The Barefoot Revolution

“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.
- Leonardo da Vinci

We’re on record several times claiming that running is the simplest sport in the world; all you need is a pair of shoes.

However, a steadily growing contingent of runners is determined to prove that notion incorrect. Not the part about the simplicity - the part about needing shoes.

Barefoot running is nothing new, of course – it dates back many millennia before the waffle sole launched Nike into the stratosphere. Some anthropologists believe our prehistoric ancestors were tremendous runners, hunting animals by chasing them to the point of exhaustion. (It makes sense if you do the math: hominids were on Earth 6 million years ago, but mankind’s first known weapons are only 500,000 years old. Unless those cavemen were vegetarians, they must have had some means of catching and killing prey.)

Even in the modern era, barefoot runners have competed at world-class levels. Abebe Bikila won a gold medal and set a world record in the 1960 Olympic marathon. Zola Budd is notorious for her collision with Mary Decker at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but she also won back to back world cross-country championships in the 1980s. A handful of elite ultrarunners often run barefoot on mountain trails to complement their high mileage training routines.

Your may think that this is terrible for your feet – but the truth could be exactly the opposite. There’s currently a philosophical war among shoe manufacturers: on one side, the folks who think that foot asymmetries and irregularities should be corrected by various means of support and motion control. The other side believes that less is more: just allow the foot to work naturally, and the other irregularities don’t matter. Not only that, but overcorrecting the foot’s natural motion actually leads to higher injury rates.

Think of it this way: if you were engineering the perfect weight bearing structure, you’d create an arch. For perfect shock absorption, you’d allow that arch to flex slightly upon impact. For dynamic energy transfer, you’d surround it with several interlocking components that move in multiple directions. For durability, you’d make the building blocks out of the hardest material you can create.

Well, guess what you’ve just designed? The human foot!

From a biomechanical standpoint, there’s no reason why you need to wear running shoes – so why doesn’t everyone just run barefoot? The primary drawbacks are comfort and speed.

Running barefoot is certainly uncomfortable right off the bat; our feet aren’t used to the lack of artificial cushioning, and our skin needs time to build resiliency to irritants like gravel, sticks, and pointy rocks. In order to accommodate these, the runner is forced to slow down much more than he’s normally accustomed to.

Most of us aren’t patient enough to put up with it – but the drumbeat of barefoot runners is growing ever louder; so much, in fact, that the running industry has taken notice.

Vibram makes a brilliant product called Five Fingers, which is basically a glove for your foot with a thin rubber coating underneath: they allow you to run barefoot without worrying about injuring yourself on ground hazards. Other high-profile shoe companies, including Nike, ECCO, and Clark now have shoe models that allow the natural biomechanics of running barefoot.

One important caveat to all this: to become a barefoot runner, you have to progress extremely slowly to avoid injury. Donald has been experimenting with barefoot running recently; if you’re interested in finding out how to start, contact us.

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