Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of The Feet

Recently, I did something very un-like me.

I signed up for a run.

For the record, I am not a fan of running.  I don't find it enjoyable in the least bit.  The only time I ever run on purpose is if I am being chased, if I am playing a sport that requires running, if I'm late for something, or if I am trying to get my dog to run.  That having been said, I do, on occasion, sign up for 5k's and 10k's, usually because they have good bands playing, and because I just want to see if I can do it. 

So I signed up for a run.  It's the Gladiator Rock 'n' Run in Irvine, and it has mud and walls and stairs and tires and other obstacles, and, despite the running, it sounds pretty kick-ass.  I'll be running it with my friend Michael (and anyone else who wants to join us), and Michael and I are going to probably do some practice runs. 

"Did you get some running shoes?" he asked me.

"I have my barefoot shoes," I told him.

He expressed some concern about my feet, and then we moved on to the more pressing matter of signing up for the run. 

I pretty much live in barefoot shoes these days, and have done for the last 2+ years.  People ask me about my weird shoes all the time.  I switch between Vibram Fivefingers and Zems depending on my Fashion Sense of the day (i.e. what looks better with my sweatpants that day), and unless it's too cold to wear them, I love them to bits. 

My Zem Ninja shoes, faithfully assisting me at one of my workshops.

There are a million reasons (or so-- I haven't officially tallied them) to go barefoot if you're a runner.  Or, quite frankly, if you're not a runner.  But let's just stick with running for now. 

Let's start with the science:  Research shows that people who run with shoes on have a much higher incidence of injury than do those who run barefoot ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2883551 ).    This appears to be due to the way the shoe stiffens the foot, rendering it unable to move in the way it was designed to move.  When your feet don't move right, neither does the rest of you.  Don't believe me?  Try the following experiment:  Stand up.  Now pull up your toes so that they don't touch the ground.  Now walk.  Did that change your gait a little bit?  Think about it. 

One thing I noticed when I switched from cushy shoes to barefoot shoes is how my feet struck the ground completely differently when I dashed to work from the parking lot.  Running barefoot seems to enforce a proper foot strike (toe to heel) instead of creating an unnatural one (heel to toe), as big, cushy shoes tend to do ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20111000 ), which decreases the amount of your body colliding with the ground, which translates into fewer injuries for barefoot runners.

According to researcher Michael Warburton, "Laboratory studies show that the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4% when the feet are not shod."  Using less energy to run?  Sounds good to me!  Tell me more, Michael!  

And so, he did.  Mr. Warburton also came to the following conclusions:
       Running in shoes appears to increase the risk of ankle sprains, either by decreasing awareness of foot position or by increasing the twisting torque on the ankle during a stumble.

       Running in shoes appears to increase the risk of plantar fasciitis and other chronic injuries of the lower limb by modifying the transfer of shock to muscles and supporting structures.
       Running in bare feet reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent.  Competitive running performance should therefore improve by a similar amount, but there has been no published research comparing the effect of barefoot and shod running on simulated or real competitive running performance.
       Research is needed to establish why runners choose not to run barefoot. Concern about puncture wounds, bruising, thermal injury, and overuse injury during the adaptation period are possibilities.
       Running shoes play an important protective role on some courses, in extreme weather conditions, and with certain pathologies of the lower limb.

There is, of course, some controversy about the barefoot trend.  While mounting evidence is popping up in favor of the barefoot runner, many people in the podiatric field aren't quite so enthusiastic:  http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/183/1/E37

My own experience has been this:  when I switched to barefoot shoes, even not as a runner, the very occasional knee pain I got never recurred.  My feet were sore for about 3 months during the transition, which makes me suspect that the muscles in my feet were working in ways they've never worked before.  My friends who have switched to barefoot shoes have told me that the aches and pains they often got from running have disappeared.  I have swung kettlebells in cushy shoes (a BIG no-no) and without, and the difference in my form is remarkable.  Plus, I just prefer the feel of it.  So as far as I am concerned, barefoot shoes are the way to go.  And if you live somewhere where the ground is soft and mossy or sandy and free of broken glass and hypodermic needles, you may not even have to buy shoes at all.  As for me, I'll stick with my Vibrams and my Zems and whatever other barefoot shoes strike my fancy.  

My dog likes 'em, too.

Questions?  Comments?  Post 'em here!


  1. I'm so glad to see you're a fan of barefoot shoes, too. Vibrams forever!