The Tarahumara are a tribe based in the heart of the “copper canyons”, Mexico. They are one of the most isolated tribes on earth, and shun any sort of involvement with the modern world. They are one of the most reclusive peoples on earth, yet have started a craze that has spread like wildfire through the veins of the modern world they hide from so much.
A Tarahumara can run distances up to 50 miles in a single day, putting your 5K before work to shame eh? But to rub it in a little more, they swap your training program for relaxing in the sun, swap your gatorades for beer, and your power playlist on your iPod for the ever present hum of nature. In-fact, they even swap your new nikes for, well, nothing actually. These guys run, but they run barefoot.
Since the 2009 book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, the popularity of barefoot running, or “minimalism running”, has exploded into a £1.7 Billion worldwide industry. Companies such as Nike and Vibram have of course fuelled that meteoric rise and produced their own minimalist running shoes, much like rubber gloves for your toes. The rise may also have accelerated with the -argument that modern advances in running shoe technology are not only not good for us, but they have in-fact increased running related injuries with such shoes. That being said, 56% of all runners succumb to musculoskeletal injuries such as strained calf muscles, shin splints, and tendonitis. Whereas that number is almost non-existent within countries where the running is typically done barefoot, an interesting fact indeed.
The argument is that we as humans we’re designed to to be able to run, and we did that perfectly well without any of the supportive, spongy, and expensive running shoes we feel we “need” today before we can even think of stepping outside for a jog. Research has shown that many of todays shoes force us to hit the ground with our heel first, which can put strain on both the knees and ankles. As opposed to when running barefoot, it changes your gait to have a forefoot strike, which is a more natural movement for the body, but can take some getting used to after thousands of miles in trainers you didn't really know what they were doing.
The less support and sponge a shoe has in it, the harder the ankle and foot have to work to support the weight of the body and keep balance. So by running barefoot, or at least trying it, you are working the ankle and foot harder than normal, and building strength through the calves with every stride. Minimalism running may not be the right decision for everyone, but it can benefit almost all runners through strengthening their lower legs, ankles, and calves.
Many of the great Ethiopian and Kenyan distance runners grew up running without any shoes, but then make the switch to running with modernised marathon shoes. Although the reverse switch from trainers to barefoot running may not be quite as simple. Although starting to run minimalism has been shown to reduce injuries in some individuals, the switch can lead to the development of other injuries due to your body having to adapt to different stresses places on the body. With changes to barefoot running, and foot strike, runners may become more susceptible to Achilles injuries and calve strains.
The main problem with giving a definitive answer to whether or not barefoot running is the way forward, is that no person is the same, and no running style is the same. As said above, runners tend to hit the ground with their heel first whilst wearing modernised running shoes, but thats the thing, they “tend”. An individual may have a forefoot gait whilst wearing trainers, and then change to a heel strike when running barefoot, and completely go against the research! If you've been having trouble with injuries through running and want to try a different angle on things give it a go, you could be pleasantly surprised. Even if your perfectly happy with how your running at the moment, barefoot running could elevate you to new heights, so don't count it out just yet.
We shouldn't really finish this post without mentioning the designer Robert Fliri. In 1999 he took out a patent for a “five-finger” shoe that fitted almost like a glove. He was a full 10 years ahead of the book “Born to Run” we spoke about earlier, and 6 years ahead of Vibram who made their first minimal running shoe with the same concept in 2005. We need think more like this guy, because he was ahead of the game.
The Shake It® Team