Barefoot Running Debate and Going On a Forefoot Strike

Bill Waterson's Calvin and Suzie argue the merits of running barefoot vs. using a motion-control running shoe with heel lift. After doing some more research, I’ve come to a rather obvious conclusion: barefoot running is a cause for much debate in the running world.

Ridiculous fad?

The truth “they” don’t want you to know?

A good method to strengthen otherwise under-utilized muscles for otherwise shod runners?

Does the science back up the claims of the barefoot proponents/cushioned and motion control running shoe proponents?

Even within the barefoot running community, there is debate. Minimalist shoe or truly barefoot? Do you use a minimalist shoe as an intermediate step to barefoot running, or should you begin your transition right off the bat by beginning a new regimen barefoot, supplementing with a minimalist shoe as needed?

A lot of people on both sides of the various debates get pretty worked up about it. Not sure why, other than that’s just part of our modern, troll-friendly Internet culture. As for me, it all strikes me as kind of silly – the getting bent out of shape part, that is. Ultimately, all that really matters is what works for you. If you use standard running shoes and can accomplish your goals without too many problems or issues, then no problem, right?

Of course there are many people out there who feel that way. It’s just that those people tend not to weigh in on discussion forums, blog posts, etc.

But at the end of the day, that’s all I’m really interested in, as far as barefoot running goes: what works for me and what doesn’t.

Barefoot: It Works (For Me)

Initially, the primary argument for barefoot running/minimalist running shoes struck a chord with my intuition, the first time I came across it: whether you believe it was the design work of god(s) or Mother Nature and evolution – I fall into the latter camp, as you might have guessed – the human foot is built to work without shoes. The idea of running barefoot seemed absurd, at first, to be quite honest. But, this made a certain amount of sense.

Furthermore, science aside, there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence to support this, not the least of which is that we are born barefoot. Then there is the fact that except for the last couple thousand years, we as a species have been living many thousands of years (or just 5,000 if you’re of a Biblical Creationist bent). There are still aboriginal populations that get along just fine without shoes.

So why do I need poofy, heel-lifted and-cushioned, motion-controlled running shoes?

Still, in spite of my early interest in Vibram Fivefingers, I probably never would have actually tried running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe were it not for my experiences as an English teacher in Thailand. Then it became clear to me that shoes with a raised heel were wrecking my feet. I quit wearing them and teaching in them, and my foot aches and pains went away. I didn’t need to be a medical specialist or scientist to make the obvious conclusion: this is what worked for me.

Other people wear traditional dress shoes and don’t have problems. I did. Now that I’m experimenting with minimalist running shoes, I’m noticing that the problems I used to always have in the past when I began a running regimen – sore knees and shin splints – haven’t occurred so far.

Oh, there are other aches and pains; one can’t expect to begin a running program when overweight and out of shape without some discomfort. No pain, no gain; if it were that easy, everyone would do it. Insert your favorite athletic training cliché here. But so far it’s mostly just the been-sitting-on-my-ass-now-I’m-not kind of soreness. The good kind of pain, that actually feels kinda good, in a sensual kind of way.

Show me an athlete, and I’ll show you a closet masochist.

Anyway, this is what is working for me. It may not work for someone else. It may not work for you. Some people like coffee. Others don’t like the way it makes them jittery, and stick with tea. You don’t see coffee and tea drinkers arguing with and trolling each other online. You don’t see coffee company spokesman going off about that silly tea-drinking hipster fad.

Or maybe they do, and I just haven’t been paying attention. But assuming the former, I’m not sure why running should be any different. But then, again, ultimately I don’t really care; I’m finding what works for me.

Up On My Toes: Experimenting with a Forefoot Strike

Speaking of which, last night I tried experimenting with a forefoot strike. I decided to repeat the first week of the noob program from Runner’s World, at least for another day, while I tried this. After two days of rest I still had a mild but nagging pain in my left foot, in my arch on the anterior side. I didn’t think much of it – as noted above, pains are to be expected. But while researching more about barefoot running, minimalist shoes and form this past weekend, I became curious to try jogging with a forefoot strike.

A more or less midfoot or not-quite-heel strike seemed to be working for me; would a forefoot work as good? Better? Less? It certainly feels unnatural, but I was curious.

So last night I did 10 intervals – 1 minute jogging, 2 minutes walking. Notably, I had almost no pain in my left foot. An occasional twinge, usually during the walking interval, but that was it. And no knee pain or shin pain, either. Even my tibialis anterior didn’t check in with any complaints or otherwise crap out by the last interval, either, which really surprised me.

Huzzah.

Today, the mild pain in the arch of my left foot is still there, but not any worse. I’ll need to be careful of this going forward, but it seems like the forefoot strike didn’t aggravate it. Of course my ankles and Achilles are plenty sore (the good kind of pain), but then that’s apparently part and parcel with learning a forefoot strike and beginning a barefoot/minimalist shoe running program. Surprisingly my calves themselves aren’t sore; I guess the last year of cycling and walking around Thailand and Viet Nam without shoes did some good.

Or maybe I just haven’t run long enough yet using a forefoot strike. We’ll see.

Take That, Hipsters: Escalating the Footwear War

Jeff Chappell's hairy legs and hobbit feet in his homemade huaraches made from an Invisible Shoe kit.I finally got a hole punch and made my minimalist sandals from the kit I ordered from Invisible Shoe. The 4mm Vibram is nice and grippy; even the relatively smooth side upon which the foot rests grips the sole of the foot pretty well. It’s surface actually consists of tiny little grooves to help. These grooves will likely be funk magnets down the road, but it’s nothing a scrubbing with a brush and some antibacterial soap wouldn’t solve (I used to have to do this with my faithful Tevas a couple times a year).

Getting the lacing dialed in so that it’s perfectly comfortable is going to take a bit of experimenting, but so far, I dig these sandals. These provide much more sensitivity than my Vibram Fivefinger KSO Treks, as this Fivefinger model sports a thin EVA midsole. These sandals are comparable in terms of sensitivity to the earlier models of Vibram Fivefingers – the KSO, the Sprint and the Classic – that only have 3.5mm of Vibram rubber and no midsole of any kind.

And unlike the Vibram Fivefingers, these sandals are not hot boxes; they are obviously much cooler in hot weather. The black Vibram sole does get warm, though, when walking in the sun, but nothing like a pair of Fivefingers.

Eventually I’ll be trying these while running, but for now it’s cool enough at night for the Fivefingers. By July, when even temperatures in the wee hours of the morning can be in the high 70s (Fahrenheit), I hope to have the lacing dialed in. But I’ll post a full review of my sandals from Invisible Shoe one day soon.

In the meantime, how long until the hipsters discover these? Will it take three years, like the Vibram Fivefingers? One wonders.