I’d first like to start with a disclaimer that I am by no means an expert on this subject and it’s based on my own research and personal experiments that worked. If you are curious and want to give it a go, I’d highly suggest doing your own research, be aware of pain/strain and start gradually. I am also not sponsored or tied in anyway to the companies I mention here.
The Theory Behind Barefoot Shoes
I first started wearing Vibram five finger shoes about 7 years ago since no other shoes would fit me well. When I was running frequently, I had blisters and painful callouses as well as knee injuries that lasted several years. My little toe was bent so awkwardly from squeezing them into tight toe boxes for decades and always felt this dread putting my feet into shoes, and a sense of relief when I take them off – until I snuggled for the first time into the five finger shoes. It was like putting on a second skin, similar to the sensation of being on a sandy beach where it forms perfectly around your feet.
I then came across this presentation give by ‘Born to Run’ author Chrstopher McDoughall. He argues that we may have evolved to run and gives several very convincing reasons. It stems from these three mysteries;
- 2 million years ago, our brain grew in size due to increases in available caloric energy, most probably due to eating animals. But primitive weapons developed only 200,000 years ago.
- Women cannot beat men at short distance sprints but in ultra marathon distances of 50 to 100 miles, they can run equally well.
- If you start running from the age 19, you’ll reach peak performance at 27 and you gradually taper off back to the same performance level of a 19 year old at 64.
McDoughall argues that humans may have evolved as hunting pack animals. We sweat better than any other mammal and can continuously run in hot environment, whereas many other mammals need to slow down and pant to control the body temperature. We can basically outrun most mammals in a long distance race which is the basic principles of persistent hunting.
The interesting point he makes is that persistent hunting must have been conducted as a pack because;
- We were still very much in the food chain. There are many things out in the African savanna that will eat you if you’re alone, but as a pack you could ward off an attack.
- You need the knowledge and expertise of 64 year olds to navigate and track. And science shows they can run as well as 19 year olds.
- You need the nursing mothers and growing adolescents there because they need the animal proteins and makes no sense to carry a dead heavy animal 50 miles back. And sure enough, they can run equally well in long distances.
- You need the peak performing 27 year olds to finish and kill.
If we evolved for millions of years as a hunting, gathering, running pack, and crucially without any ‘shoes’, it makes perfect sense to ditch the modern cast like shoes. Our feet may have been as important a sensory information source as our hands in those times, really feeling the landscape, the humidity, the slipperiness etc, which explains the number of sensory nerves concentrated in our feet. Though, with an abundance of sharp materials like broken glass all around us, the closest thing to being barefoot safely in a town/city is owning Vibrams or other minimalist shoes.
My next mission, when I settle in a more rural setting, is to go completely barefoot and thicken the soles of the feet. Though, in a temperate climate, some form of footwear is needed in the winter, and also to disguise my unusual, nonconformity when I go food shopping. It’s hard enough as an Asian to integrate into a white rural community without being labelled as a hippy barefoot weirdo.
Since normal shoes are hard cased, cushioned and restricts free movement, it’s often described as cast like. What happens to broken arms in a cast, over even just a month, is a clear visible deterioration of muscle mass and tendon strength as well as bone density. The same thing happens to your feet over decades, if not lifetime of being in a cast. It takes a long time to train your feet back up to how it should function.
Vibram suggests spending 3 months, slowly increasing the number of hours you wear the shoes. Having gone through two transitions and one failed one, I can confirm that this is about right. I would recommend spending at least another 3 months to half a year if you plan on running in it. Tendons in particular takes much longer than muscles to strengthen and gradual increase is the only way forward.
Running barefoot is a completely different ball game. It took me about a year of consciously and constantly adjusting my running form until I could do it automatically, which seems like a long time. But the time investment is well worth it if you want longevity out of this form of activity. As mentioned in earlier paragraph, we are built to run until old age so it pays to get it right when you start.
The most notable difference when running in barefoot shoes is that you land on your forefoot and use the archilles and your calf muscles to cushion the landing and release the stored energy on kick back. If you’ve ever tried to run on a hard ground with no shoes, we all naturally start to take this form. In a fairly high grassy (savanna like) environment in which we probably evolved for a long time, it’s hard to judge the accurate topography of the landscape beneath. Once again, the natural inclination is to land on your forefoot since you have that split second more to adjust, safeguarding you from sprained or broken ankle – a near death sentence for a persistence hunter still in the food chain.
Second difference is that barefoot runners have a much higher cadence (the foot turnover) at about 180 per minute. Shorter strides allows accurate forefoot placement and longer time to absorb the shock since your legs are not hyper-extended at the point of landing. It’s very difficult to land on your forefoot if your foot is extended beyond your knee.
As a side note, with shorter strides it’s easy to fall into the trap of running from the stem of the legs, without oscilating the hips and engaging the core and the glutes which can end up with hip flexor tendinitis. I often try to loosen my hips and imagine the legs starting from the belly button which reduces the load on the hip flexors, engages the core muscles to bring the leg forward and increase the glute use on kick back.
Third difference is that barefoot running has less vertical oscillation (the body’s up and down bounce) as could be observed clearly in the video above. In the context of energy efficiency, reducing the vertical oscillation makes perfect sense. The shock of landing is absorbed through your feet and legs and your upper body glides over the landscape as a result, eliminating the energy it takes to lift and land some thing as heavy as your body. I suspect that if you are a persistent hunter, a stable head height helps to keep the distant target game in sight better too.
Some Mistakes to Avoid
- One of the hardest things to get right for me was the appropriate amount of pressure the heels exert on the ground. The forefoot landing cushions and stores the energy through your archilles and calf muscles , but the heels should also kiss the ground as part of the process. Too much and you could be placing a lot of burden on your knees, too little and you strain your archilles. There is a sweet spot and it helps to run slowly for a while trying various pressures while fully focused on the impact.
- The archilles takes a while to train. If you feel a stiffness or pain in the morning, leave it until it is fully recovered. The stiffness/pain tends to ease in the afternoon with better blood flow and it’s tempting to over do but the damage is still there. I would rely on the morning feedback to judge your tendon recovery levels. Tendinitis sucks.
- If you’ve worn normal shoes for a long time, you may have forgotten how to use your toes. One key part of rehabilitation is to understand and utilise the toes in your walking, eventually using it at a faster, more powerful way in running – distributing the impact, gripping the ground and exerting a fair amount of force in the kick back. It’s another tendon heavy movement that takes a while to get stronger at.
I’ve worn this V-Trek model in the Pyrenees extensively. I wasn’t so keen on the laces at first but it allows a really good fit and it’s perfect for a long duration wear. The softer soles grip on slippery stones and other outdoor surfaces well but wear out quickly on tarmac, which prompted me to purchase the model below for running on roads.
The ground feedback is superb, though on longer hikes in the mountains where you may be waking on sharp rocks for over 10 hours, the feedback becomes way too much. I think having a thicker soled lightweight boots for ascent and switching to these for faster decent breaks up the fatigue. It’s fantastic for hiking or running on well established trails but I’ve noticed that the heel grip on a grassy off trail downhill terrain is next to none.
V-Run – These pair are an absolute delight to wear. The forefoot impact points are covered in harder rubber that resist wear on tarmac. The shoes are covered in tiny holes that ventilate superbly. The quick draw lace system is fast and easy. The shoes weigh so little and fit so well that it feels closest to being barefoot.
The construction is fairly solid, much stronger than the impression it gives when you hold the shoes. Though, with it being pretty expensive, I’ve reduced the amount I wear this to running and the occasional daily wear to get longevity out of it. I’ve tried this pair for trail running and it’s fairly good on dry, even ground but not suitable for wet, muddy, inclined surfaces.
V-Trail – My latest addition is this trail running shoes. I’ve not had the pleasure of testing this out properly yet but the sole design suggests a solid grip on most surfaces, effective in fast ascent as well as descent, and the build is impressively solid. The only issue is that it feels like I should have bought a size above my usual size. I’m not quite sure whether it’s to do with the thicker padding/fabric and support, but my little toe is hitting the edge quite a bit and I can see it becoming painful in descent. I may need to devise a way to stretch the shoes in particular areas, but I prefer shoes to feel like your second skin straight out of the box. Especially when you’re paying a lot for it.
All of the shoes mentioned above are fairly high end specialised shoes designed for a purpose. They’re all comfortable enough to be worn in every occasion but I’m keen to get hold of one more cheaper model to wear on a day to day basis. It will increase the lifespan of the more expensive models and work out cheaper in the long run.
Other Interesting Minimalist Shoes for Consideration
I really like the freedom the toes have to move around in Vibram but I know many people find it challenging to accept the unusual design. Here are a few other options among many that are beginning to pop up with increased recognition of the benefits of being barefoot. I find it quite upsetting that these minimalist shoes with less materials cost so much and out of reach for so many people. I’ve decided long ago to be frugal in most things but to invest in shoes and mattresses. So although I live minimally in a van, I justify my expenditure on well designed shoes since it really dictates the quality of the experience.
Vivo Barefoot does minimalist shoes with thin, zero-drop soles and wide toe boxes that actually look like normal shoes. I’ve tried a few pairs of theirs and it feels fantastic. I recommend getting five finger socks for it to enjoy the wide toe box and give it maximum freedom to move around.
One brand I’m super curious to try is GoST Barefoot shoes. They use surgical grade stainless steel chain mail with optional rubber paws. The idea is that you can get it wet and muddy but can be cleaned and dried in minutes. I’m not quite sure if I’d like the weight of it but I suspect it will feel fairly normal once you train your legs and the fact that chain mail will presumably last for many many years tips the scale significantly towards it. I’d like to know what the average life span is before I invest in these but they do provide maintenance and repair services.
The fact that water and mud can travel freely through the mesh means that these are worn primarily without socks – your skin is the best waterproof. But I’m not sure anyone would like the combination of cold metal, lots of ventilation and bare feet in the winter, which effectively limits these shoes to be worn on warm days/indoors. Again, it could be a good option as a way of extending the lifespan of other shoes, or travelling in warm weather countries since it’s fast to dry and hard to fail.
As with my other posts on diet, or with evolutionary biases, there is much to be gained from looking at how we’ve evolved. What our ancestors ate and how they’ve lived for hundreds of thousands, if not, millions of years gives us an indication of our physiological adaptations and requirements. Our modern sedentary life of excess, lack of access to nature and Western individualist dogma have been linked to multitude of ills, which seems more and more like the result of our lifestyle becoming disengaged from how we’ve evolved to be.
But these lifestyle choices are within our control. We can introduce small changes in our lives to improve our well being and longevity, perhaps like the family in the video below.