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Born To Run

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A while ago I got myself a pair of Vibram Five Fingers Shoes (the KSO model) to try the new trend of barefoot (or nearly barefoot) running. After a week or so and feeling pain in my knees and hips I decided that this was not for me and shelved those goofy shoes immediately…

Vibram Five Fingers Shoes

Until now…

A friend recommended the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. This book inspired me to give barefoot running another try. In the following I like to share what I learned from this book, from various articles on the Internet and my personal experience with barefoot running.

Born To Run

Born To Run is one of the best books ever written about running. As G. MacDonald – one of the reviewer’s on Amazon puts it: “If, when you finish with this book, you don’t immediately get yourself outside and run like hell, then there’s probably not a drop of living blood in you. This book is the perfect antidote to everything that’s wrong with modern running and the way to find everything that’s still so right with it.”

Book Description: Born To Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong. It’s a great read, but also very eye opening concerning the running shoe industry.

Tarahumara of Mexico (Photo by David Ducoin)

The book is mainly about the Tarahumara – a hidden tribe of Mexicans living in the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. The Tarahumara are legendary for their ability to run extreme distances in inhospitable conditions without breaking a sweat or getting injured. They are superathletes whose running method would place them among elite runners of the developed world even though their society and technology are 500 years behind it. They often live in caves without running water, and run with only strips of old tire or leather thongs strapped to the bottom of their feet. They are virtually barefoot.

Tarahumara running is based on endurance not speed. This fact is exemplified by their hunting practices. In order to catch such wild animals as deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits, the Tarahumara simply chase after the animal until the animal drops from exhaustion. Their hunting practices are widely known in Mexico and ranchers have been known to hire the indians to chase down wild horses .

“We’re designed for persistence hunting, which is a mix of running and walking,” says McDougall. “What’s built into that kind of running is a sense of pleasure. You are designed and built and perfect for this activity, and it should be enjoyable and fun.”

After reading this book it was obvious to me that during my first barefoot running attempt I made every mistake possible: Too wide strides, too long distances to start with and not changing my running style at all. To successfully accommodate to barefoot running it was important for me to learn how barefoot running is different from running in my thickly cushioned trainers.

Some background:

From the Zenhabits article The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Barefoot Running:

For decades now, runners (including me) have been sold on the need for good running shoes — if you want to prevent injuries, invest in good shoes. Proper cushioning, and sometimes rigid motion control or stability features, were needed, and if you had injuries, you probably had the wrong shoes.

But recent studies have proven what traditional peoples have known all along — that running barefoot strengthens your feet and is a more natural way to run. Running in cushioned, motion-controlled shoes is like having your neck in a cast for a month — when you take the cast off, your neck muscles will be weak. You also pound your feet much harder with running shoes, causing problems not only with feet but knees and other joints. We’re making our feet weak, and pounding them hard — it’s no wonder we have all kinds of injuries.

From the Wired Science article To Run Better, Start by Ditching Your Nikes:

“People have been running barefoot for millions of years and it has only been since 1972 that people have been wearing shoes with thick, synthetic heels,” said Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University.

Strong evidence shows that thickly cushioned running shoes have done nothing to prevent injury in the 30-odd years since Nike founder Bill Bowerman invented them, researchers say. Some smaller, earlier studies suggest that running in shoes may increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other injuries. Runners who wear cheap running shoes have fewer injuries than those wearing expensive trainers. Meanwhile, injuries plague 20 to 80 percent of regular runners every year.

How to Run Barefoot

As funny as it sounds but most barefoot runners use minimalist footwear – so called barefoot running shoes. Those shoes are designed to remove the cushioning and motion control of traditional running shoes. In this way your feet is able to strengthen and feel the ground more while still giving you the protection against getting cut on the soles of your feet. Some of these barefoot running shoes look even more technical and advanced than regular running shoes.

If you’re interested in trying out barefoot (or nearly barefoot) running, keep in mind that it will take your body some time to get used to it. Many people – myself included – make the mistake of doing too much, too quickly. That’s a big mistake. It can lead to pain and injury. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Start slowly: Do quarter-mile runs at most, and build up gradually. Keep barefoot running to no more than 10 percent of your weekly regimen, especially at first.
  • Don’t try to run with the same running style you use in shoes
  • Shorten your steps: Don’t extend your legs as far as you do with shoes. It should feel almost like you’re running in place.
  • Land on the forward part (forefeet or midfeet) of your foot instead of your heels. If you feel yourself landing on your heels, shorten your stride. Be aware: Too much on your forefeet can make your calves sore.
  • Keep upright and balanced. Your feet should be hitting the ground almost directly underneath you, not in front of you.
  • Stay light. You should feel like you’re light on your feet, not pounding at all. Barefoot runners tend to be a little more springy in their step.
  • Run quietly. If you are making a lot of noise with your steps (as shoe-wearing runners do), you’re pounding too hard. Try to run softly, quietly, like an animal.

The Barefoot Running Form

“The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.”
—Leonardo Da Vinci

“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike,” said Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of a paper appearing in the journal Nature. “By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike.

The following short video shows a heel-first strike in a traditional running shoe (left) compared to a midfoot strike in Vibram FiveFingers (right):

After learning all of this and putting it into practice I successfully accommodated to running in my Vibram FiveFingers. This time I really took it slowly and changed my running style over a period of four weeks. I haven’t yet switched to barefoot running completely but as my feet are getting stronger I am enjoying it more and more. Running barefoot is about connecting with the ground, about feeling, about freedom and lightness and most importantly about having fun.

Many runners shelved their high-tech trainers in favor of naked feet — or minimalist footwear like the Nike Free, the Newton All-Weather Trainer and the glove-like Vibram FiveFingers. If you’re still skeptical at all about running bare-footed, or with very minimal foot protection here are some further resources that will give you great insight into why you should consider it:

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