, right after the run? I haven’t completely adapted to only mid-foot striking, but I did recently complete my second 5K in my Vibrams and I ran on pavement for three-quarters of the run, so my feet must have gotten stronger. I’ve certainly felt it. I recently tried on my usual pair of running sneakers and found that they now feel pretty darn snug around the toe joints. And it feels like the shoe isn’t “tall” enough for my foot, which I took to mean that my arches have increased; that’s probably a good thing, given I’ve had flat feet all my life.

Even if you don’t buy the logic, I think everyone should go barefoot as much as possible for a month, or 3 weeks at minimum. Will it hurt? Yes, but not as bad as you think and the pain is different. Your feet will feel sore in the exact same way you feel sore the day after a workout. Those muscles are weak and some aches are natural. Your abs get sore when you do lots of crunches; it’s the same thing. But pay attention to your joints and back and see if they don’t hurt or ache as much as they used to. Give it a whirl and let me know how it goes.

Resources:
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall  

How to Strengthen Your (Bare, Flat) Feet by Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple (blog)


(Revised) Also see this fantastic guide: Zen Habit’s Barefoot Running Guide

Pictured featured from vibramfivefingers.com 
Model featured: Men’s Bikula

Bikila - Sky Blue/Yellow/Grey

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