"Barefoot" Training: Proceed With Caution

April 27, 2011

Shoes that simulate barefoot training [a.k.a. minimalist shoes] are the latest sensation to come out of the $17 billion sports shoe market. Since their introduction, an intense debate has erupted between those who support the use of minimalist shoes and those who warn against them. To make the decision easier for you, we’re going to take a look at both sides of the debate and let you know what we recommend.

First, let's trace the history of barefoot training to better understand the pros and cons of integrating it into your workout  program.

Historical research appears to be responsible for what many consider a resurgence in barefoot or minimalist shoe training. In his book Born To Run, author Christopher McDougall chronicles the adventures of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who are famous for 100-mile runs with nothing but a strip of rubber on their feet. As runners and other athletes began to experiment with the training methods of the Tarahumara, developers created a shoe that allows for supreme flexibility, but challenges foot/ankle stabilization while still protecting the feet from dangerous external factors.

Several variations of the minimalist shoe have since hit the market. Sports training brands Merrell and Nike both have designs that look much like a modern day shoe, but with a thin sole for maximum sensory output. Vibram FiveFingers' design is very similar, but their shoe comes with five separate slots for the toes, which they claim increase the foot's grip.

Regardless, many athletes remain unconvinced. In fact, some say barefoot training [more specifically, running] will almost certainly lead to injury.

Fair warning: most, if not all, of the concerns coming from the experts relate only to barefoot running. There hasn’t been much of a cry against weight training in minimalist shoes. Nonetheless, it’s important for athletes to take in as much information as possible before altering an important element of their training.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, medical director for the New York Road Runners, the group that organizes the New York City Marathon, said, "In 95 percent of the population or higher, running barefoot will land you in my office. A very small number of people are biomechanically perfect, so most need some sort of supportive or corrective footwear."

Imperfections include flat feet and overpronation. Most specialists treat these common running conditions with supportive or corrective footwear.

Some people in the business, while not wholeheartedly against minimalist shoes, nevertheless are not ready to discard increasingly sophisticated modern shoe offerings. Sean Murphy, an engineering manager for advanced products at New Balance, believes in the modern shoe’s ability to correct biomechanical abnormalities and minimize injury. Others who aren’t quite sold on minimalist shoes insist more research is needed.

"Barefoot" training enthusiasts span the country. From New York City to Cleveland to San Francisco, minimalist shoe manufacturers have found their greatest advocates among everyday athletes. McDougall used his research on the Tarahumara Indians to support the belief that man was not made to run in shoes. He also points to his personal experience of recovering from chronic foot pain after giving the thin-soled shoes a shot.

Other advocates have a more functional perspective, viewing shoes as a hindrance during training. Dr. Craig Richards, a researcher at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle in Australia [and a designer of minimalist shoes], says he could not find a single clinical study supporting the supposed benefits of cushioned or corrective shoes in preventing injury or performance. Both designers and barefoot enthusiasts agree that eliminating the heel support found in most shoes allows for better alignment during functional movements, like the Squat. Having the heels on the ground facilitates proper glute activation, making it less likely an athlete will incorrectly push off the front of his foot or excessively lean forward.

Vibram's product literature presents their rationale for taking the functional approach: "Like every other part of your body, your feet benefit from exercise. Whether you are cardio training or lifting weights, many exercises rely on flexible yet stable support from your feet and legs. In Vibram FiveFingers, your feet can move naturally and flex easily. Five individual toe slots let your toes separate gently, stabilizing your body and providing unrivaled balance and increased muscle stimulation to feet, ankles and lower legs."

They key point driven home by advocates of training in minimalist shoes is “increased muscle stimulation.” In a high intensity workout, it’s essential for athletes to stimulate as many muscles as possible. Minimalist advocates preach the same thing, but they apply it to the feet, as well.

Based on available research [or lack thereof], the jury is still out on minimalist shoes. If you do try them, proceed with caution. Make sure you ease into it to allow your body to adapt and avoid injury. If you go out and run several miles or jump right into explosive exercises on the first day, you will suffer the consequences.

Merrell.com provides a handy guide for those thinking about making the leap into minimalist training:

Regardless of what you think is best for your training, do not engage in any kind of heavy lifting and/or power training with no shoes on. You will be risking serious injury to your feet [think of smashing your toes with a weight] and tempting the fates when it comes to sanitation concerns.

If you decide to go the minimalist shoe route [or already have], let us know. Post your experience on our Facebook wall or tweet us your story.

Source:  NYTimes.com, Vibram.com
Photo:  barefootrunningshoes.org

Joe Baur
- Joe Baur is a certified personal trainer with a bachelor's degree in mass communication from Miami University [Oxford, OH]. He became certified with the National...
Joe Baur
- Joe Baur is a certified personal trainer with a bachelor's degree in mass communication from Miami University [Oxford, OH]. He became certified with the National...
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