I first heard about barefoot running years ago when I was working the 5am shift at the Y. A group of runners that would meet there before we opened; as I pulled in, half-awake, gulping down coffee, they would be leaving the parking lot for a five-mile run. I thought they were crazy. Especially when I noticed that their shoes had toes. Then I thought they were crazy and weird.
I picked up a pair of minimalist shoes myself this summer– Merrell’s Pace Gloves. They were pretty. I needed new “sneakers”. They were on sale at DSW. That is the extent of the research/thought/conviction that went into that purchasing decision.
I am not a runner. Sometimes I do intervals on the treadmill. I’ve coached a Girls On The Run club for a few years and I ran a 5k with them. But I never keep it up. Prior to my recently acquired training regimen, I hadn’t run regularly in over a year.
It wasn’t until I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run this summer (and subsequently signed up for my first half marathon) that I realized what a hot topic barefoot running was– and how unresolved the debate still is.
The whole idea behind barefoot running–and weird-looking toe shoes like Vibram Five Fingers– is that we, the human species, were meant to run. Without shoes. We can run better, faster, and suffer fewer injuries with little to no footwear. The idea is directly related to running form; barefoot running forces you to hit the ground first with your forefoot or midfoot, which is supposedly more efficient. Heel-striking is a scourge created by conventional running shoes and is harder on your body– or so the argument goes.
Merrell, the shoe company that makes my minimalist shoes, has an entire section of their website dedicated to barefoot running. They also advocate the midfoot-strike, touting its efficiencies over the heel-strike. They advertise that running barefoot will “help build strength, increase stimulation and improve alignment.”
Not everyone is convinced. The New York Times recently published an article about a study done regarding “runner’s economy”, which concluded that there is no difference between efficiency (speed, energy used, etc.) and running form (midfoot strike v. heel strike). Whatever form you do naturally, that is the best way to do it.
It is also interesting to note that Vibram is currently being sued for exaggerating the benefits of their barefoot shoes.
My amateur opinion: barefoot running is kind of fun. And I don’t generally associate running with fun.
To try it out, I decided to actually run in bare feet around a soccer field. I was a little worried that I would look like Rachel and Phoebe on Friends when they go running (like when you were a kid!). And then I was worried that I would step in something gross or slip and fall. But I didn’t fall, or step in anything, or injure myself. I took it super slow, and it was actually kind of fun.
It took a while, but I slowly broke in my Pace Gloves. Each time I wore them, something different would hurt. First, my weird side-calf muscles (google tells me this is my peroneus longus) would be sore for a few days. Then, for two runs in a row, it felt like someone lit dynamite under my left arch. Then, the top of my left foot was sore for a few runs. Now, my ankles feel a little sore– not twisted or broken, just tired-sore. But none of these issues persisted, so I am chalking it up to an “adjustment period”.
Now, to be fair, I am a very slow runner going very short distances. I am still doing intervals from a 5k iPhone app. The results might be very different if I were running long distances or running at a greater speed.
I think I will stay with it though– and not because I think I will be faster or more efficient. I enjoy it because it adds a twist to otherwise uninteresting running. It gives me something else to think about– another element of challenge that makes running interesting and enjoyable. And if I am going to run 13.1 miles, it needs to be enjoyable!
Plus, my shoes are super cute.