Friday, February 25, 2011

The Big, Bad, Barefoot Debate...(and why it's not a debate anymore)

I have spent the majority of my life barefoot. I have never been much of a shoe person, even as a little kid, when one frigid winter in Ohio, I decided, without my
parents knowing, that I would go outside and play in the snow in my socks! It was an awesome feeling, much like how sand feels on bare feet, only... well, you can imagine what followed. I wore shoes to school, church, and in public buildings, but I didn't like it. Fortunately, my sport of choice, gymnastics, involved bare feet. And then, I had the very good fortune to get a job coaching the sport in my early teens, transitioning from barefoot training, to barefoot coaching. And for the next twenty years, my full-time job has allowed me this wonderful opportunity to never wear shoes!

As a result, I have developed very tough feet. I can walk across rocks easily, and when I step on glass or thorns or even a rusty nail (which has happened a couple of times now) I barely feel it--the bottoms of my feet having built up a pretty awesome, thick skin.

How STRONG my feet have been has been another story. When I stopped training as a gymnast, I started my long-lived training as an endurance athlete and suddenly it became very important to find the perfect, supportive, cushioned running shoes for my very flat, arch-less feet. I went through countless pairs of highly supportive shoes, where in the store, I was told I had "severe pronation problems" and needed the ultimate, maximum support. This involved very expensive, very rigid, thick, heavy shoes that the salespeople claimed would keep my arches from falling and basically hold my foot hostage in a cast-like way. I, myself, even had a brief stint working in a local running store near my college campus where I was trained to say the very same things to our customers. MUST be true, right? My feet were screwed up, so I needed maximum support in order to run efficiently so I wouldn't get injured.

WRONG! For years and years, I had tibial stress fractures, shin splits, plantar fasciitis and loads and loads of pain in my feet and legs. It didn't occur to me that my problems stemmed from my SHOES and not my supposed "horrible, screwed-up feet".

In 2004, after one too many injuries, I started cross training at my own gym. A few of my fellow coaches and I put together a workout regimen that involved a lot of jump roping, stair sprints, plyometric jumping, pullups, pushups, swinging, handstands, active flexibility and a lot of the other conditioning we put our gymnasts through on a daily basis. And we did it I still ran regularly, but mostly on trails, and after a while, I noticed that the barefoot training I did in the gym was strengthening my feet and legs and knees in such an efficient way that when I was running, I didn't experience much of the pain I had previously. Hmmmmm....

This transitioned to running barefoot in the park, which I did regularly at least twice a week in addition to my barefoot training in the gym and trail running.

And then my dad told me to read Born To Run by Christopher McDougall,
who basically wrote the book back in 2009, because he too loved running but couldn't understand why he was injured all the time and wanted to know WHY! The book isn't totally about the over-correction of feet or the fact that there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER that running shoes do anything to improve or maintain running efficiency or prevent injury. And yet, running shoes are a multibillion dollar industry, despite the fact that current research indicates that runners wearing shoes are actually bearing far more impact than runners in bare feet or minimalist shoes. There are groups of people all over the world, such as the Tarahumara indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon (the group McDougall talks about in his book) who run without shoes and have been doing it, like our ancestors, for centuries. These runners have a higher range of motion in their feet, engage more of their toes and foot muscles, and experience more efficiency in their running. They are faster and able to run longer. The thing is, McDougall argues, ...we already know how to run like this, with proper biomechanics and injury-free efficiency, because we were BORN like this. It was the moment the notion was born that our feet are flawed and need corrective devices that our feet were ruined. No wonder so many people hate running!

When Vibram Five Fingers came out, I immediately bought a pair. Basically a glove on my feet, with virtually no sole, I transitioned slowly--wore them first on grassy, park runs and then on short trail runs until I could eventually run for a couple of hours at a time. It wasn't a very difficult transition, mostly, I think, because my feet were already accustomed to jumping, running, and moving according to this barefoot concept. Other people that began to transition into Vibrams and barefoot training were experiencing a significant amount of midsole and forefoot soreness and tightening in their achilles and soleus--a lot of this due to the natural transition from typical heel striking (very bad!)in shoes to running from the middle of the foot to the toes (natural) in Vibrams or barefoot. What I DID deal with was "stone bruising" on the ball of my feet.

Most of the trails I run are pretty rugged and rocky (see left. One of my favorite trails, Douglas Springs), and I suppose it was inevitable that I'd feel the impact of what was underfoot, especially as I was bounding downhill. Still, I got used to it and eventually, in less than a year, I had transitioned completely into my Vibrams for all of my trail running, with three days a week still devoted to barefoot runs on grass and soft trail and gym workouts. (I should also mention again, that this training has most recently saved me from having extensive surgery on my achilles. My orthopedic team, which included a podiatrist, all said the same thing---barefoot training had strengthened and PREVENTED my lower legs from more severe injury to my achilles.) Now some of you might say, "But your feet must be all torn up!" As you can tell from the photo above, my feet are holding up very well! In fact, some might even say they're "pretty". Ha Ha! I still have tough skin on the bottom of my feet, some might call it "calloused", but it doesn't peel and I don't get blisters. My heels are rarely cracked or painful. I don't have smooth, "baby" skin, but my feet aren't rough or scratchy to the touch. I paint my toenails and use a pumice stone and moisturizers regularly. I take care of my feet. Everyone should.

Today, a mere two years later, the barefoot and "minimalist" debate has become much less of a debate and more of a popular hype within the fitness community and beyond. Vibrams aren't as much of a weird fashion statement as a normal piece of footwear now, in much the same way that Birkenstocks and Tevas grew in popularity in the late 1980's. Active and inactive people alike are sporting some version of FiveFingers. And Vibram has, in the last two years, developed so many sport-specific models that the company is literally overloaded with back orders, especially with their most popular models.

At this point, I am in the midst of a big review of minimalist footwear...

I am about to encounter my first R2R2R (rim to rim to rim) run in the Grand Canyon in less than two months. This will entail 48 miles of extreme elevation loss and gain on pretty rocky terrain. In my original Vibram KSO's, I have run up to 25+miles on very rocky terrain, but I'm slightly skeptical about running a constant DOWNHILL in the Canyon for 11 miles without experiencing a significant amount of stone bruising.

One day, about a month ago, I decided to pull out my old Asics trail shoes and see how they held up on a rocky downhill run. BAD idea. I immediately regretted the decision once I felt my feet rolling around, unsteady in the shoes. My knees started hurting, I rolled my ankles three or four times, I fell twice, and then decided I had come too far in developing proper running efficiency over the last few years that I couldn't possibly go back to heavy trail shoes.

Next up, I bought a pair of New Balance MT 101's, (see left) NB's answer to minimalist footwear. They're light, a little over 7 oz, low to the ground--an outsole a little over 2mm thick, flexible, and fits like a glove. The upper is primarily lightweight mesh--no lateral support whatsoever. Perfect. I tried them out on a rocky, 11 mile trail that had significant, steep, climbs. They certainly protected the bottom of my feet better from stone bruising, and I liked how lightweight and breathable they felt. I climbed uphill easily and quickly. What I didn't like was how my foot seemed to slip around in the shoes during the steep downhill portion of my run and the way I was experiencing some instability bounding on rocks. My ankles rolled a few times.

Then, my beloved KSO's came out with another version--the Vibram KSO Treks! (See below) Deemed the Vibrams for "trailrunning", the Treks weigh in at just under 6 oz., provide the
same lightweight features as the original KSO, but offer a slightly tougher outsole that protects from stone bruising and offers improved traction of trails and more rugged terrain. When testing the Trek's, I found that they gave me significantly more sole protection and allowed me to barrel down the mountain with more confidence without rolling my ankles in a "shoe". I still experienced a little stone bruising, but only on extremely technical, rocky downhill portions of the trail.

My Vibram Five Finger KSO Treks on left. Compared to my original KSOs on the right.

All in all, I think the KSO Trek has made for my best training runs lately, though I'm continuing to switch to the NB 101's every so often. The decision on what exactly I'll be wearing on my R2R2R in April has still not been confirmed, but at least I have a better idea of what DOESN'T work, right?

For more on barefoot running and minimalist footwear, check out this video:

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