Considering Barefoot Running

I was reading my Runner’s World Magazine this month, and there was a great big article in it about barefoot running.  Barefoot running is rather a craze right now, and people wanting to run barefoot but simultaneously protect the skin of their feet have been buying shoes like the Vibram Five-Fingers.

Here’s a photo of these shoes, courtesy the Vibram website:

They are certainly interesting looking.

The pharmacist where I work occasionally wears his FiveFingers to work.  They are brown and kind of suede looking, and it really makes him look like he has gorilla feet.  He says they are very comfortable, though.

There are also a lot of shoe companies marketing minimalist shoes, like the Nike Free Run+…

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…or the Terra Plana Evo…

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…or the Ecco Biom.

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But the point of this post is not the shoes, interesting though they are.

I’ve been thinking about barefoot running, especially after reading the Runner’s World article, which seemed pretty balanced.  Proponents of barefoot running say that we were meant to be barefoot, meant to run barefoot.  We weren’t born with shoes on our feet, and if we ran barefoot, we’d have fewer problems with injury.  Humans weren’t intended to have these thick-soled, high-heeled, cushiony things at the ends of our legs.  If we ran barefoot, they say, we’d be more in tune with our bodies and how they are feeling.  Most running shoes sold today encourage a heel-to-toe running form, whereas running barefoot causes the runner to land more on the ball of the foot.  The supporters of barefoot running say that a heel-to-toe form leads to back pain, plantar fasciitis, and other injuries.  They say that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes strengthens the feet.

Skeptics say that there’s no evidence to support the idea that running shoes cause injuries.  They say that running itself — the hard surfaces, the pounding — is what causes injuries.  (Supporters say there’s less pounding when you run barefoot because you land more lightly.)  They say that it’s when people switch from modern running shoes to barefoot running that they really get hurt.  (Supporters say that’s because the runners didn’t make the transition gradually and allow their feet to get used to the changes.)

When I examine the arguments, those who support barefoot running seem to have a stronger case.  It feels like the opponents are just saying, “Nuh-uh.  Can’t prove it.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Did I have more problems with my bunions because of the kinds of shoes I was wearing?  If I had been running barefoot, would I have needed surgery to relieve the pain I was having?  Of course, there’s no way to know that, and now that I’ve got one foot done, I’m not going to cancel the other surgery just to find out.  But maybe it could have been a factor.  I don’t know.

When I’m able to run again, I’m not planning to go out in my bare feet and run through the streets.  Or even the sidewalks or the trail in the park.  There’s too much gravel and broken glass and tiny pieces of metal that could cut me or dig into my skin.  And I don’t know yet what kind of running shoes I’ll buy.  I’m used to having to search hard to find shoes that can accomodate both my bunions and my overpronation.  (But if I were running barefoot, would the overpronation be as much of a problem?  I wouldn’t be landing on my heels as much, so maybe I would not have the problem of rolling my feet inward as I step.)  Next spring, I’ll be bunion-free, and that will certainly change the kinds of shoes I’m able to wear.  I’m not sure if I’m ready to try a minimalist shoe… especially one that looks as strange as the FiveFingers.

But maybe I’ll try kicking my shoes off and running a couple of laps around the soccer field while Chef plays pick-up games at lunchtime.  Or maybe I’ll go down to the park, take off my shoes, and run in the big green space in the middle of the paved path.

It certainly can’t hurt to strengthen my feet and become more aware of my body as I run.

Do you have experience with or an opinion about barefoot running or minimalist shoes?  I’d love to hear it.