Even in a climate prone to snow it’s hard to ignore all the hype around minimalist footwear. The question begs to be answered: should you dare to run bare?
Where have all the swooshes gone?
A growing number of runners have kicked off their shoes to run barefoot or while wearing what appear to be gloves for the feet. (These last enthusiasts perhaps realize that pampered urban feet need protection and that even the few millimetres of material offered by minimalist shoes can make a big difference while still replicating the barefoot experience.)
Unlike typical running shoes with their padded heels, true minimalist shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers and Vivobarefoot (starting from $90 at MEC, Gord’s Running Store, Riva’s Eco Store) have little or no heel height. Advocates say the resulting stride, in which the foot strikes the ground not on the heel but on the forefoot, is closer to our natural gait and reduces the risk of injury, increases running efficiency and strengthens the foot. (Major shoe companies like Nike, Saucony and New Balance have also launched pared-down shoes.)
Of course, this new trend is in fact very old. Adam and Eve ran barefoot in the Garden of Eden, but in more recent history Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon in 1960 and 1964 while running barefoot, and in the mid-1980s Zola Budd competed barefoot for South Africa and the U.K.
The current resurgence is in no small part due to Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. McDougall describes his experiences among the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. The Tarahumara run hundreds of miles at a time over mountainous terrain, while wearing thin sandals fashioned from old tires. Inspired by the tribe members’ amazing feats and relatively injury-free record, McDougall adopts their technique and ultimately rejects the tricked-out running shoe with its air-injected foam, chunky heel, cushiony sole, gel pods and other “innovations.”
After suffering from back pain and hip spasms for six months due to over-exerting herself running and doing yoga, Melanie Jones (a Calgarian now living in New York) switched to a pair of Vivobarefoot Evos last spring. “What I really like about my shoes is that I can feel the ground. I figured out that my feet are sense organs and they’re trying to get feedback from the earth. They’re telling me to be gentle.”
It’s important to recognize that minimalist shoes make the midfoot stride easier to learn and that runners need to adapt their form to complement the shoe, says Gord Hobbins, owner of Gord’s Running Store. The transition must also be gradual to reduce the risk of developing such injuries as calf strain, Achilles tendonitis and stress fractures.
Meanwhile, others question the whole trend. Benno Nigg, founder of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Calgary, calls the barefoot-is-better chatter “hype” and “dogma.” There’s no conclusive evidence, he says, that heel-landing is bad for you, a lighter shoe is advantageous or barefoot runners are less at risk of developing injuries.
“If you like to run barefoot, do it, that’s okay. If you like to run in shoes, do it, that’s okay,” is Nigg’s assessment. “Comfort is the best indicator of good function.”
In other words, if it feels good do it. Now that’s a message everybody can run with.