No, your vision isn’t going out the window and no you didn’t see an illusion that one day when you witnessed a runner using those “cute little toe shoes.” Many of our clients have been asking what the reason is for wearing minimalist, or barefoot shoes. There is actually a ton of science behind barefoot running and these types of shoes are dramatically changing the fitness world — one stride at a time.
Although the barefoot running craze seems to be the latest trend in training and fitness fashion, it has been around for millions of years — longer than shoes ever have. The theory behind barefoot shoes is that humans were built to run with the equipment we have (our own feet and not from a manmade product) by landing on the balls of their feet then using their calf muscles to absorb the force of impact. What running shoes have caused people to do is actually change their naturally occurring stride by heel-striking which sends the force of impact directly into the joints of the foot and up the leg (this is bad). This is why most running shoes now have a massive amount of absorptive material in the heel of the shoe (we are trying to compensate for something that was perfect in the first place). Seventy-five per cent of North Americans have a heel-strike type of stride because they grew up wearing running shoes that had a large amount of cushioning in the heel.
Heel striking versus landing on your mid sole or front foot greatly increases the amount of chronic injuries in runners (Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, etc). The average runner who heel strikes will experience a force of one and a half to three times their body weight when landing and this happens about 1,000 times per mile while barefoot runners have almost no jarring force running up their legs. Evidence of this is found in Haiti where shoed runners and barefoot runners coexist. The runners who wear shoes have substantially more joint and connective tissues injuries than the barefoot runners do.
Another pro for barefoot shoes is that they increase the proprioception in your foot and ankle resulting in less ankle sprains. The more your body has to use joint proprioceptors the better your balance. With a controlling running shoe your body doesn’t have to work at all to keep your ankle and foot stable but barefoot shoes force those tendons and ligaments to work to remain in balance.
Saying this, you can’t just throw on a pair of barefoot shoes and go run a half marathon. Running in barefoot shoes requires a completely different stride than most of us are used to. A barefoot stride requires a large use of the calf muscles as they are required to eccentrically contract to control the force of impact as well as concentrically contract to push off the ground again. Many researchers suggest building up tolerance for minimalist shoes slowly starting with just wearing them while walking for the first week. The next week running in small amounts (1-2 kms) every other day is prescribed. Once the first two weeks are completed increase your distance by no more than 10% a week providing you are injury free. This will retrain your muscles but also retrain your brain to going into a more natural stride. Again, don’t hop into the shoes and go for a run, it hurts, trust me. Work into them and you’ll see the benefits.
And even if you don’t like to run, they are really fun to wear just to see the looks on people’s faces as your stroll past them in “those cute little toe shoes.”
Jack Wheeler is a personal trainer and owner of 360 Fitness in Red Deer. He can be reached at 403-347-1707 or check out www.360fitness.ca for more information.