The Science of Barefoot Running

In my previous post, I talked about my introduction to the barefoot running craze and the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  Inevitably the first thing people say when they see my Vibram Five-Fingers is “how do they feel?”

They feel like gloves for your feet.  There’s compression and stretch to them, with a little bit of padding on the bottom.  They were originally designed for sailing and other water sports.  But then McDougall discovered the Tarahumara, a hidden tribe of ultra runners in Mexico, and a barefoot runner named Barefoot Ted.  The Tarahumara run without shoes; Barefoot Ted used the Vibrams as minimalist protection for his barefoot running style.  With the popularity of the book came the high demand for Vibram Five-Fingers.  Many companies now offer minimalist running shoes, but the Vibrams started it all.

Skeptics and even novice runners would say that the barefoot running would hurt your feet.  And they’re right – the initial pounding of barefoot running is certainly at best a discomfort, at worst painful.  But barefoot running is like any other form of training – progression is essential.

Why barefoot running?  (*Spoiler: I’m about to talk about significant details of the book Born to Run.  The book will still be worth a read, but I’m discussing some of the main points here.*)  So I say it again, why barefoot running?  Because your foot was made to handle much more stress than it currently gets.  And our running shoes are preventing our feet from getting stronger.

McDougall sets up the story using his running experience and then his research into the Tarahumara tribe.  These runners can run more miles than Americans would think possible, and here’s the catch: they do it with minimalist footwear, if any footwear at all.  Many, many miles… and no injuries!  So how do they do it?

Progression.  They do it because they’ve been doing it all their lives.  Their feet know no other form of training.  And they don’t get injured.  They don’t get injured because they have stronger feet than you and me.  And you say, “My feet feel plenty strong.  I’ve been doing full or half marathons for years.”

Here’s the difference between the ultra-marathon, injury-free tribe and the classic American runners:  footwear.  McDougall points out a very high percentage of serious runners get injured.  These injuries were essentially non-existent before the late 1970s.  This is when high-end running shoes began to flood the market, pioneered by Nike.  These running shoes had a significant amount of cushioning in the heel to protect runners from the violent heel strike that occurs with a classic American style of running.  In addition to a padded heel, the shoes began to also add significant support to the arch of the foot.  This is one of the most scientific findings of the research and the book.  By supporting the foot’s arch, running shoes are essentially weakening the arch and inhibiting it from doing its job.  The arch of your foot was designed to be a spring for the feet and legs and provide mechanical efficiency.  The enhanced arch support weakens this system and results in more injuries.

Barefoot running gets rid of the arch support, but it also gets rid of the heel support.  That’s why all my friends are asking me “how if feels”.  My friend Dan also asked how my calves and ankles responded because he knows that if I’m not running with a heel strike I’m running on the balls of my feet.  Think about the way you run – heel to toe.  The heel hits the ground and you roll towards your toes and push off.  Back to the heel strike.  Every time you stride, that heel is the first part of the foot to hit the ground.  Do you know how much force that is?

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.