Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Running Shoes, Part 2

I've got a layover in Denver on the way to Salt Lake City today so have a bit of time to expand on my comments below on running shoes. There have been a couple of comments posted by readers and I received a few emails on the subject also. So far these have overwhelmingly favored minimalism in running shoes selection with a few preferring barefoot and a couple the Vibram Five Fingers product (I hesitate to call it a shoe).

When I owned the running store mentioned in the previous post I soon discovered there wasn't one shoe selection that would work best for all runners. But gradually I came to realize that runners are less likely to have injuries and to perform better if they use the least shoe possible for them. Note that 'for them' is quite a broad qualifier. A 115-pound woman with excellent running technique and years of training injury-free can generally get by quite nicely with the least shoe possible. Whereas a 220-pound runner with flat feet and awful run technique who is in his first year of serious running will need something far more supportive on his feet.

I wish it was so easy as to say that we should all just run barefoot. Had we grown up like Kenyan kids - barefoot and running to school every day - we wouldn't need heavy-duty shoes at all. Our feet and legs would be strong and our technique would be excellent. Unfortunately, that simply isn't the case. We grow up wearing shoes as soon as the parents can dress the baby. I'm afraid the feet of most of us are not well-conditioned. But we can do something about that.

I think it might help if you got out of your shoes during the day whenever you can. I'm not talking about running shoes here, but rather your 'street' shoes. Taking them off around the house is a minimal but first step in strengthening your feet. Athletes who do this can progress to doing what I call 'barefoot strides' a couple of times a week. I start them off with doing 5-6 x 20 second sprints on a clean, grassy surface (with walk-back recoveries). If not ready for barefoot running try using a lightweight racing flat, Nike Frees, beach water shoes or Vibrams. The idea is to gradually do more walking and running with little or no footwear.

I doubt if you will ever want to do all of your training and racing barefoot, although some do. The real advantage to doing this is not necessarily to run with a minimal shoe but to strengthen your body so injury is less likely. If that eventually involves wearing a minimalist shoe that's okay. I don't happen to see that so much as a goal as a means to training injury-free and eventually racing faster.



At January 13, 2010 4:44 PM , Blogger Jared said...

I'm one of the previous commenters who favored minimalistic running. I think you spelled it out well here (much better than most), but I do have one contention. The argument I get from most people regarding barefoot or minimalistic running is that it is good for light / fit people with good form and good arches (bio-mechanically perfect). I think quite the opposite. Great runners do terrible with the barefoot thing at first because they try to do TOO much TOO soon and get hurt. Whereas heavy runners with poor form have to start slow by definition. Last year I was way overweight, with flat feet and ran with what could be described as a clodding elephant technique. Since fully diving into minimalistic / barefoot running I've been able to run injury free for the first time in my life (thus losing 50lbs), had fun doing it (see previous parens), and I was so bad at first that I took my time to do it correct. Now I'm still 200+ lbs, but you can't hear me at all while running and I'm faster than I ever was in shoes (even when I was fit as a 18 year old). Of course this is just anecdotal evidence, but evidence nonetheless.

Keep up with all of the great content, I'm just glad I can finally contribute in return. Even if in respectful disagreement.

P.S. The more supportive shoes I wore, the worse my injuries would get!

At January 14, 2010 11:47 AM , Blogger Windnsnow said...

Thanks for the reinforcement and support - as it were - I've started doing barefoot strides on the treadmill following several months of tight calves- "proto" P.fasciitis and it has really got my running back to a comfortable form.

At January 15, 2010 1:06 PM , Blogger Ygduf said...

I'm on my second week of "barefoot" running with the Vibram soles. I've tried running before, working slowly and painfully up to 4-5 miles, always suffering from shin splints, knee and hip pain.

With the Vibrams, running has been an experience. I'm only up to 2.5 miles, and I have MUSCLE soreness in my calves, but absolutely no joint pain. It's amazing. Running isn't miserable anymore! Even cooler; my average HR while running sits around 160 instead of 174 at the same pace. No idea why.

At January 15, 2010 3:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zola Budd / Pieterse set women's 5000m World records running barefoot, and was famous for both training and racing barefoot throughout her career. She still holds two junior world records in the mile and 3000m, besides various British and South Afrioan records.

At January 15, 2010 3:36 PM , Anonymous St. Hubbins said...

In a recent story on Zola Budd, I saw that she's now wearing running shoes to train and race. Not sure which brand/model.

At January 16, 2010 4:59 PM , Blogger Fe-lady said...

If running barefoot all the time is so great and good for everyone (i.e. elite runners with low body weight/good form/strong base, etc.) then we would see more coaches urging their runners to run this way and they would be winning-
haven't seen it yet..... (except for Zola...and she was what, 15?)

At January 18, 2010 12:25 PM , Blogger Jared said...


How do you know more coaches aren't encouraging bare foot training? The Standford cross-country coach encourages it. Most track coaches I know do in-field sprint training barefoot. Lastly, most elite runners are running in racing flats that have zero padding and weigh less than vibrams.

At January 19, 2010 9:12 AM , Blogger Jim said...

are you guys who are running in the vibrams running on pavement with them? do they hold up or wear through? Is it too hard on your feet?

Anyone experiment with the Newtons? They sound like they are just a lot of money for what I could get not buying any shoes at all?


At January 20, 2010 8:19 AM , Blogger Fe-lady said...

I am not talking about not advocating TRAINING barefoot-I am talking about RACING barefoot. Yes, I know all about racing flats and elite runners...
The average schlub out there...well, GO for it and talk to me in 40 years. I bet they won't be running barefoot.
(sorry I had to use Joe's space to respond directly to you, but you don't have a site...)

At January 20, 2010 6:01 PM , Anonymous Shane84 said...


I have used the Newtons and Vibram Five Fingers. With the Newtons I got plantar fasciitis in the front of my foot, right where the lugs of the shoe were. The Vibrams are good for pavement only in my opinion. I do alot of trail running and running in Vibrams on trails is hard b/c of rocks, stones, roots, and other hard trail elements that will bruise your feet. On roads the Vibrams felt good, but you have to be careful running in them for the first few runs since there is no cushioning in them.

At January 22, 2010 11:57 AM , Blogger Jim said...

Shane 84-

Thanks for the advice! Best of luck to you.

At January 25, 2010 8:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fully agree with the "least possible shoe" idea. But I would advise great caution.

I moved 'down' from top-of-the-range, highly-cushioned and -stablised Asics trainers (having assumed they would help my achilles problem, which I suspect only went away because of reduced training and the passage of time) to their racer-trainers. A great move. Lighter, quicker, less pain in the calves.

Then I got a pair of Vibram 5-fingers. Ran for 10 minutes, then 20 the next week, then 30 the week after, then 40 - then got appalling bilateral achilles tendinitis. 8 weeks later and I'm still walking like a penguin first thing in the morning. I'm not blaming the shoes, just my own recklessness and over-enthusiasm.

So my VERY strong advice - if you make a radical change in your footwear, break yourself in VERY slowly. Alternate with your old shoes. Don't wait for pain or injury to tell you to take it easy.

Wish I'd anticipated my own advice...

At January 25, 2010 10:21 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

anon--Very good advice on decreasing how much shoe you run in. This is the point I was trying to make. Your difficulty now is what we want to avoid in making such a change. Runners should also not feel like they need to make any changes if they are happy with performance and not experiencing injuries.

At January 29, 2010 9:33 AM , Blogger shoetec said...

It's good to see some skeptical runners not drinking the Kool-Aid. I'm a footwear engineer that worked on a lot of those technically advanced running shoes. It really disgusted me that it was mostly just a sales spiel that's passed on to retailers and consumers as gospel.

Recently read "Born to Run", as I'm sure many of you have. I enjoyed reading about the research the author found regarding running shoes and biomechanics. I was really surprised when he came up with a study by my former employer that pretty much said your impact is harder with more cushioning. But if you think about what he says, it all makes sense.

At February 2, 2010 1:13 PM , Blogger Josh said...

I'm an "Out of Retirement" runner just getting back to the sport as a triathlete. I was a very competitive runner in Junior and High school. High School pr's 15:03 3-mile xc, 4:31 mile, 1:58 1/2. I gave up the sport when I graduated high school, which I now think may have been because of that 10 year wall you talk about in the Triathlete's Training bible. I started running at age 8 and by my senior year of high school I had not had a pr in 2 years and was actually running slower than my sophmore year. So as I got back into running to do triathlons I hear all this stuff about forefoot strike running. in the early 90's I distinctly remember reading an article in Runners world that basically said running on your toes was a big no-no and was basically putting on the brakes every stride. Heel-toe running was easier on the joints, smoother and more effiecient. I have always been a heel-toe runner, for anything over about 400m. So I didn't do anything to change my form when I read that runners world article. Now seems like the new thing is running on the fore foot for all the same reasons that article said we should be running on our heels.
I've always run pretty much injury free. I've gotten up to around 50 miles a week over the last 2 years when I'm in base building. And I'm back to a sub 18 5k and ran a 15k in 104:27 last September. I'm on track to run a 1/2 marathon this spring in around 1:33. All happily running heel-toe.
So after reading your recent posts on foot strike, I went to the gym and tried to feel out the mid-foot/fore-foot strike on the treadmill. Probably went 2 miles on my forefoot out of 10 total miles. Just throwing in a 1/4 to 1/2 mile in every now and then getting up on my fore-foot. Not my calves are extremely sore. But just crampy muscle soreness, and just my calves. So 2 questions. 1) should I even be messing around with my foot strike?
2) Are the barefoot drills you talk about designed to move a runner to a forefoot strike, or just stregnthen the foot/calf muscles in general?

PS. I found the previous post about Zola but interesting. I remeber watching her in the 1984 Olympics Vs Mary Decker. And all the buzz about her being barefoot. But I'm pretty sure she was still running heal-toe. check out the Pics I found with a simple google search.

At April 21, 2010 3:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to try out the barefoot thing really slowly and simply try this...
1) Visit an ethically questionable doctor for a note to say you can't wear shoes due to an injury
2) Wear black sports socks everywhere. Most people will never notice that you're not in shoes. (Produce the doc's note for work, or say that you had a nail removed- most people won't question that)
3) Carry a pair of thongs (flip-flops?) for public bathrooms.

After doing this for a few weeks (but still training in shoes) go for a run on grass. It will feel amazing.


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