Hit the ground running: barefeet runnning and its alternatives

We look at why a growing number of runners are ditching their heavily cushioned trainers in favour of the minimalist alternative.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Oct 2 2011, Barefoot Running, For Arts & Life Story- Paul Hymers runs in the sand at JBR beach in running shoes designed to simulate barefoot Running.  Mike Young / The National?
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Hugo Berger looks at why a growing number of runners are ditching their heavily cushioned trainers in favour of the minimalist alternatives

Our ancient ancestors were perfectly designed for long-distance running. Although slower than most of their four-legged adversaries, humans' copious amount of cooling sweat glands and relative lack of body hair endowed them with amazing endurance, according to anthropological experts, allowing them to run down their quarry or outlast the voracious predators wanting to consume them.

Yet why is it that these days almost all who run regularly - both keen amateur joggers and elite athletes - are so prone to debilitating foot and leg injuries?

According to a growing body of clinical research, the blame rests on the expensive, cushioned shoes most runners use, which may be causing the very ailments they're supposed to prevent.

Before Nike brought out the first foam-padded shoe in the 1970s, people either ran barefoot or in thin-soled shoes, which both naturally strengthened their leg muscles and encouraged a more natural gait, with the ball of the foot - a natural shock absorber - taking the brunt of the impact with the ground. Conversely, the vast majority of modern sports shoe wearers have been conditioned by their footwear's prodigious padding to land heavily on their heels before pushing off on their toes, which actually increases shock impact with the ground, thus aggravating the risk of ankle sprains, shin splints, Achilles tendinitis and the like.

With this in mind, a small minority of joggers are slipping out of their shoes and choosing to run au naturel again. But unlike our ancestors, who traversed sweeping prairies, urbanites must contend with broken glass, cracked paving stones and other hazards littered in their way. So how to stride barefoot through the city streets without lacerated soles and broken toes? In 2006, the outdoor gear manufacturer Vibram came up with a solution - the Fivefingers shoe.

The product, which is essentially a thick rubber glove for the foot, has been a phenomenon, tripling its sales figures every year. It made US$11 million (Dh40.4m) in revenues for Vibram last year and is expected to generate $50m in sales this year.

The shoes have been the subject of much ridicule - one storyline on the US sitcom Happy Endings was devoted to mocking a character for wearing them.

But such has been their success that as well as spawning a market in illicit counterfeits, big-name sports shoe manufacturers have cashed in by bringing out their own versions, which are either complete clones of the Fivefingers or slipper-like running shoes with minimalist flexible soles. So, Nike has released its Free Run series, Reebok its Reaflex and Saucony its Hattori shoes.

Meanwhile, Vibrams have recently gone on sale in the UAE for around Dh500 a pair and are proving equally popular over here. At Go Sport in Dubai Mall, a spokeswoman revealed they were the best-selling trainer in the store, shifting an average of 10 units a day.

But are these so-called "shoeless" shoes the sure-fire way for injury-free running? Paul Hymers writes the blog Barefoot in Dubai, where he extols the joys of unshod exercise but also heeds the dangers.

The 33-year-old financial controller says: "During my 20s I did a lot of running - half marathons and marathons and the like. But as I got older I started suffering from serious knee and ankle problems. I'd read this book called Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, which advocates barefoot running and I'd heard about these Vibram Fivefingers, so I ordered a pair from London and started running in them.

"I was all fine at first, but then I started having these really bad pains in my feet. I stupidly thought this was just my legs adjusting to my new shoes and so I kept on going. But this was a massive mistake, as the pain got worse and soon I was pretty much crippled. So I went for an X-ray and found I'd broken my sesamoid bone - a small bone in my toe - and it basically took me about six months before I could run again"

Despite the obvious risks, outside the UAE and especially in the US, minimalist shoes are all the rage. Recently, celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Jim Carrey, Jake Gyllenhaal and Matthew McConaughey have been snapped while out jogging in either shoeless or Vibram-clad states. And last month, the second annual New York Barefoot Run event attracted some 405 participants, almost double the number who attended the inaugural event the previous year.

The event's founder, John Durant, believes that although still in a minority, more and more runners are slowly catching on to the advantages of eschewing thick, highly padded trainers.

He says: "When I started barefoot running in Central Park, people's jaws would drop. I'd see kids tugging on their mothers' arms, saying 'look Mommy, that man isn't wearing any shoes'. Truth be told, I don't get this nowadays, which is a little bit disappointing. Now, people have at least heard of or seen it before, so now people usually say, 'there's one of those barefoot runners'.

"I think people are beginning to think outside the box and realise that if we're built to run, it shouldn't be a painful activity. Just like a bird flies, or a fish swims, we should be able to run without continually being injured and hating ourselves. There are so many runners out there who just pound the pavements, running through the pain. We're trying to pull back from this and say running should be fun and enjoyable."

But although scientists such as Dan Liebermann, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, have shown that heel-strike running induces comparatively more shock impact than forefoot striking, they've yet to prove conclusively that runners suffered fewer ailments before the invention of cushioned shoes.

"I don't think that's the question we should be asking," claims Durant. "The burden of proof should be on all the novel devices that the shoe industry has been producing. They have to prove that their cushioned shoes we've been putting on our feet for the past 30 or 40 years are causing less injuries, rather than vice versa, and as yet their silence has been deafening. But we do know that there is significantly more of an impact with heel strike running, so it's common sense if you hit something harder and faster it causes more damage."

Caterina Riera, a podiatrist at the Dubai Bone & Joint Center, agrees that it is too early to conclude whether less is more in the world of running shoes.

She says: "In some respects [Vibrams] are a positive thing, they work very well with patients who have certain foot conditions, but I am starting to get quite a few patients coming to me with ankle injuries after they've used Vibrams or been running barefoot. People buy these Vibrams and other brands, try to use them too soon and end up severely injuring themselves.

"If you don't have any previous foot problems, I can't see why you shouldn't use them, although I would advise only short runs to start with."

Hymers also recommends gradual adjustment. "It's all down to your running technique. If you don't have the best technique, which I freely admit I don't, then a pair of shoes isn't going to fix that overnight.

"If you're thinking of using Vibrams, go and get some instruction from a running coach and make sure you take it slowly. My broken toe is living proof of what happens when you try to take it too fast."

A gruelling trek in Spain, but no pain with Vibram Fivefingers

One of Vibram’s most ardent online supporters has been Julien Smith, a Canadian blogger, author and motivational speaker. In

May, he and his girlfriend trekked the 800km Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain in Vibrams, and managed to avoid many of the serious injuries that plagued other walkers on the trip.

He says: “I’m a pretty fashion-conscious individual and I had friends who had used these Vibrams, and had pretty much decided I hated these shoes and found them really ugly. But after buying a pair, you can’t lie about how effective they are.

“On the Camino de Santiago, as it’s such a tough trek, people suffer from all kinds of physiological problems. I saw people with blisters the size of ping-pong balls and other serious injuries, which meant they had to drop out. In one case, I had to carry this girl who couldn’t walk any further on my back, until we got to a place where a passing car picked her up.

“The thing about Vibrams is that they’re so close to the skin, you develop no blisters at all. Plus, you drastically reduce your risk of knee problems because your legs move in the way that nature intended, whereas any footwear with a sole causes imbalance that travels up the body, putting knee and hip joints out of place.

“We were walking up to 35km a day over some pretty unfriendly terrain at times and the worst we suffered was sore Achilles tendons in the mornings. So I’m definitely a convert to the effectiveness of these shoes.”