running barefoot and Vibram “Barefoot” shoes review

In continuation of my post about running, I would like to add my thoughts on running barefoot, which is an increasingly popular trend now. I definitely support the movement, especially if you run bare, why not run barefoot as well?

In my childhood, I was encouraged to walk barefoot by family during summers; they didn’t put much explanation to it, just said it was healthy. I didn’t really practice it seriously, and got interested in the idea again after I broke my foot almost 3 years ago. I quickly came to a webpage of a group from Harvard University that had been doing extensive studies on running. One of the conclusions of their work published in the most respected scientific journal Nature was that barefoot running style may actually “protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners”.  I would suggest you to go to the website of the Harvard Uni group for more details and videos explaining the benefits of barefoot running, and if that doesn’t convince you, there is a more graphic and visually pleasing website of a minimalist shoes producer Vibram, which is, I must add, also naturist-friendly 😉 The take-home message is that while running barefoot, you use all those muscles and tendons that are otherwise left untrained if you only walk and run in traditional shoes, AND the pattern of the foot strike changes from heel-strike to shock-absorbing and collision-reducing fore-foot strike. In other words, you make your feet and calves stronger and learn how to step more cautiously (without actually thinking about it).

When I did my search now before writing this post, I found several articles claiming the opposite, for example that ‘Doctors see uptick in foot injuries from barefoot running shoes‘ (also see this one). However, none of those articles has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and their claims that the new industry of the so-called minimalist shoes is nothing more but fashion do not have much base in my opinion, as the industry producing [currently] traditional running shoes is much bigger and has much higher capacities for advertisement. They acknowledge, however, that those injuries may be related to too sudden a transition from running in thick-sole to shoes to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.

That’s where I totally agree with these articles: before running your first marathon barefoot, get some experience by first walking barefoot and only then running, slowly increasing the speed. I think the ultimate goal should be being able to run totally barefoot (if not totally bare ;-)), but you could use minimalist shoes as intermediate stage. That was why I wore them for my first trail race.

While I am now totally comfortable with hiking barefoot, I am not sure I could really run fast on a rough terrain like a forest trail with pebbles. That’s why I opted to stay in my Vibram Sprint shoes for the race, and I felt it gave advantage over runners in regular shoes.

First of all, such minimalist shoes are much lighter, and you do feel it! Every step you take just feels lighter. Second, having flexibility in your feet and toes being able to move, even though slightly, helps with the grip, which is especially helpful on an uneven terrain. Third, this flexibility allows you to use only fore-feet, which I found very helpful when running uphill.

There are several companies and numerous models of such minimalist shoes. I used to have Vibram FiveFingers Classic, probably the most minimalistic of all minimalist shoes.

I really liked them and they served fine for jogging and travel, but after I lost them in a trip, I decided to try another model and went for Vibram FiveFingers Sprint. They turned out to be much more flexible, and they have three velcro straps that allow very fine adjustment, so they fit the feet just perfectly.

In any case, I would strongly recommend to try those first, even if you find better deals online.

There are many other models that look more elaborate, but I think that makes them less minimalist, which defeats their purpose. In my last hike, I kept my Vibram shoes on for the first couple of hours, and after I took them off I actually felt a relief – compared to walking even in these light and flexible shoes, walking barefoot feels even lighter, not to mention that you feet don’t get sweaty. That’s why I consider minimalist shoes just an intermediate stage. Of course, all of this implies walking at warm temperatures. Also, I would rather wear such shoes in the city than walk totally barefoot; there’s just too much spit, chewing gums, and occasional dog poo or even broken glass (at least in New York City).

So, once you get used to walk barefoot or in minimalist shoes, learn about differences in running barefoot and shod. Maybe you will be able to break old habits and will re-learn how to run naturally, but I found it helpful to get some guidance from my friend Pétur who is an instructor of MovNat system. One of the techniques is basically seeing running as continuous fall forward with lifting your feet to prevent the actual fall; this technique is supposed to save a lot of energy. Perhaps following this technique was what helped me to run 7k trail race pretty fast without much previous training. Another reason could be that I got some natural ‘doping’ for breakfast: I ate some red beets, because I read they boosted stamina :p

running nude: the most human form of exercise

I have written many times that I like running naked, but after I came in third in my first ever naked race, it is a good time to tell why I think running naked is not only fun, but actually is the most natural activity for a human being. We just need to let the International Olympic Committee know. Actually, the Ancient Olympic committee must have known it.

Current evidence suggests that long-distance running was crucial in human evolution. Did you know that humans are the best long-distance runners among all animals? We can outrun even a horse! And one of the keys in our success as long distance runners has been our nakedness. Here are the links to a scientific peer-reviewed article on endurance running and the evolution of Homo [a genus to which our species, Homo sapiens, as well our ancestor and cousin species belong], as well as a short summary in the same journal, Nature, and another one from BBC.

Selection towards endurance running apparently shaped our body from bones to skin. It made us essentially two-legged and our legs longer than in any other ape. Not only skeleton changed, so did musculature, thanks to which we have prominent buttocks: we barely use gluteus maximus muscle for walking, but it is very active during running. Finally, our bare skin, as opposed to fur or feathers in other famous runners among animals, such as cheetahs, horses or ostriches, is an adaptation to prevent our body from overheating during running, as it allows us to sweat effectively with the whole surface of our body. So even though we are poor sprinters compared to many other animals, in the long run – quite literally – we could beat any of them! This ability was and still is used for hunting animals by exhausting them, the so-called persistence hunting.

Thus, people running in clothes, even light ‘professional running’ clothes, is evolutionary nonsense, a totally backward idea so to say. Sometimes you get questions how it feels with ‘things’ swaying and flopping. I’ve never had any issues or discomfort with that, and, at least from a male perspective when you think of it seriously, it’s difficult to see it as a real problem (you may get some insight on this issue from a female prospective from a blogpost on Young Naturists America). In the Bouncing Buns race almost all men ran totally bare, and most women without bras, so I assume most of the participants felt fine running naked. I could imagine it might be an issue for men who always wear tight underwear and for women always wearing bras, if their scrotum and breast are not used to supporting themselves, but that actually doesn’t sound healthy. On the other hand, when I told a friend about me participating in the naked race, he suggested that additional “pendulum” might be actually advantageous if you synchronise the swing with the forward move 😀

I suggest you to test this hypothesis on your own. Go for a good long run, naked run, like a real human 😉