More often than not simplicity trumps complexity. Barefoot running is the latest testament to this rule. If you haven't heard all of the hype, a book titled Born to Run has caused quite a few runners to re-think their selection of footwear and its benefits. Having read the book, I decided to conduct a self-experiment over 2-3 months and I wore a simple 'barefoot shoe' during my off-road workouts. I was pleasantly surprised by the results!
Before I get into the benefits that I found from barefoot running, let me give you a quick background of why this notion struck a cord with me. I'm a long distance runner and try to do at least one marathon per year. I run anywhere from 25-50+ miles per week and am routinely plagued by minor injuries such as Achilles Tendonitis, Runner's Knee, and Plantar Fasciitis. I have a neutral foot with a medium-high arch and a low to moderate heel strike. When I was reading the book Born to Run, I was in the middle stages of a marathon training plan and going through some pretty bad Achilles pain. The idea that people were running ultra-marathons in Mexico on leather sandals without so much as an ingrown toenail made me think. And the author's theory that man was already equipped to run without the need for fancy shoes makes a lot of sense to me, as I haven't found one man-made solution that our Maker didn't get right the first time! So to make a long story short, I wanted more than anything for this book's hypothesis to be right...I wanted a simple answer so that I could enjoy running injury-free.
Because I live and run in an urban / suburban area, barefoot running could mean cuts, infections, and really dirty feet?! So I tried the Vibram Five Finger Sprints as a means to protect my soles and still reap the rewards. After a week or sore calfs, some natural stride / gait corrections, and enduring some on-lookers double-takes at my silly shoes...my leg pain seemed to dissolve...and my interval workouts got speedier! I'm not quick to jump to conclusions or early victories, but something was working here. So I decided to keep it up for several weeks and measure what I could in my training. I'm an engineer and rather analytical when it comes to these sort of things, so I wanted proof that I wasn't being fooled by a “placebo-effect”. I ran the whole cross-country (XC) season workouts without my trainers and monitored my interval times and stride rate throughout this time. My average stride rate climbed from 167 strides per minute to 175 strides per minute...enough of a difference to warrant some thought. And I used to do 5-10 minutes of Achilles stretching at night which I no longer do since mixing in the barefoot workouts.
In summary, I don't think that this is a passing fad. I think that running barefoot will gain more and more interest from the scientific community and gain momentum as a way to increase a runner's strength and longevity in the sport. Many collegiate and club teams are already incorporating barefoot workouts into their schedule. I'm just one person, one data point...but it's worth sharing my experiences. I think the Born to Run notion that man is equipped to run barefoot is right on. Do I still run in running shoes?...yup...all the time?...nope. I'm using barefoot running as a great training supplement because it's smart and it's enjoyable! Running barefoot through the grass, trails, and even streets has been a lot of fun. Perhaps someday, I'll convert to 100%...but for now I'm happy to have it as part of my running repertoire. Try it for a few weeks and see what you think. Happy running!