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Millions of years ago, the ancestors of mankind evolved to have the ability to run. Running competitions were an integral part of the original Olympic Games, and today the sport is more popular than ever. However, a controversial new movement in running is changing the face of the sport.
Text and Photography by: Aneya Fernando
Country: USA

hen I think of barefoot running, the first thing I imagine is the beach. That’s basically the only time I would ever be caught dead running (or even just walking) without shoes. Being barefoot on the beach is a tactile pleasure. You dig your toes in the sand, the tide sways between your ankles, and your feet feel safe and cocooned in the silky warmth of the water.

Anywhere else, the thought of being barefoot scares me. Imagining my precious toes crunching hard gravel, dirt, glass, and debris beneath me is not my cup of tea. But for some, barefoot running has evolved from a hippie trend to a mainstream ideology, which argues that our feet were made to run.

Daniel Lieberman is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. He believes that humans evolved to run millions of years ago, and the arch and architecture of our feet are designed to absorb the impact of running. Lieberman says that padded running shoes may have actually contributed to the abundance of sport injuries seen today by changing the way we run, causing us to come down on our heels instead of our toes.

Lieberman recently conducted a study at Harvard where he examined three types of runners: those who always wore shoes, those who didn’t, and those who had recently converted to barefoot running. He found that those who wore shoes hit their heel against the ground with dangerous force, while those who ran shoeless had a springy step and landed towards the middle or front of the foot.

“Barefoot runners have almost no impact collision,” the study says. “It might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.”

Of course, barefoot running is not a new trend. Back in 1960, Ethiopian-born Abebe Bikila won the first of his consecutive gold medals barefoot. Charlie “Doc” Robbins won two USA National Marathon Championships in the late 1940s, and completed an astonishing fifty Thanksgiving Day Road Races in Manchester, Connecticut. During most of these races, Robbins was barefoot (though he would slip on a pair of socks when the temperatures dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Michael Warburton, an Australian physical therapist and marathoner, brought our attention back to barefoot running in 2001 when he published an online research paper dedicated to the trend. In his section on the economy of running, Warburton points out that the extra weight of shoes on your feet is much worse than a couple extra pounds on your belly. Weight on your feet is subject to constant acceleration and deceleration (what runners call “strides”), which have a high energy cost. Obviously this type of research makes shoe companies anxious. Because of this, many sneakers have less padding than they used to. Take New Balance Minimus, NB’s latest line of running shoes. Their slogan is “Like barefoot, only better”. Nike has also gotten on board the trend with their Nike Free sneaker, which has a “barefoot like feel with excellent support.” Then there’s the strangest shoe of all: the Vibram FiveFinger shoes, which look like little aliens but are in fact similar to a rubber sock.

I headed to my local REI (a large American chain that sells outdoor recreation gear, sporting goods, and other outdoorsy merchandise) to inspect the Vibram trend for myself. Once there I met Stewart Williams, an expert on running shoes. Williams explained that putting on the Vibrams can be difficult, and it was – my toes couldn’t find the corresponding holes, and it took me a while to get one on. Once I did, the shoes felt so light and airy, and although they looked a bit strange, they were quite comfortable. I took a jog around the store (as Williams advised me to do) and immediately noticed a change in the stride of my steps. I felt extremely light on my feet, and I noticed my toes were doing a lot more work than they usually do. I could feel every little bump on the ground through the shoes, which was an interesting sensation.

Williams told me that the FiveFinger shoes have become increasingly popular here in Las Vegas, but people sometimes have trouble adjusting to them. “One of the biggest problems people have is when their second toe is larger than their big toe. This is called Morton’s toe, and those people simply can’t wear these shoes, so they usually end up returning them.” Williams tells me he’s a fan of barefoot running, and would advise people to use a lighter shoe first, like the Vibram, before considering going barefoot.

“It’s a completely different type of running. It can be difficult to get used to. I definitely believe modern sneakers have way too much padding in them, and that accounts for injuries like athlete’s knee.” Williams advises people to buy toe socks to go with their Vibrams because, as he put it “there’s an aroma” that happens when you have a sweaty foot in a rubber shoe. Williams gave me a pair of the special toe socks to try on, which resembled a winter glove. Once on, I could not get my feet back in the Vibrams. My toes felt bulky in the sock and would not go in the corresponding holes.

“Yeah, that happens,” Williams explained. “Sometimes that sock makes things more difficult. You just have to get used to it.” Vibram FiveFinger shoes range from $80- $110 dollars, depending on the type you buy. Although they can be difficult to get used to at first, many runners swear by them.

So should everyone immediately jump on the barefoot bandwagon? Not necessarily, cautions Michael Sandler, a running and walking expert from Colorado, whose book, “Barefoot Running”, is a step-by-step guide to easing people into the trend.

“The question isn’t whether you can become a barefoot walker or runner. The question is, are you patient enough to start slowly,” Sandler says.

Sandler coached athletes for almost twenty years before he got into a skating accident in 2006, which left him with a titanium hip and femur. They said he would never run again. Going barefoot changed all that.

“Your body will become stronger than when you were relying on those crutches we call shoes,” Sandler said, “but it’s a gradual process.”

In any case, it’s all about baby steps. I would recommend changing your sneaker if it’s too padded to a lighter one, then perhaps trying out the kooky FiveFinger shoes, because they’re definitely the most barefoot-like of the bunch. If you are comfortable after that, I say, whip those shoes off and run like nature intended you to.


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Easy Summary

Daniel Lieberman is a professor of human biology at Harvard University. He believes that humans evolved to run millions of years ago. That’s why the architecture of our feet is designed to absorb the impact of running. Padded running shoes make the foot come down the heel instead of the toes and changing the way we run might contribute to sport injuries, says Lieberman.

Lieberman studied three types of runners: those who always wear shoes, those who don’t, and those who switched to barefoot running. He found that people who wear shoes hit their heel against the ground with dangerous force, while those who run barefoot landed towards the middle or front of the foot.

“Barefoot runners have almost no impact collision,” the study says. “It might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.”

Barefoot running is not a new trend. In 1960, Ethiopian-born Abebe Bikila won the first of his many gold medals barefoot.

Today, many sneakers have less padding. For example, New Balance Minimus, NB’s latest running shoes. Their slogan is “Like barefoot, only better”. Nike also has the Nike Free sneaker, which has a “barefoot feel with excellent support.”

 

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