An interesting trend that has gripped the running world over the past several years is the move by many athletes (experienced and inexperienced alike) to running in minimalist shoes or no shoes at all. After decades of increasing the cushioning in running shoes to control for every possible form of maladaptive foot movement, more and more people are beginning to consider the notion that maybe mother nature and evolution had things right in the first place.
Even in the wake of the recent class action lawsuit against Vibram, the maker of minimalist “toe shoes”, for making false claims about the benefits of barefoot running, it’s popularity has continued at a steady clip. I myself am an avid minimalist runner who made the switch to Vibram’s Five Fingers after years of struggling with knee pain and slow improvement. Since making the change 4 years ago I have yet to suffer a serious running injury. There are however some things to consider if you are thinking about ditching your cross trainers in favor of something sleeker.
Barefoot running is a shock to the system. You may think that your body will adapt well because you have been running for years and are in great shape, but the more accustomed you are to running in conventional shoes, the longer the transition might take. Your first run will feel strange as your natural gait shifts from a heel-strike point of contact to the mid or forefoot. While this reduces impact forces on your knees and back, it brings new muscle groups into the equation.
Before your first barefoot or minimalist shoe run take a few days to walk around your house barefoot and pay attention to the way your foot responds to your shifting body weight and changes in stability. When you finally decide to get running, don’t attempt more than one-quarter of your usual running distance sans shoes. Start with a short barefoot run, then lace up your more conventional shoes before you keep going. Giving your body time to adjust will pay off in the long run.
Monitor and Control Your Improvement
You may feel fantastic after your first stint of barefoot running. You might even be eager to head back out the door and push the limits of your new-found style. Resist that temptation. If you find that barefoot running is working out for you, that’s great; but you should exercise caution in extending your runs. Focus on maintaining good form (back straight, knees bent, quick foot turnover) and don’t increase your barefoot distance by more than 10% each week. Going slow will allow your stabilizer muscles to develop without wearing out, exposing you to injury risk.
Listen to Your Body
A common training problem with all types of athletes is the tendency to push through pain. When you are within striking distance of a new personal best it is often tempting to ignore a twinge of pain and fight for personal glory. While that may be a great mindset in certain situations, it does not apply to taking up barefoot running. The muscles that help you maintain your form and respond to changes in terrain will fatigue relatively quickly when you are starting out. As they wear out you will feel pain as your movement becomes sloppier. When that happens, stop. Be overly cautious and listen to what you body is telling you. It is far better to be able to go for another mediocre run tomorrow than to be laid up for weeks with a stress fracture or tendinitis.
Lastly, don’t let these words of caution scare you off. Staying safe and healthy is important but the only thing that will keep you going is having fun. Enjoy the freedom that comes from running unshod. Explore your newfound agility and enjoy yourself when things are going well. If you have a smile on your face, it doesn’t really matter what you have on your feet.