When you’re out running, look around and check out everyone else’s feet (without looking creepy). You’re bound to see a plethora of runners in traditional running shoes, one or two people wearing Vibram FiveFingers, and perhaps the occasional barefoot runner.
Each of these factions are fiercely defensive of their type of running gear (or lack thereof) and all the pros and cons that come with it. Let’s take a closer look at what each type has to offer.
Traditional Running Shoes: The Old Reliable
The running shoe has evolved over the years, from the leather shoes with crepe rubber soles of the 1920s to the high-tech, mostly flat shoes of today that weight a mere 3 ounces. Champion runners the world over have equipped their feet with only the most advanced footwear of their time.
There has been some suggestion that running shoes are to blame for a majority of running injuries, but this is not entirely true. While the evolution of the running shoe has been constant, with new technology developed to reduce the impact and mitigate wear and tear, the shoes on your feet can only do so much.
With running, all the forces that come into play – foot to ground impact, technique, stride, gait, breathing and the overall makeup of your entire body – can fail or change at any given time and can lead to an injury. Though some of it could be theoretically caused by the shoe, everything else is caused by the runner and all the forces that come with the territory.
Traditional Running Shoe Pros and Cons
- Protects feet from the elements such as hot pavement or freezing snow
- Shields feet from debris like sharp rocks, glass and metal objects
- Provides impact protection, support and cushioning for longer runs like half marathons and full marathons
- Ideal for beginners, older runners and big (heavy) runners
- Restricts the movement of the toes, decreasing natural functions of the foot
- Ill fitting shoes for foot type and poor technique may cause injuries
- Some brands can be expensive
- You’ll run one second per mile slower per ounce (running shoe weight) you have on your feet, a big deal if you’re competitive
- May increase torque at the joints (knees, hips) that may cause injuries
Proponents of barefoot running were given a boost when the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall hit the shelves and was a hit, especially for those who were prone to injuries related to running. The book features the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico, who run barefoot for hundreds of miles without any ill effects.
A barefoot revolution started that had podiatrists around the world raising alarms about the hazards of running barefoot. While there seems to be some evidence to suggest that running barefoot may have benefits, there hasn’t been much proof to backup the claims due to the lack of extensive studies, much like the predicament running shoes have as to whether it’s beneficial to wear a pair when going for a run.
With the rising popularity of the barefoot running movement, Vibram, a shoe company known for making kayaking and boat shoes, saw the marketing potential in the running gear department, and branched out to include running in the scope of what their five toed shoes could do. The company says that their shoes are as close to running totally barefoot as you can get, without the usual hazards like debris and the elements.
70 million Americans bought the shoe, with millions more internationally and the company enjoyed success for some years. However a recent lawsuit that forced them to pay for damages somewhat tainted the minimalist running shoe image. Vibram was accused of false advertising about the benefits of their shoes, with no supporting studies or solid evidence to back them up. The shoe company chose to pay instead of fighting, citing that a long and drawn out legal battle would not be beneficial to the parties involved.
A note on barefoot running and minimalist running shoes
The jury is still out regarding health benefits and injuries, but if you want to try barefoot or minimalist running, please follow expert advice and go slowly to allow your feet and body to adapt to the shock. See you podiatrist and ask for advice if running without shoes is a possible option for you.
Barefoot Running and Vibram FiveFingers Pros and Cons
- Run as nature intended, utilising and activating the smaller muscles of the foot
- May improve balance and proprioception, allowing the body to sense the position of the ankle joint relative to the surroundings
- May strengthen muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot
- Will teach runners to land on the forefoot rather than the heel, though there is new evidence to suggest it doesn’t really matter in terms of improving running economy
- Vibram FiveFingers and other minimalist shoes are lightweight and ideal for faster runs at shorter distances, much like racing flats
- Bare feet inadvertently stepping on broken glass, metal shards, sharp rocks and other debris
- No insulation from the elements
- Blisters will form on bare feet, replaced by thick calluses
- Increased risk of plantar fasciitis
- Some studies have shown increased incidence of stress fractures and bone marrow edema in the foot even with the prescribed adaptation period of running in minimalist footwear or running barefoot
- Some body parts may overcompensate from the shock of running barefoot, which may lead to injuries
On one side, you have the world dominating camp of people who choose to run with shoes, which is about 96% of all runners . The other side is the Vibrams/minimalist camp, which makes up just 4% of the market. Then, you have the barefoot runners, who are a rarity anywhere you go.
The question of which option is best is like a chicken and egg thing – it’s going to go back and forth until conclusive evidence from extensive studies comes out that discredits the claims of the other side.
My question is, if you’re doing OK with your runs and haven’t experienced any injuries while running with shoes, why should you take the risk of changing something you’re used to doing? Conversely, if you feel good about running barefoot or in Vibrams and haven’t had an injury, continue doing it until the day you can’t. Listen to your body, keep an eye on the science and enjoy your run.