Why I Run in Barefoot Shoes

Change from Trainers

After my second marathon I needed to replace my running trainers. I had run so many miles in them that the stitching had split, the rubber of the soles had worn in multiple places and there were significant holes forming.

Mistakenly I had run in the same trainers for more than three years, since my first road race.

So in Autumn 2014 I researched the running shoe market. I was open-minded but was influenced by the minimalist movement.

The core principle of this movement is to focus only on those features that add value to one’s life. For shoes, this means not indulging in aspects that do not enhance performance, instead focusing on the basics. Vibram Fivefingers best fit the criteria.

The EL-X model I chose was an ideal introduction to barefoot running, and I had no problem adjusting to them in training. My first race wearing them was my third marathon.

Vibram FiveFingers EL-X Barefoot Running Shoes
My Vibram FiveFingers EL-X (Black) Running Shoes

Benefits of Barefoot Shoes

  • I experience a better fit and greater flexibility, especially for my toes.
  • I feel lighter on my feet and am able to deal with the effects of different terrain.
  • I can choose whether to run with toe socks or not. I usually wear socks in colder weather or when I run off-road. I usually do not wear socks in hotter weather or when I am undertaking faster workouts.
  • I am able to clean them easily by placing them in the washing machine.
  • I believe my feet and ankles are stronger as a result of them becoming less dependent on the cushioning of trainers, and I have developed a fatigue-resilient forefoot strike running style.

Personal Success

Running in these shoes makes me feel like a unique runner, as I am often the first ‘barefoot runner’ across the finish line. I have run more than ten races in barefoot shoes, including the V-RUN and Bikila models, and have set all my current personal best times in them.

My decision of footwear has been validated in part by a former university colleague who trained in the gym wearing them, and by inspirational runners such as Barefoot Ted and Christopher McDougall (explored in the book Born to Run). Although I do wear them out quickly, the brand provides a quality product that meets my needs.

Run to Feel Alive

Born to Run (2009) by Christopher McDougall

Injury Dilemma

In January 2001, a journalist in his 40s asks doctors why running causes him and the majority of runners so many injuries. He learns running is a high-impact sport that affects a very sensitive area of the body – the feet.

He notes that running is a primal activity used for pleasure and to escape danger. Running animals are injury-free and yet humans appear to suffer regularly. 

Running Shoes

McDougall tackles the subject by summarising extensive studies on the effects of shoes.

  • The more cushioning in shoes, the less stable they become, as feet always seek to contact a solid platform. Therefore, thinner soles provide greater stability.
  • We are designed through evolution to run barefoot, as pronation is a natural feature of our feet.

Despite the constant technological advances and sophisticated marketing campaigns, modern running shoes actually increase runners’ chance of injury. The multi-billion dollar industry is also indicative of Western society, which prioritises short-term results and monetary incentives over long-term consistency and health.

Daring Adventure

McDougall sets off to discover the purity of running and finds the Copper Canyons of Mexico, where he meets the Native American tribe of the Tarahumara. The running philosophy adopted by this peaceful, giving and athletic people is humbling.

  • They run free like children subconsciously do.
  • They love running in any condition and at any time, embracing the uncertainty of the next obstacle.
  • They eat a simple diet, predominantly local vegetables such as greens and squashes, and grains such as corn.

McDougall learns to run easy, light and smooth in order to run faster, and to complete an ultramarathon along challenging trails. The race takes months of extensive planning and treacherous navigation, culminating in a secret and awe-inspiring event with some of the best endurance runners in the world, including Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton and Barefoot Ted.

Running Man Theory

Ultimately, McDougall subscribes to a scientific theory that humans are born to run. Despite losing power, stability and aerodynamics by travelling on two legs, we retain many running attributes:

  • an achilles tendon
  • arched feet
  • short and straight toes
  • large glutes
  • the nuchal ligament*

We can also take more steps per breath than any other animal. Combined with sweating on the move, we can cool without stopping and thus fare better in all climates.

These features enable us to be the best persistence hunters. The skills of animal tracking, strategy and visualisation mean we could use our aerobic capacity to exhaust antelope to death.

Although we thankfully do not use running for this purpose we still harbour the desire to travel at pace using only our will and physical strength.

* This stabilises our heads when running.