Barefoot Running Shoes: Are They Worth It?Posted on Dec 15th 2009 1:00PM by Liz Neporent
Should I ditch my running shoes? I've heard that running in lightweight shoes or even barefoot is better for your feet and improves your performance - Melissa Lewis, Boston, MA
When I was in college I once won a 10-mile road race wearing flimsy, cheapo Chinese slippers; you know, the little black ones with a thin strap across the top and an even thinner layer of imitation rubber between the sole and the road. My coaches and training mates thought I was nuts for pounding the pavement in such unsubstantial footwear (or sometimes -- no shoes at all). It would be my undoing they said, bound to lead to serious foot and knee injuries. Ignoring their advice all these years, I continue to train and race (even marathons) in the most slender-soled shoes I can find and I've never had a single major running injury.
Nearly 80 percent of runners can't say the same. The majority of people I see trotting through the streets and hoofing it around the park do so with their feet firmly encased in cushy, structured, supportive shoes -- yet many of them sport ankle wraps and knee braces as well. So I wonder: If all that padding and shock absorbing polyurethane is so protective, why are so many runners wounded?
A growing number of runners are asking the same question. They've recently begun shedding their chunky trainers in favor of a more minimalist footwear category known as "barefoot runners". According to proponents of this running shoe breed, barefooters allow you to shorten your stride to a more natural length and land closer to the ball of your foot than a typical running shoe will, thereby teaching your feet and ankles to become the flexible shock absorbers they were born to be.
With all the hype, I wanted to see if the barefoot category is truly an improvement over either the waffled trainers so many runners have been wearing since the 70s or the bare naked feet humans have been running in for millions of years. I tested three of the most popular models on the market: The Vibram FiveFingers, The Nike Free and the New Balance 100. Here's what I thought.
Vibram FiveFinger. This shoe features separate toe compartments; therefore, when you put them on, your feet look like they belong to a Muppet. And actually, putting them on got me off to a bad start with these weird looking kicks. I may not have any serious joint problems, but the miles have not been kind to my feet cosmetically. I have hammer toes, toes that overlap, and Morton's Toe, which is where the second toe is appreciably longer than the big toe. Trying to get all of those uncooperative appendages separated and into the right compartment was a job that reminded me of helping my four-year-old put on her gloves. It took me a good five minutes to get my toes into place -- no exaggeration. However, one I began my run, all was forgiven; my feet felt almost weightless and my stride felt free and easy. When I wore them to lift weights, I had to work harder to maintain my balance, sort of like trying to stand on a bosu ball, but I also felt more connected to my body and got a better workout. The only activity I wasn't loving the lack of structure and support was during a boot camp class; with all of the lateral movement and jerky stops and starts I felt (somewhat hypocritically I suppose) that I missed the safety of a sturdier shoe. (Models start at about $75.00.)
New Balance 100. When I think of a shoe designed for trails, I think of outsoles as thick as tractor tires and heavy duty ankle support. But this shoe -- which is billed as a trail shoe -- is as weightless as a piece of no-carb toast. After just a few strides, I fell in love with the light ride and the feeling of freedom that came with each foot strike. Admittedly, the only trails I took them for a test drive on were the streets of New York City, but I believe I encountered enough debris and obstacles to offer a reasonable facsimile to a more woodsy experience. (And I do appreciate the fact that, though light, they are puncture proof.) This shoe truly excelled when I took them for a walk. The gauzy mesh upper let my feet breathe like they had on an oxygen mask so you they didn't feel all tired and sweaty after a couple of hours of running errands and window shopping. The dingy gray color and Plain Jane profile are actually kind of appealing because they match up with just about anything you wear. (Cost: About $70.)
Nike Free - Another gorgeous, lightweight barefoot entry. Of course, Nike, being Nike, has created an entire vocabulary to describe how it achieves the barefoot effect but suffice to say, the gender-specific grooves on the outsoles replace the heavy, less flexible waffling of their other models so your foot makes a more natural connection with the ground. The result is that your feet feel like they are enveloped in clouds and that you are running on air. The Free is a bit more stable than the other brands I tried. Nike says they achieved this by both removing some of the segmentation from the midsole and flaring it for a wider base of support. Whatever. Once again, I felt a sense of danger wearing them for any activity that called for a lot of directional changes, jumps or stops but they felt great for running, walking and in the gym. (A bargain - these start as low as $45.)
All in all, I give barefoot shoes a big thumb's (or is it a big toe's?) up. I wouldn't run in them more than a few times a week and if you don't have a pristine beach nearby, you may want to stick to the track or treadmill. They're great for speed work and moderate distance but I wonder how they'd respond by the 25th mile mark of a marathon; I honestly have no idea and not sure I'd be willing to risk it. Also, heavier, inexperienced and injury-prone runners might want to steer clear of this trend. I've talked to a few runners who said they felt sore after the first few runs in their barefoot trainers. I didn't have this issue but it does make sense when you consider that in a way, you're retraining your feet and ankles to fend for themselves.
What do you guys think? Anyone out there going barefoot? Send me a tweet Lizzyfit@twitter.com.
Liz Neporent is a diet and fitness expert and co-author of "The Fat-Free Truth." She regularly appears on national TV programs and is the president of Wellness 360, a New-York based wellness provider.