Lately, the running community has been almost as polarized as the U.S. Congress over one simple yet revolutionary concept: barefoot running. It all started with the 2009 book Born to Run, in which Christopher McDougall presents compelling evidence to suggest that the key to successful, injury-free running lies not in the next high-tech running shoe, but in the human foot itself.
Needless to say, the book and the ensuing mania over barefoot running forced shoe suppliers to change their game or risk financial ruin. Vibram was the first company to create a “minimal shoe.” Other companies, including Nike, followed suit, and now there are dozens of different models to choose from.
At the same time, there are still plenty of old-school shoe people who think that all the talk about barefoot running is a bunch of mumbo jumbo. An employee of REI who wished to remain anonymous described barefoot running as “a fad” and predicted that minimal shoes “won’t be around in 10 years.” Despite these opinions, REI has a full selection of Vibram FiveFingers—contoured to the shape of the human foot, toes and all—including one specifically designed for hiking rugged terrain.
Adam Pritchard, an accessories buyer for Salt Lake Running Company, likes to think of his company as “the voice of reason” when it comes to barefoot running. “I honestly think that barefoot running or running in minimal shoes is a good tool, and basically the whole point of minimal running is to practice good running form,” Pritchard says.
Pritchard pointed out a common misconception that many people have about barefoot running. “About 60 percent of the population overpronates [turning the joints in the feet too far toward the center of the body] to some degree, and that’s the thing that shoes are correcting. Good running form is midfoot striking. Midfoot striking doesn’t stop you from overpronating, but it makes that aspect of your form less of an issue, i.e., it takes force off of your joints, and you start redistributing it to your muscles. That’s where all the logic and all the sensibility are coming in through the minimal-shoe movement.” Therefore, once a runner has learned this good form, it doesn’t matter whether he or she chooses to wear shoes or not.
Pritchard recommends that runners take a more moderate view. “People should be taking the practice of the good running form and applying it to the regular running shoes because you have more benefit and more longevity that way anyway,” he says.
Geologist Bradley Heller has a unique perspective on this topic. While rock climbing, Heller fell 35 feet and shattered his ankle. He was told by top orthopedists that he would never walk normally again. He refused to accept their diagnosis, went home, sawed off his own cast with a hacksaw and began healing himself. “I had a bunch of people talk to me about physical therapy, but it all seemed so silly,” he said. “They would say things like, ‘Use rubber bands and spell out the alphabet with your foot.’ I thought to myself, that’s not what a foot is for. It is for standing, then walking, then running. So that’s what I did, and I quickly discovered I could walk better and farther without shoes on, because they invariably altered the natural stride and reduced feel and proprioception (biofeedback) with the ground. I started going on long barefoot walks in nature and willing my ankle to heal, and it did. It still has a long ways to go, but it will be there when the time is right.”
“How can we improve on what we are born with?” Heller asks. “My belief is that we cannot. If we need to protect our feet, in terms of our natural stride and gait, moccasins can be improved on, and barefoot is better yet. If anyone tells you anything else, they are selling something.”