Baring it all
There’s something very convincing about arguments that come from an evolutionary perspective. The “real food” movement, for example, is based on the idea that we should eat the same foods humans have eaten for most of the half a million years we’ve been around, not the processed or even genetically-modified foods that are the result of relatively new advancements in technology. On the surface, these foods look bigger, tastier, healthier, better, but our bodies don’t see it that way. Over thousands of generations, we’ve evolved to benefit most from the apple picked from the tree, not the one boosted with omega-3’s. (I really hope they haven’t tried this yet.)
And so the argument goes for barefoot running. Not all that long ago, evolutionarily speaking, how fast one could run made a big difference in one’s chances of survival and eventual reproduction. And back then, they weren’t running in orthotics, stability shoes, MoGo cushioning, or Nike Shox. No, the ones who survived to pass on their genes were the ones who could run fastest (or perhaps longest) in plain old bare feet.
The barefoot running movement, fueled by the success of the book Born to Run, holds the evolutionary argument as its central tenet. Barefooting, its believers argue, forces the runner to take a smaller stride, land with the foot below the body rather than out in front, and use the tiny muscles in the foot that formed over those half a million years when we were chasing animals around the prairie. Many claim barefooting has cured them of their injuries, just by forcing them to run the way they were meant to, rather than on a cushioned layer of “protection” that essentially negated any muscle movements.
To boot (sorry), studies on the incidence of injuries in different running shoes have shown some pretty damning results for shoe manufacturers. One study even showed a direct relationship between injury rate and cost of running shoes — the more expensive the shoe, the more likely an injury. Others have shown an increase in overall running efficiency when running barefoot as opposed to wearing shoes.
Still, the barefoot movement has a lot to prove. As pointed out in a recent New York Times article, there is certainly no preponderance of evidence that barefoot is better. And if barefooting does give runners an advantage, either in the form of injury prevention or speed, then where are the pros that should be winning races with their tootsies showing?
So the jury is still out on whether barefoot running is the miracle cure that some purport it to be. At this point, it seems to be a matter of personal preference, and at the very least something to consider adding to your training routine in small doses. I say “small,” because I’ve heard too many stories of people increasing their barefoot mileage too quickly and getting injured as a result. True, barefooting has hundreds of millions of years of evolution on its side. But fully-shod running has in its corner the fact that you’ve run with shoes your whole life, and if you haven’t made much use of the muscles in your feet, it’s going to take a while to develop them.
Minimalist shoes like Vibram FiveFingers offer an intermediate step between shoes and skin, and my experience with “barefooting” has been in this more accessible, not-quite-as-hardcore manner. Since it’s not really barefoot, it offers some protection from rocks and sticks while maintaining the freedom of the muscles in the foot and not providing enough cushioning to allow the wild, careless stride that is to blame for injuries with traditional running shoes. I’ve found it, so far, to be a completely different experience, one that connects me with running and nature in a way I had never previously experienced. I’m still a little scared to take them out on real trails with those big, sharp rocks, but I believe that once I get past that fear — apparently, your feet get used to the rocks — running in my Vibrams will become my primary form of running. Just like barefooting was for my great, great, great, hundred-greats grandfather.