My first memory of barefoot running was Zola Bud. I was 19 years old at the time and an avid runner. I just remember Zola Bud was a fast, South African woman, and the world thought she tripped Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics. I remember watching the race on TV, and besides all of the heartache and controversy; I was amazed at her bare feet. I wore the typical America running shoe with ample stability and heel support.
And now today, barefoot running is back in vogue with a variety of minimalist style running shoes hitting the scene. These shoes are based on the concept that the barefoot style offers balance, improves your connection with the earth and energy, and gives you the ability to move in a more natural way.
What did Zola Budd know back in the 1980’s?
Zola said, “Coming from a farming background, I saw nothing out of the ordinary in running barefoot, although it seemed to startle the rest of the athletics world.” Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run contends that barefoot runners do not have as many injuries as runners with traditional running shoes because the human body automatically compensates to evenly disperse body weight, causing less impact on our bodies. He says runners with traditional running shoes tend to land on their cushioned heels which causes a jolt through the body, while barefoot runners land more on the front of their foot, making less impact on joints and the spine. Not everyone who studies the biomechanics of running agree. Some say it’s just the difference between taking the impact of your body on your heel versus the ball of your foot. The debate continues.
An important element in the search for a minimalist shoe is proper fit. And, when transitioning to these types of shoes, it can take a few weeks or potentially a few months. If you are a normal heel-strike runner or walker, your biomechanics will adjust and change, but proponents of barefoot running say this change is for the better.
Minimalist shoes claim that your legs and feet become stronger as they adjust to a less structured shoe. These shoes range from Vibram FiveFingers which contain little to no cushioning and offer a separate toe pocket for each toe; to minimal cushioning shoes such as Nike Free, New Balance Minimus, Asics Speedstar, and Reebok Realtone just to name a few. The Vibram FiveFingers offer at least 14 different variations for men, women and kids. The minimalist models come in a variety of shapes and colors. Many of these shoes are being used not only for running, but for everything from fitness training to yoga and water sports.
I personally have tried the Vibram FiveFingers SPRINT and the Nike Free shoes. I started with the Vibram FiveFingers by just wearing them around my house. It took some time to get used to the toe pockets. Then I transitioned to training in the gym and finally outdoor running. I have some low back trouble and the FiveFingers have been more help than the harm many may expect. Plus, the toe pockets have been great for stretching my toes and relieving foot cramps. I decided to try the Nike Free for trail running and I will admit that they felt better on the gravel than the Vibram FiveFingers.
If you’re interested in trying barefoot running, consider these tips:
1. Build up slowly. Start with one mile runs or less and build up your mileage gradually over the first month.
2. Concentrate on landing on the balls of your feet instead of your heels.
3. Stop if you have pain and maintain good form.
4. Stretch your calves and Achilles tendons thoroughly, especially for the first few months. Running on the balls of your feet works out the calves more than
you may think.
Before you try out barefoot running, ask your doctor if it’s safe for you. If you have any sort of knee pain or preexisting condition that impedes your ability to respond to the feelings in your feet—like diabetes—check with your doctor first. And always listen to your body; barefoot running isn’t for everybody or every body.