The barefoot training fad has hit the strength world and manifested itself in minimalist running shoes. What's the truth behind the hype? Is harking back to our primitive roots by running (almost) barefoot an effective way to enhance performance?
The Problem With Modern Shoes
Modern shoes protect our feet from the environment. However, many shoes aren’t designed to conform to the foot’s anatomy. Style often takes precedence. "Practically all shoes worn daily by men and women in our Western civilization have little relation to the shape of the human foot," says Simon Wikler, one of the original barefoot shoe advocates and the author of Take Off Your Shoes and Walk (1961). Martin Rooney, author of the Training for Warriors blog and COO of Parisi Speed School, says, "Shoes are mainly developed and bought for fashion. Anyone telling you anything else is selling you something."
Wikler and Rooney are not alone in their opinion. National Institutes of Health researchers in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise concluded: "It might be more appropriate to classify athletic footwear as 'safety hazards' rather than 'protective devices.’”
Why Wear Minimalist Shoes?
Although regular training shoes have their problems, wearing shoes does protect your feet against injury. Roads and tracks are littered with hazardous objects, which makes barefoot running inadvisable. Minimalist running shoes offer flexibility and challenge foot and ankle stabilization, thus creating a simulation of running barefoot while protecting your feet from the environment.
Minimalist shoes offer a host of other benefits, including a better sense of proprioception—the ability to know where your body is in space—which can improve balance and reduce injury. More cushioned shoes encourage a heel strike, whereas minimalists shoes, which are less cushioned, foster a completely different landing pattern, with the forefoot striking the ground first. As it turns out, this is much less stressful on the body.
To summarize research done by Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, when the forefoot strikes first, the impact force gets transformed into rotational energy. Think about it like dropping a rock in a pond. If the rock is dropped straight down—a heel strike—it thuds and makes a big splash (more stress on the body). But if the rock is skipped across the pond—a mid-forefoot strike—it loses force over time instead of all at once, which is far less stressful.
What Shoe Is Best For You?
With so many types of shoes out there, which one should you pick? We suggest sticking with leading brands in the field. Those looking to go "all the way" by investing in toe shoes should check out Vibram FiveFingers ($85 - $120) or adidas adiPure Trainers ($90).
The adiPure Trainer is branded as a "gym shoe," and it has a thicker, more stable sole compared to the FiveFingers, making it more cushioned on harder surfaces. The FiveFingers are more minimal with a more flexible sole, giving a truly barefoot running feel.
To those looking for a minimalist running shoe, we suggest Merrell Trail Glove ($110), Merrell Train Sonic Glove ($125), and New Balance Minimus Trail ($100). These shoes offer a lower heel and wider toe box than most shoes, making them ideal minimalist running shoes.
Some track flats and trail shoes, such as the INOV8, have a smaller heel and less cushioning than normal tennis shoes, which make them worthy of consideration. However, note that most track shoes have narrow toe boxes, which restrict the movement of the toes.
Using Your Minimalist Shoes
Regardless of what shoe you purchase, you have to ease into wearing this new footwear. Switching over too rapidly to a minimalist running shoe can cause problems. (Learn why you should proceed with caution.)
Before you start running in your new minimalist shoes, perform a few basic exercises first. A Dynamic Warm-Up is a good starting point. Try Leg Swings, jogging, skipping, High Knees, A-Skips, Cariocas and any other lower intensity movements. Gradually progress into plyometrics, sprints and agility work, which require more energy and are higher impact.
Over time, the muscles in your feet and ankles will strengthen and you can start running in your minimalist shoes. You will notice increased coordination, balance and stronger feet and ankles—all important factors in sports performance.
Source: EliteFTS The Importance of Barefoot Training
Anthony Mychal is a writer, athlete consultant, teacher and coach. He has a B.S. in health and physical activity and an M.S. in health and physical education; and he studied under James Smith and Buddy Morris at the University of Pittsburgh. In his free time, he publishes a blog with his musings on athletic preparation at anthonymychal.com.