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The Barefoot-Running Revolution

Considering the latest running trend? Some experts weigh in on the benefits.

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“Barefoot training” and “minimalist” shoes are making waves in athletic communities across the country.  Yet these two training innovations are not one and the same.  Minimalist shoes such as Vibram FiveFingers and Nike Free are joining the shoe landscape, partially in response to the bare-footing movement.

“Great athletes have known forever that the key to balance and explosive movement is having as little between your foot and planet Earth as possible,” says author Christopher McDougall.  “Martial artists and gymnasts always go barefoot, and the best distance runners alive grew up covering massive miles with nothing on their feet.”

McDougall’s book Born to Run critically examines the historical and cultural links between our health, training longevity, and what we place on our feet.

These days we have a plethora of options when it comes to footwear; so what’s best, going barefoot or opting for one of the new minimalist products?  The answer, quite possibly, is both.

“Go barefoot first,” says McDougall.  “Once you’re comfortable with nothing on your feet, then think about adding protection as needed.”

The benefits of barefoot and minimalist shoes are in allowing your foot to move as it was designed to move—without the hindrance of an over-cushioned shoe.  Feeling the ground and adjusting to its changes allows athletes to heighten their form by moving more efficiently and with better body awareness.

“Once you learn to rely on your legs for shock absorption, you’re better able to maintain good form without a bulky shoe getting in the way,” McDougall says. “But it’s too much of a leap to say that minimalist shoes equals increased range of motion equals muscle development equals injury reduction. That’s giving too much credit to shoes and too little to technique.”

As bare-footing and minimalist advocates see it, technique is everything.  When seeking to walk, run, hike or move using healthy form, light and quick foot strikes are paramount.  Bare-footing and minimalist shoes encourage this kind of movement.

Bare-footing and minimalism seeks to strengthen your feet, ankles, calves and hamstrings while reducing impact on knees, hips, and lower-back.  By allowing the foot’s musculature to fully develop, athletes ramp up their balance, posture, and core strength as well.

Marc Digesti, USAW professional ski trainer and founder of PerformancEDU started using barefoot training and minimalist shoes two and a half years ago and hasn’t gone back since.

“It’s catching on, whenever an athlete of mine comes in, I have them take off their shoes,” Digesti says. 

For skiers, foot refinement is important for on-hill performance.  Taking control of the fall line requires aggressively flexing ankles, forcing shins forward and using quick-strike balance to carve turns.  A skier’s foot is constantly responding to changes in terrain and must be assertive in the boot.

“In a race boot you want to feel the ground and react well with increased proprioception,” says Digesti.  “Your foot placement, toe movement, and weight distribution all improves [when training in minimalist shoes].” 

Before entering the world of minimalist footwear or bare-footing, here are key strategies to employ.  Determine what activity the product will be used for.  Find a retailer to try on different models and ask questions about fitting and brand options.  Begin any training regimen slowly, building foot strength over time.

“I go barefoot on asphalt, and on trails I wear either racing flats, FiveFingers, or Barefoot Ted’s ‘Luna’ sandals,” says McDougall. “When it dawned on me that bare feet were the best way to learn a gentle stride, I cut back my mileage for a few weeks and focused on form.  Within a few weeks, I was right back up to my usual training load.”