Why I Love "Barefoot" Running

By Ethan Maurice | September 3, 2015

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: “He wears those weird toes shoes when he runs?”

I do, I wear Vibram FiveFingers when I run. They're not the ultimate fashion statement, but the world's ugliest shoes saved my half marathon training. In the summer of 2012, I was training for my first half marathon. I did my research and religiously followed a 16-week training schedule that eventually lead to me placing 254th out of over 8,300 runners over those 13.1 miles. I wouldn't have survived the training without my “toe shoes."

I grew up running around barefoot in the park across the street from our house. I'd play football, soccer, and any other grass based sports without shoes, preferably. I'd take my shoes off so I could run faster. So when Vibram came out with a shoe that mimicked being barefoot I bought a pair right away. However, I'd never ran for distance without regular shoes on. Initially, I couldn't believe how tired and sore my calves were after running a single mile in them, but over time, in my half-hearted running, I grew to like them. But, when I decided to run for my first half marathon, I knew that everyone who runs such races wore “real” running shoes. So I bought two pairs of normal running shoes to train for the race.

A bit over a month into my training, a problem was developing—my knees and shins hurt. For a couple weeks the pain progressed, getting worse with each run. Except on Sundays, which I would do an easy three mile recovery run in my FiveFingers around the local high school track, just to mix it up a bit. I started out my Sunday run with aching knee and shin pain from the “normal shoe” long run the day before. However, by the time I finished the 3 miles with my "toe shoes," I felt great.

Quickly, I came to love running on Sundays. After one too many runs during the week with knee and shin pain, I decided out of desperation to switch over to FiveFingers. No knee pain. No shin splints. My calves were often exhausted, but the pain was gone! Two and a half months later, I ran in San Diego's America's Finest City Half Marathon and finished in the top 96% of all runners.

You were not born to wear Nikes.

Humans have lived on this Earth for quite a long time without shoes. A single human foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. 25% of the bones in the human body are in the feet.

Call me crazy, but I don't believe our feet are meant to need arch support, or orthotics. Rather, because we wear shoes all the time, our feet haven't developed correctly or are under-developed, leading to serious foot issues. Shoes have also taught us bad running mechanics and encourage heel strike (in which the heel lands before the pad of the foot) causing issues that I had while training (knee pain and shin splints).

You can't just make an overnight switch though.

I've taken a year and a half worth of anatomy classes. I've dissected a human being. A core concept repetitively driven into my head was: your body is always adapting to what you do. If you lift weights or run, not only do your muscles grow, your bones do too. On the flip side, lack of exercise leads to muscle and bone loss.

Why is this important?

Because when someone who has never significantly worked the muscles and bones in their feet puts on a pair of minimalist running shoes and goes for their usual run, they're going to hurt themselves. Their feet, that complex weave of “26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments” are weak from running in confined, supportive shoes. It's like taking a cast off after healing from a broken leg. If your feet have always been sheltered, they're going to get hurt when they go out and pound on the hard ground immediately after their release. Your feet need time to adjust, for the bones to thicken and the muscles to strengthen. So if you're new to barefoot running, you have to take it slow as you start.

Additionally, the most common injuries runners have (knee problems, shin splints etc.) are caused by wearing so much padding and support on their feet. Such padding allows a runner to unknowingly abuse their legs and knees because pounding the ground doesn't hurt their feet. Traditional running shoes have a higher heel than front, promoting the heel to strike the ground first, but barefoot running requires you to land on the pad of your foot.

This is a miracle of human anatomy that we've lost with supportive running shoes.

When we take away high heeled running shoes and no longer heel strike, we use the Achilles tendon and our calves, which act like some sort of rubber band like mechanism. This provides for more efficient movement and we don't pound on our knees and shins as hard.

If you wear "normal" running shoes and have running related injuries, maybe kick off those shoes and give a couple million years of evolution a try?




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