It has been fashionable, recently, to espouse the benefits of minimalist, i.e. barefoot distance running. Almost everywhere you look, there is a new article praising the shedding of cushion and support that you will typically find in the “modern day” running shoe. Nike has come out with the “Nike Free” & there is this thing called Vibram 5 Fingers that looks like a rubber toe socks.
There was this Harvard study that concluded we run differently without shoes than we run with shoes. Then, to top it off, there is a popular book by ultra-marathon runner Christopher McDougall, entitled Born to Run, that has further enhanced the perception – or the mythology – of barefoot running. It seems like a new article pops up every day praising this new barefoot phenomenon. Here, here, and here. It’s a hot topic, no doubt.
Here’s the funny thing. I’ve been running for 22 years. I’ve been a professional distance runner for the last 8 years. I’ve traveled the world as a competitive distance runner, racing in the World Championships twice. I’ve raced in Tokyo, Berlin, Netherlands, England, France, and even India. Not one time, not at a single competition, have I seen a professional athlete run barefoot. In fact, I’ve never seen a professional athlete do any percentage of serious training without that evil, injury-causing invention of a modern day running shoe.
You may have read articles citing distance running experts, sports physiologists, academic studies, etc. You may be tempted. You may be convinced you have found the solution to your nagging knee problem. You will say to yourself “I will start slow. I will be patient. I will … ” Your friends may run barefoot. You’ve seen that man running around the neighborhood with no shoes, and he seems happy as hell. You want to run like you did as a child, like Ted in that article I linked above, to find your true form, your inner child. You may think this is very exciting and soul-enriching.
But all I ask is to keep one thing in mind: 99.9% of all the professional runners wear those evil modern running shoes. The people who run for a living – who depend on it to pay their bills and feed their families – choose to wear running shoes. They wear them in training. They wear them in competition – every distance, every surface, the track, the road, the x-country course. Every place and every time. They wear shoes.
In rural parts of Africa, you may be tempted to argue, they don’t wear shoes – and they run great! True. But do you know why they don’t wear shoes? Because they can’t afford them. All the professional African distance runners here in the United States – running the roads each weekend – all over the country – wear shoes. And they wear shoes simply because shoes protect their feet. And their feet are valuable. They want to keep their feet happy. They are not searching for their inner-child or attempting to achieve their true form. They are trying to run healthy – and fast.
But aside from this, I have no study to offer. I have no conclusive, overwhelming evidence that will inevitably convince you to resist this primitive urge to run barefoot. All I can tell you is: the pros don’t wear Vibrams. And I can tell you the professional runner will do anything – (and sometimes, unfortunately, that means cheating) – to run just a small percentage faster. They will take blood out of their body, store it in a refrigerator, and then pump it back into their bloodstream to simply to gain a higher red blood cell count – only to run just a little bit faster. They will literally risk their lives to take time off their 10k. Do you not think that if running barefoot would help them, they wouldn’t be doing it?
You decide if all these pros are simply missing the barefoot phenomenon or whether they consider it unhelpful – even harmful to their health as a runner.
With that said, not all studies are pro-barefoot-minimalist-Vibram-free running. In a recent article by Matt Fitzgerald, a running enthusiast who has followed along some of the great distance runners in the sport, discusses a new trend of injuries resulting from running barefoot or in Vibrams.
He remarks: “The romantic vision of an Edenic primitive humanity in which everyone ran like Kenenisa Bekele is complete hokum. Endurance running was very likely only ever a specialization of the few, exactly as it is today.”
Complete hokum, says Matt. Hokum is a good word. I would have to agree. Not everyone is born to run. But most certainly – not everyone is born to run barefoot. Some people need more support on their feet than others. It doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t run or go for a jog or stay fit by running. It just means their body naturally overpronates more than usual – and a supportive running shoe will offer a bit of support to correct that overpronation. The modern running shoe, believe it or not, is a good thing. It allows those who are not naturally inclined to run the opportunity to run. The modern day running shoe is not the cause of injury. After being in the sport for over 2 decades, I can suggest that there are likely other reasons for so many knee, ankle, and foot injuries caused from running, and the reason isn’t necessarily delightful: Too much weight.
It has nothing to do with gait. It has nothing to do with those over-cushioned, over-supportive running shoes. It has more to do with the fact that most people are carrying too much weight. They also don’t start a running regime correctly. They start too fast. They run too much. Then their knees get sore, and they push through – until they get hurt. It’s a very common scenario. It’s a scenario that is not resolved by subtracting the one supportive element – the single piece of equipment – that protects your feet and legs from harm. If you get hurt from wearing a particular shoe, try a different shoe. There are lots of kinds of running shoes. Try different brands, different widths, different levels of cushioning and support. There are options. Go to your local running store and find your fit. It may take a few different trips – but I promise a good fit does exist.
At the end of the day minimalism doesn’t mean the absence of something. If you’re really into minimalism in sport and in general (as I am), I would recommend finding the shoe that fits your foot, then determine how much support and cushion you really need in order to run healthy and continue doing so for a long time to come. In other words, do what the pros do.
Written by Justin Young who runs for Strands/Mizuno