Today is International Barefoot Running Day! It is also a little over a year ago I started reading about the barefoot (or minimal shoe) running movement. Now I don’t like shoes much – I’d rather go barefoot than shod any day – so the movement was very appealing. After a little online research I signed up, bought a shinny new pair of Vibram Five Fingers Bikila running shoes and hit the pavement. The Bikilas are a minimal shoe, meaning they are designed to mimic the sensation of running barefoot.
One thing that kept coming up in my research was to take it slow, run short distances at first and gradually build up distance. Vibram’s website itself says to run no more than 10% of your typical running distance for the first 2–3 weeks, gradually increasing mileage by 10%–20% every couple of weeks. I had just come off a long break from running and this was perfect for me. I wasn’t running far at a time anyway, needing to build up my mileage, so I followed the advice I’d been reading and took it slow. Other than a little blister the first week I didn’t have any problems, and I’ve covered many miles since.
The experience of running in the minimal shoes is very different from regular shoes, largely because you don’t land the same way. In a regular shoe there is a tendency to stretch our your stride and landing on your heel. Running barefoot you land on the ball of your foot more, or forefoot. Having spent the better part of my life trying to avoid wearing shoes, this all felt very natural to me.
I also expected some funny looks from other runners, and I definitely got some raised eyebrows but no one laughed at me – at least not to my face. I don’t think many people around town were wearing minimal shoes back then. Stranger than the looks though, and completely unexpected, was the fact that other runners started to stop me and talk to me about my Vibrams. After a few of these questions I came up with a stock handful of answers. Yes, they take a bit of getting used to, since they change the mechanics of your stride. Yes, I think you should take it slow let your feet adapt to the shoe and directing them to the Vibram site and to the Runners World Articles on barefoot running, which tend to be pretty conservative. Most importantly No, I don’t think they are for everyone. Sure I loved my Vibrams, they were perfect for me, but I don’t think everyone should just jump into them or barefoot running. There has to be a willingness to really change your running style, it’s really starting all over. I can also see some being bothered by the tightness of the shoes. My Bikilas feel like tight socks, especially around the toes, my last pair of “regular” shoes had a very open toe box so this took a little getting used to. So laying down $100 for what could be an experiment is a pretty hefty investment. Right now the studies of whether barefoot running is better for you are inconclusive but indications are that barefoot running lessens the impact of footfall and may reduce injuries. Studies are also inconclusive as to whether there can be improvements in speed when wearing barefoot shoes. There may be some improvement in speed wearing barefoot shoes but it’s probably minimal.
For me they were a good investment. The shoes themselves have worn very well. My understanding is that they are fine to run in as long as the pads on the bottom are not worn through. After 500 miles mine are showing wear but are not close to wearing through. Prior to switching to Vibams I went through two pairs of regular shoes, also around $100 a pair, a year. So the financial investment was worth it. I also think my feet feel stronger, no small benefit for a natural pronator.
In the year since I purchased my Vibrams I’ve covered somewhere around 500 miles in five states, three countries. This includes one marathon AND a hike to the top of Mount Vesuvius. I love these shoes, I’ve bonded with these shoes and I don’t think I’ll go back to running with big padded shoes again.