Barefoot Running 101

If you want to get into running, the only essential piece of equipment you need is a good pair of shoes, right? But what constitutes a good pair of shoes?

If you work in a shoe store, you may be familiar with the way that runners seem to cycle through shoe trends. Some shoes have cutaway soles to reduce the weight on feet, while others have shock absorbers and air cushions built into the soles.

One of the strangest new trends in running shoes seems to be no shoes at all.

Running barefoot isn't exactly a new trend. In 1960, an Ethiopian runner named Abebe Bikila chose to run barefoot in the Olympics rather than compete in a pair of running shoes that weren't comfortable. He went on to win the 500m dash.

Now science seems to be supporting the idea that too much padding in your shoes can be detrimental to your running experience. According to an article in Runner's World Magazine, scientific experiments have yet to prove that extra padding and support provided by running shoes are an improvement over running barefoot.

In a 2001 paper entitled "Barefoot Running" by Australian physical therapist and marathon runner Michael Warburton, the author points out that the extra weight of running shoes on your feet is subject to acceleration and deceleration forces that decrease your running efficiency by as much as five percent. This may not seem like much to the average Joe, but in a sport where every second counts, this is a big deal. Warburton states in his paper that two running shoes that weigh 10 ounces are worse than an extra pound or two of fat around your middle.

Most running shoes aren't just designed to be lightweight, but also to support the foot and add padding. But according to Runner's World, several scientific experiments have yet to conclusively show that all that extra padding and support actually are an improvement in either shock absorption or motion control. Instead, the extra layers of protection dull the senses and reduce your reaction time as a runner.

In his book "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen," author Christopher McDougall points to Harvard studies that claim that running shoes force a runner into an unnatural gait in which the heel strikes the ground first. This gait is the primary cause of back and joint problems. In comparison, a natural gait in which the ball of the foot is the primary striking surface seems to lessen the impact of each step. By adopting a natural gait, runners may see an improvement in joint pain.

Detractors of barefoot running include many podiatrists. Since the barefoot running craze has taken off, some of them have seen an increase in injuries that include stone bruises, Achilles problems and heel injuries such as planter fascia. Of course, since barefoot running is a fairly new way to run, any increase from zero would be expected.

In a bizarre turn of events, the running shoe market, which is based around the idea of providing protection and support to runners, seems to be getting in on the idea. If you don't want to run barefoot and risk stepping on stones and glass, many running shoe companies suggest that you try "minimalist" running shoes.

These shoes have little or no padding, a flat foot bed and thin, flexible soles. Some of the most striking of these are the FiveFingers brand made by Vibram. Instead of a toe box, the FiveFingers offer five separate compartments for the wearer's toes to fit in. This makes the FiveFingers shoe resemble a glove for the foot. The idea behind the FiveFingers brand is that they offer protection from foreign objects while still allowing the foot to maintain flexibility and sensitivity.

Vibram also manufactures the soles for another minimalist shoe made by Merrell, the "Barefoot." Barefoot shoes offer a wider toe box, a narrower heel, and a thin sole. The traction on the sole is positioned in line with the runner's actual foot bed.

For runners who are interested in the idea of minimalist shoes but aren't quite ready to invest in a shoe with no padding, Saucony, Nike, New Balance, Asics and many other brands also have entries in the minimalist shoe market. More than anything, this should convince skeptics that minimalist and barefoot running are mainstream pastimes.

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