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For decades now, runners have been sold on the need for good running shoes — if you want to prevent injuries, it’s simple to invest in good pair of running shoes. Proper cushioning, and sometimes rigid motion control or stability features, where needed, and if you had injuries, you probably had the wrong shoes.
But recent studies have proven what people have known all along — that running barefoot strengthens your feet and is a more natural way to run. Running in cushioned, motion-controlled shoes is like having your neck in a cast for a month — when you take the cast off, your neck muscles will be weak. You also pound your feet much harder with running shoes, causing problems not only with feet but knees and other joints. We’re making our feet weak, and pounding them hard — it’s no wonder we have all kinds of injuries.
When you first start running barefoot, your feet will be weak, so take it very slowly at first. It takes weeks and months to build up the strength necessary for faster or longer running, but after a while, your feet get stronger than ever before.
Even more important than the strength of your feet is your connection to the earth. Simply put, shoes shelter us from the surfaces we run on, but that’s not always a good thing.
If you think barefoot running will make you faster, you’re probably going to be disappointed. It’s not about running faster — although it is possible. From what I can tell, I’m running faster than ever, though I’m also lighter than I’ve been since I was around 18 or 19. Running barefoot is about connecting with the ground, about feeling, about freedom and lightness, about fun. It’s not about speed.
It might seem weird to talk about “barefoot running equipment”, but it’s not a bad idea to use barefoot shoes.
Why use Fivefingers? They remove the cushioning and motion control of running shoes, allowing your feet to strengthen and feel the ground more, but still give your feet the protection you’ll probably want as you head out on roads of asphalt and glass, and trails strewn with pebbles and roots. It’s actually a good idea to start with barefoot shoes, as they make a great transition into barefoot running.
It’s worth noting that many traditional societies that run without cushioned shoes (such as the native Tarahumara tribes of Mexico, featured so prominently in Born to Run) often do use some kind of sandals or other protection against getting cut on the soles of your feet.
Do you need barefoot shoes like Fivefingers? My answer to you is NO! You can go outside right now and get started, with no shoes. It would be smart to start on surfaces you know are safe from glass, metal, and rocks, though, as you don’t want your barefoot experience to be a painful one.
Fivefingers allows you to learn the mechanics and form of barefoot running, build your strength, and transition into barefoot running, without the pain.
Putting the Fivefingers on: It takes some getting used to. It’s like putting on gloves — you have to put your toes in the five “fingers” of the shoes — but you don’t the control over your toes that you do with your fingers. 1) slide feet partway in, until toes start entering the Vibram “fingers”; 2) take a couple seconds to line the toes up with the proper “fingers”, slotting the spaces between the fingers with the spaces between your toes; 3) pull from the heel of the shoes so that your heel slips into the shoes and the toes slide into the fingers; 4) wiggle your toes until they feel right within the fingers, and strap on the Velcro strap.
Choosing the right model: From the research, I’ve done seems to be the best model for runners. The Velcro strap helps keep stuff out, so it’s good for trails, running or grass or dirt, or even sand.
Keeping them smelling decent: Many people have complained that Fivefingers can start to smell bad after a few weeks. throw them in the washer with a little laundry soap, and let them air dry (not in the dryer).
Cost: They’re usually in the $125 range, but shop around. Replacing running shoes with $125 barefoot shoes isn’t the minimalist way, perhaps –that would probably be to start completely barefoot, with smooth or soft surfaces and only going a little at a time until you build up the strength and tougher soles to go longer. And that’s a completely valid way to go. Vibrams give you a little protection, and it takes some getting used to when you first transition to barefoot. I recommend this method, but it’s not the only way. Btw, you can probably find Fivefingers for less than $100 if you look around, and it’s also worth noting that most quality running shoes are in the same price range.
Doing other workouts with them: You can do weight workouts and bodyweight workouts with the Fivefingers. They’re great, and unlike running shoes, they don’t make you lean forward when you do squats.
How to Get Started
In one word: slowly.
Many people make the mistake of doing too much, too quickly, and that’s a big mistake. It can lead to pain, injury, and discouragement. Remember, your feet, ankles and calves are weak from running or walking with shoes all the time. You will find a lot of soreness if you go too far or too fast. You need to build it up slowly, gently.
1. Try running barefoot or with barefoot shoes on a hard surface, just for a few minutes, slowly. Maybe at the end of a regular run, if you’re running regularly. If you’re not a regular runner, just do a short run for a few minutes, because your body won’t be used to running for any longer amount. Running on a hard surface is good for your first few times, because you will naturally run with better form — with shoes, you’re used to pounding on your heels and overextending your legs, but when you’re barefoot, you have no cushion, and running by extending and pounding your feet on your heels is going to hurt on a hard surface. Run lightly, landing quietly and softly on your forefeet or midfoot.
2. Slowly lengthen the time you run barefoot (or with barefoot shoes). Just a minute or two longer, a few times a week. Go slowly — don’t try to sprint or run hard. Continue to run lightly, working on not pounding. Try different surfaces — asphalt, concrete, grass, dirt. Let your body slowly adapt to this new running style, and your muscles slowly get stronger.
3. You can do shorter runs completely with barefoot shoes. Shorter runs might mean 15-30 minutes if you’re an experienced runner, or perhaps 10 minutes for a less experienced runner. For longer or harder runs, you might still wear shoes for now, because you’re not ready for long or hard runs barefoot. This phase can take several weeks.
4. You can stop using your running shoes. Especially if you have barefoot shoes and are used to running in them for longer runs. Your feet and legs should be stronger at this point. It might take a couple of months to get to this point.
5. Try running completely barefoot, on softer or smoother surfaces. A park with a smooth concrete surface, or grass or beaches, are good places to start running without the barefoot shoes. Your soles are probably soft and sensitive if you’ve been using shoes most of your life, so it takes some adjustment to all of a sudden feel varied and rough surfaces under your feet. Starting out on rougher asphalt or surfaces with lots of pebbles (or worse, glass or pieces of metal) is a bad idea.
Remember, at each stage, go slowly and take your time. There’s no need to rush it, and even if you’re feeling ambitious or you think you’re better than the rest of us, hold back. It’ll make the whole experience much, much more enjoyable.
The Barefoot Running Form
- Land on your forefeet or midfeet (balls of your feet) instead of your heels. Too much on your forefeet can make your calves sore. If you feel yourself landing on your heels, shorten your stride.
- Strides should be short — don’t extend your legs as far as you do with shoes. It should feel almost like you’re running in place.
- Keep upright and balanced. Keep your feet under your hips and shoulders.
- Stay light. You should feel like you’re light on your feet, not pounding at all. Barefoot runners tend to be a little more springy in their step.
- Run quietly. If you are making a lot of noise with your steps (as shoe-wearing runners do), you’re pounding too hard. Try to run softly, quietly, like an animal.