From the Vibram FiveFingers (also known as ‘the toe shoes’) to the Nike Frees, barefoot runners have been filling the shelves of sporting stores as quickly as Santa’s elves pack the children’s stockings on Christmas eve. Popular sporting brands like Lorna Jane now photograph their sportswear with these light weight slim shoes and let’s face it, they look better than the chunky traditional runner.
To clarify, when I said ‘they look better’ I was referring to the Nike Frees, NOT ‘the toe shoes’…they are gag-worthy and just plain weird.
Looks aside, it’s clear that what was once a niche market for barefoot running shoes has now flooded into the mainstream and become a hot topic among runners. The question is, are they actually better to run in?
The science behind the shoes
The book Born to Run by Chris McDougall brings to light the issues surrounding this topic. McDougall focus’ on a theory developed by Harvard scientists. The theory and supporting research suggests that the impact on your feet is naturally reduced when you run barefoot. This is because your mid-foot or fore-foot hits the ground rather than your heel (a style which is encouraged by the weight and cushioning in traditional runners). What McDougall is trying to promote is a better running technique, one that is found without the ‘auto-correction’ that running shoes have provided us for the last 30 odd years. This video provides an interesting example of training that could help you refine your running technique to align with his theory:
Sporting companies embracing the science and practicalities
In developing their theory, the scientists studied barefoot Kenyan runners. Despite the flourishing results that Kenyans have experienced running barefoot, including fewer injuries, it is clear that the same wouldn’t apply to the Western world. Most of us after hearing this study won’t simply begin to run barefoot for the simple reason that we do not wish to bear the brunt of concrete, possible shards of glass or other sharp and painful material in our feet. Further, our feet are far less hardy than those of the Kenyans as we have worn shoes our whole lives. In response, sporting companies have embraced the somewhat oxymoronic concept of barefoot shoes. A concept proving to be quite popular.
I’ve had the Nike Free v4 for 6 months, here’s my thoughts:
I’m not a professional runner but I do run fairly often and being a sucker for good looking shoes I ordered this pair of Nike Free v 4 6 months ago. You might remember seeing them in this post.
At first I really liked them. I loved how lightweight and stylish they were. The problem arose as I ran more. Normally I wouldn’t run more than 5-7km at a time however as soon as I ran over 10km in them I ended up with Tibialis Posterior Tendonitis. Granted, Nike don’t recommend them for over 10km. However, the first thing my physio told me to do was to get some ‘real’ running shoes. He said even for the short distance running they aren’t supportive enough and this problem would have built up over multiple runs, not just my first 10km+ run.
Given that the theory behind this new fad is based on Kenyan barefoot runners, it would make sense to me that these shoes could improve our technique and lessen our injuries like barefoot running has done for the Kenyans IF we (like the Kenyans) had run in this style the majority of our lives. The fact is, we haven’t. Our feet are not accustomed to this greater range of movement with less support while running. Even though there are certain barefoot runners that are designed to ease you slowly out of heel-first running to bare-foot running style, I would recommend consulting a physio regularly throughout your transition to barefoot runners so that you don’t end up in my position. Prior to not being able to walk properly, I had no idea that certain muscles were tight and not sufficiently strengthened for this new style of running.
My new runners
Following the advice of my physio with the desire to regain my ability to run more regularly I purchased these beauties and love them! A good mix between fashion and functionality.
Would I ever run in barefoot running shoes again?
To be honest, probably not, unless it was short distances within a circuit workout. I would however wear them for strength training (as it spreads the weight more evenly through your feet) or general gym use other than running or activities that require greater stability whilst standing.