Saturday, September 25, 2010

Barefoot Running...or Not

Earlier today, I was talking to a friend who was having trouble deciding which shoes to wear for a race (incidentally, the same one who asked me about racing flats), and the conversation turned to minimalist shoes (as it often does with her). My friend is one of the lucky few with nearly perfect biomechanics, who can get away with next to no cushioning or stability features built into her shoes. Well, she recently purchased a pair of Nike Jana Star Waffle spikeless flats, which she claimed were giving her Achilles tendinitis. There are a million different possible causes for Achilles tendinitis, which I won't list here since a simple Google search can uncover them if you're interested, but the interesting part about my friend's case is she claims that wearing "normal" shoes has caused this problem before, and wearing Vibram FiveFingers clears it up. Normally I'd think of going the opposite way, from a shoe with a heel to a low heeled shoe, causing Achilles problems, since high heeled shoes can cause Achilles shortening and calf muscle tightness over time. I'm sure there are other forces at work, but I'm not about to try to guess on my blog.

Anyway, I somehow ended up on the Vibram website, and I noticed there are a bunch of new models of FiveFingers that have been released. What was even more interesting is that they're slowly morphing...into shoes. The new Trek Sport advertises a "4mm EVA midsole for plating protection a lightly cleated 4mm Vibram performance rubber outsole." The Bikila touts "a Dri-Lex® covered 3mm polyurethane insole (thickest under the ball) and a 4mm anatomical pod outsole design that offers more plating protection, and distributes forefoot impact." Additionally, the Bikila supposedly has a running shoe heel cup, and the sole of the Bikila is beginning to resemble that of a running shoe, quite a far cry from the original classic. Further searching yielded news of a release of a Bikila with laces and a new model known as the Komodo Sport. The Komodo has a sole that looks even more traditional running shoe-like than the Bikila, a strap that appears to pull on a heavier overlay of fabric that *may* provide some support, and a weird piece of rubber across the arch that might be used for, dare I say it, arch support. Of course I could be wrong and that's not really the purpose of those features, but it's still pretty clear that between the sole and overlays on the upper, the VFFs are becoming less minimalist and are moving more towards real shoes. Interesting, considering that the entire reason people buy these shoes is to go as minimal as possible while still protecting their feet from the road or trail. It also confirms another suspicion of mine (and of many other people): minimal shoes aren't for everyone, and we've been shod long enough to introduce bad biomechanics into the gene pool, biomechanics that need to be corrected with cushioning and stability features. But many people who don't have perfect biomechanics still want to jump on the Born to Run bandwagon, lured by stories of people making miraculous recoveries from career-ending injuries (I'd be curious to know how many of those people ultimately end up trading one injury for another versus how many were previously wearing too much shoe). However, by creating less minimal shoes and marketing them as barefoot, companies can cater to this crowd. For example, the Nike Free (which has actually been out for quite a while) and Saucony Kinvara are well-cushioned shoes that are marketed as barefoot shoes. Personally, I don't believe either is appropriate as a high mileage trainer for the majority of people, but the biomechanically gifted might do fine in them, since both are just performance trainers with clever marketing (full disclosure: I've worn the Free 5.0 for several hundred miles, 3.0 for a few runs but mostly walking around, and Kinvara for only a single 8 mile test run).

I believe that eventually the barefoot fad will die out and people realize that most of them need some support and cushioning. For the sake of podiatrists, physical therapists, and running store workers, I hope this happens soon, since I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to hear "I believe Born to Run more than you" (though I suppose it's giving podiatrists and PTs some business). In the meantime, I predict that companies will put more and more traditional running shoe features into their "barefoot" shoes, until we ultimately end up with this:
My apologies to Brooks.

As for me, I think I'll just stick to neutral cushioned trainers for training and un-posted flats for racing. It's worked for over 11 years...why mess with it now?

Further reading:
Harvard's Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear
Probably the most referenced barefoot website on the internet.
Barefoot Running: An Open Letter from Brooks CEO Jim Weber 
I realize Brooks is a shoe company, but this is actually good, fairly unbiased reading. There is a longer discussion elsewhere on the website.
Brooks Running: Barefoot Running: The Experts
Some good stuff here. Don't miss Mark Plaatjes's take.


  1. Couldn't agree more with you !
    I'm just back from a road race, and can barely walk.
    If I tried to run barefoot now, I'd probably collapse in few steps.

    All this minimalist craze makes me seriously laugh, and podiatrists even more; let 100lbs 4'/mile runners wear 4oz flat shoes, and get yourself a decent pair of cushioned/supported running shoes that suit your needs instead of trying to force your body to IN-natural running !

  2. Weight is a part of it, though the biggest part is structural biomechanics! Glad you've found shoes that work for you, and hope your race went well!

  3. Great article! Thank you so much for sharing this. Keep it up!


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