Barefoot Running For The Masses

t was a great day to be a spectator at the recent Livestrong Austin Marathon and 1/2 Marathon. My wife and I spent the day before the race at the expo helping with some clean up followed by some great Chinese Food at Suzie's Chinese Kitchen. During our dinner I expressed how happy I was that I was not racing the next morning. The weather was looking to be a little warm and I was looking forward to staying in bed a little later than the rest of the poor souls marching out to the starting line.

On race day we parked near the 8 mile marker and cheered on the runners near the famed RunTex running store. I was impressed with the crowd of runners moving at a pretty good pace and looking great (considering the humidity). As in several endurance events over the last year I could not help notice the number of people gliding smoothly, in seemingly effortless fashion, sporting the curious looking Vibram five finger shoes. The last year we have seen these minimalist shoes increase in popularity and more and more I begin to wonder if this will continue to grow or if the Vibrams will end up as a fad and long forgotten years from now. Much like the running sandal, remember those? I made it a point to try and memorize the look of these minimalist runners and tried to memorize their faces and bib numbers. After all, it was mile 8 of the race, and most people look and feel great at that point.

My wife was set on doing a 20 mile training run that day so she latched on to one of her running buddies as I stayed behind and headed to the finish line. I was hoping not miss the elite runners coming in to the finish. I made it to mile 26 and cheered on the first 20 runners of the marathon race. I noticed none of the top runners of the event wore Vibrams. Most wore a lighter weight racing flat that allowed for a natural foot placement. I wondered if any of them ever considered racing in the Vibram shoes or if they trained in them.

It wasn't until the 2 hour mark of the half marathon that I began to see the minimalist runners head toward the finish. Keep in mind that many runners near the finish look as if someone took a baseball bat to their quads. Many were grimacing from exhaustion and pain but as they met the top of the last hill and headed down toward the finish you could see the look of relief in their faces. On the other hand, here came the Vibram runners, spread out around the crowd. I saw three runners that I had seen previously at the 8 mile mark and they no longer looked smooth. In fact, two of them were carrying their Vibram shoes in their hands. I noticed the look on their face with each step and instead of a sign of relief as they headed down toward the finish it seems they were lost in their own world of pain. No matter how close they got to that finish line, each step was a reminder that the race is not over until you can sit down in relief.

I am not against the Vibram shoes or barefoot running. In fact, in my years of coaching I have always included a barefoot walk/jog after a hard interval session. I myself own a pair of Vibrams and my wife and I would head to the trails, often doing 6-8 miles in them at a time. I like to say that I began my barefoot running when I was a child. As a kid, shoes always seemed to feel like they slowed me down. In my mind, I could beat anyone in a foot race as long as I was barefoot. It wasn't until high school that I began periodically adding a short barefoot run or walk in my training. I had no idea what the benefits or consequences were; I simply enjoyed my bare feet on the grass after an interval session or on strolls around the neighborhood.

When the Vibram shoe hit the specialty running store shelves a few years ago I was worried that people would misinterpret how the shoe is to be used. I think we can all agree on one thing; the shoe is not be used for your hands. It seems people have been taking an "all or nothing" approach to this shoe when it comes to their training and racing. A quick search on Google led to the conclusion that there is very little in terms of educating the running community on the negative effects this can have. Again, my purpose is not to build a case against running barefoot, but rather, to better inform readers about how to properly use them.

First things first, we cannot argue against the fact that human beings first walked/ran barefoot. And even though the debate of whether or not we evolved to be long-distance runners is still not won on either side, it is clear we spent a long time on our feet before the invention of shoes. When did shoes pop up in our human history? Well, the history of shoesthat is to say, archaeological evidence for the earliest use of shoes appears to start during the Middle Paleolithic period of approximately 40,000 years ago.

There is early evidence for shoe use based on anatomical changes that may have been created by wearing shoes. Erik Trinkaus, PhD, is a prominent paleoanthropologist and expert on Neanderthal biology and human evolution, has argued that wearing footwear produces physical changes in the toes, and this change is reflected in human feet beginning in the Middle Paleolithic period. Basically, Trinkaus argues that narrow, gracile middle proximal phalanges (toes) compared with fairly robust sturdier toes implies "localized mechanical insulation from ground reaction forces during heel-off and toe-off." With the invention of shoes began the accelerated evolution of our feet and toes. Our feet evolved in such a way that accomadated for shoes.

Further online google research led me to Dr. Kevin Kirby, who teaches biomechanics at the California School of Podiatric Medicine. He has posted multiple accounts of runners who had developed stress fractures after running in five fingers. He has gone as far as calling on Chris McDougal, author of "Born to Run", to stop advocating minimal running for the masses.

"This is definitely not for the majority of runners," Kirby said. "The Vibram FiveFingers are boat shoes; they were never meant for running, and it seems like there's a strong correlation [between] running with them and stress fractures. They should be banned from being marketed to runners, because they are causing injuries not preventing them."

Studies have shown that between 30 percent and 70 percent of all runners each year suffer a repetitive stress injury. The idea that if you run barefoot you will no longer get injuries is not substantiated. The truth is, there have been no studies comparing injuries of shoe-clad runners with those running in minimal shoes.

So, what do we, runners, do with this information? My personal experience with the Vibram five finger shoes has been positive. Keep in mind that I restrict my running in them to trails and will typically only run between 5-10% of my weekly mileage not to exceed 8 miles. This was not initially done on purpose nor did I come up with a formula that dictates how many miles a week you should barefoot run. Truthfully, it was after the 8 mile mark that mentally and physically I began to miss my running shoes. Furthermore, it hurts my feet just to think about people spending the majority of their weekly miles in these shoes. It also hurts me to see runners at the end of a marathon or half marathon carrying their Vibrams in their hands. One more reason not to spend the majority of your time in these shoes is the fact that 40,000 years ago we did not have asphalt and concrete blanketing our running path. In a perfect runners world I envision soft, manicured, running trails with the cushioning of leaves and pine brush as we run free. But the reality for most of us is that we must adapt to the running enivironment we live in today. And running shoes, for now, are the best the running world offers to help us move forward.

Stay to the left, and hurry back.


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