Barefoot, or minimalist, footwear took off in 2009, loosely, with the Vibram FiveFingers. Almost overnight, fanatics in the running world embraced the minimalist movement and Vibrams suddenly captured over 2% of the market – which is a lot when you’re talking an industry with about $48billion in annual revenue. While the vast majority of elite and semi-elite runners maintained their devotion to previous styles, the trend was born and has kept pace with the running world.
Chris McDougall July 2010 TED Talk – courtesy TED
A Minimalist Messiah
Much of the craze around minimalist running gloms around Chris McDougall, an American author, journalist, and exercise enthusiast who published the 2009 memoir cum travel journal, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The book was a travel log of the Tarahumara Indian tribe of the Mexican Copper Canyons written in conjunction with a personal examination of his own running activity. He was fascinated by the tribe’s ability to run hundreds of miles each week with few issues while wearing nothing more than thin slips of rubber as “shoes”.
Being a journalist, he researched modern athletic sneakers and wondered why the industry, which is only about 50 years old, seemed to make heavier and thicker soled shoes every year and yet the rate of sport’s injuries only seemed to increase. His conclusion was complicated, but boiled down to an advocacy for increasing the natural stride by diminishing the disconnect created by modern shoes.
The shorthand: running barefoot allows the foot to run; let the foot do its magic. While McDougal never intended to lead a movement, Born to Run became known as the Barefoot Manifesto and the movement took off.
Making the Most of the Minimalist
So-called “barefoot shoes” offer the closest feel to running truly barefoot. Soles provide the bare minimum in protection from potential hazards on the ground. Many have no cushion in the heel pad and a very thin layer (as little as 3-4mm) of shoe between your skin and the ground. Others offer a bit more cushioning.
Most significantly, all feature a “zero drop” from heel to toe. (“Drop” is the difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe.) This encourages a midfoot or forefoot strike. Traditional running shoes, by contrast, feature a 10–12mm drop from the heel to the toe.
It’s a Striking Question
While McDougall may have kicked off the avalanche, he wasn’t the first to challenge the running paradigm. Much of the science behind McDougall’s claims came from the paleoanthrobiologist and Harvard Professor Daniel E. Lieberman AB, MA, PhD. Lieberman, and his team, studied the gait of ancient and modern man and found, among other things, a major difference came from the modern tendency to run with a leading heel strike as opposed to a forefoot strike. He found: “most forefoot and some midfoot strikes (shod or barefoot) do not generate the sudden, large impact transients that occur when you heel strike (shod or barefoot)”.
In effect, modern footwear has led us to walk on our heels which is out of sync with how the skeletal and musculature originally developed. In theory, a different kind of running style might lead to a more natural impact pattern and fewer injuries. Publicly, Lieberman was quick to note that he’s not advocating for a certain style of running but merely reporting his analyses. (not so)Privately, Lieberman is a barefoot marathoner and enthusiast and is often called the Barefoot Professor.
The main difference between the forefoot and heel strike involves how force is exerted through the body. Simply put, when we run heel->toe (cowfooted) there are two impact points: when we plant our heel; when our midfoot strikes. This initial, sharp heel-strike, and the overall style, exert different kinds of pressures to the knees and ankles and, according to Lieberman, are not in line with how these mechanisms naturally developed.
However, when we run mid-foot or forefoot (foxfooted), there is a far smoother impact transition which engages muscles in a more natural rhythm and doesn’t included that very sharp and extra initial impact.
More Walking, Less Talking
The science, and controversy, behind minimalist running is immense. For every Vibram’s Lawsuit (which cost them $3.75m for overstating health benefits of their minimalist shoes) there are umpteen stories of Zola Budd and Tegla Laroupe who have competed and won in the Olympic, Goodwill games, and New York marathons while barefoot. While the pendulum has swung away from the 2012 minimalist heyday, it hasn’t returned to the heavily stuffed and “ankle-locked” shoes of the 1990s. Likely, there is a balance to found between the two extremes, allowing the foot to work as it naturally developed grown and maximizing its potential through science and industry.
In full disclosure, I’ve been wearing minimalists shoes for about four years (except when with my fiancé who won’t be seen in public with me if I’m wearing “those ugly things”). Part of my attraction to minimalism is pure contrarianism, ¿who is Nike to tell me how to walk? And, part comes from my attraction to a more “natural” approach to movement. I’ve run 5 and 10k races and am working toward a minimalist marathon. I’ll always be more of a finisher than a contender, but I look forward to crossing many a ticker-line wearing toe-shoes and a smile (and probably pants, but ya never know).