The “barefoot” running shoe craze has somewhat died down over the past few years, but there are still people who will be looking at buying their first pair of barefoot running shoes this year and in the years to come. For the purpose of this article, “barefoot” running shoes will be defined as the well known “Five Finger” running shoes, as well as other zero drops shoes designed to create a more natural running style and foot strike.
I spent years experimenting with barefoot running shoes. I bought my first pair of Vibram Five Fingers in 2014 and since then I have owned a number of Vibram Five Finger running shoes and Altra running shoes. Vibram shoes are the “toe shoes” that have become infamous. Altra shoes are zero drop shoes that look more “normal”. Altra shoes have a wide toe box that give your forefoot space to move the way it is supposed to while running.
At the time of buying my first pair of Vibram Five Finger shoes, I was fed up of dealing with injuries. I was looking for a way out and like many people, I turned to “barefoot” running shoes for an answer. The misconception most people have with these shoes, which is the same one I had, is that simply purchasing a pair of barefoot trainers will unequivocally solve any running related problem I might have. I believed that running in Vibram Five Fingers, would fix my improper running form and get rid of my injuries. This could not be further from the truth.
“Barefoot” shoes and your running form
Simply switching from your normal trainers to barefoot shoes does next to nothing to fix improper running form. What it does do is that it makes it easier to execute proper running form, IF you already know how to do so. What I mean by this is that it will be easier to learn and only later run with a natural and correct running form if you are wearing barefoot shoes or shoes with a zero drop. Now you might be wondering, how do I learn proper running form? Well, I could write a book about this topic, but lucky for me I do not have to because other people have already done that. I would strongly suggest picking up a copy of ‘The Cool Impossible’, by Eric Orton. In the book the author shares the best training tips and drills so that you can learn correct running form as easy and efficiently as possible. For starters, here is a good video I found of Orton online, teaching running form.
I just bought a pair of “barefoot” running shoes. What now?
I know you are excited to put your new shoes on and go for your usual 8 mile run, but WAIT. There is no point in running in barefoot shoes if you are not going to bother learning correct running form. The only thing that will happen, is that you will run in your usual terrible running form, but you will do so wearing a shiny new pair of shoes. The problem is that your new shoes offer a lot less protection and cushioning than your last pair of trainers and simply switching to them, without learning the proper running technique will most likely lead to injury. Ironically, the shoes that are supposed to prevent or cure your running injuries could also cause them.
What I suggest is that before using your “barefoot” running shoes, you learn the correct running form. You can learn proper running technique without even using barefoot shoes. Actually, I recommend learning running form while running completely barefoot. This will give you a real feel for how your foot strikes the ground and what your body does after. When you are learning proper running form, do so on a soft surface. This is incredibly important. A grass track or a grass field is ideal. I can not stress this enough. Do not run barefoot or change your running style on a hard surface, such as the road tarmac for example. This will just place unnecessary pressure on your legs and make your risk of injury so much higher. You also want to keep your running mileage very low. Eric Orton recommends in the book, The Cool Impossible, that you start out with 5 minutes of running a few times a week and increase that by 5 minutes every week. That may sound like a joke to you, but it will help prevent injuries while ensuring that you learn the correct running style. Also, your sessions will take a lot longer than 5 minutes to complete. There are warm up exercises and drills which you will need to do before and after your run. In total, I would say that a 5 minute running session while learning the correct running form takes more like 25 minutes to complete.
I found it easy to understand what correct running form should look like, but far more difficult to execute. It is not hard to study proper running technique. In ‘The Cool Impossible’, Orton lays it out beautifully. He also admits, that just learning what it should look like is only the tip of the iceberg. You have to take your new found knowledge on running form and work on it on the running track. The biggest struggle is taking it from a conscious to an unconscious level. What I mean by this is that you want to get to a point where you do not even think about it while running. This will take time. Understand that you have spent a lifetime running with improper running form and it is not going to fix itself in a few days.
Learning a new running style will force certain foot and leg muscles to work that have been inactive for a long time. That is why I have to again emphasize that you do not attempt to change your running form while you are doing a high mileage of training. If you have a race coming up that you are working towards, then do not even think about it! Learn the correct running technique when you have the time to do so. The correct time is when you do not care about your fitness and you do not mind only running for 5 minutes a day, a few times a week and only increasing that by 5 minutes every week.
Should I buy Vibram Five Fingers or any ZERO DROP shoes?
The choice is yours. They all serve a similar purpose, however I prefer Altra zero drop shoes because they offer more protection than Vibram Fiver Fingers. If you are confused by all this jargon, let me explain what Zero Drop shoes are:
Zero-drop running shoes are running shoes that have minimal cushioning and leave the feet laying directly flat on a level surface of the shoe.
Another benefit of buying a pair of Altra running shoes is that they look normal. You will not get any funny looks, the way you most certainly will if you buy a pair of Vibram Five Fingers “toe shoes”. I once showed up with Five Finger shoes at a local cross country race and was almost laughed off the starting line! I did not care and simply laughed along at the fact that I was wearing the most unconventional trainers to hit the market in the past 100 years, but I can understand that not everyone will take well to that level of social disapproval.
I am also still not convinced that a shoe with as little cushioning as the Vibram Five Fingers should be used to run on the road with. I know, you read ‘Born to Run’ and you disagree with me. I do think that humans are born to run, but I do not think that we are born to run on the road. The road tarmac is an incredibly hard running surface and places a lot of pressure on your foot and leg muscles. I find Altra shoes to be far more practical in that sense than Vibram Five Fingers. It would be easy for me to suggest that you get Vibram shoes and simply do not run on the road, but that is not realistic. Unfortunately, we do not all live in the Kenyan Rift Valley and have access to hundreds of kilometers of jeep track to run on.
Altra make some incredibly good looking running shoes. It used to be that their shoes look bulky. I own an older version of the Lone Peak trail running shoe from Altra and I used to always have running mates remark that my shoes look “odd”. These days, Altra shoes look great. They even make work shoes now which means that you can walk around in shoes at work that are zero drop. It is almost non-sensical that you wear the best running shoes on the market that encourage proper running technique, but for 95% of your day you are walking around in shoes that do the exact opposite.
My final thoughts on barefoot running shoes
To summarize, I do recommend getting a pair of “barefoot” running shoes (Altra running shoes to be more precise). Also, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Eric Orton’s book, ‘The Cool Impossible’. It is a great read and will help you learn the correct running technique without getting injured.