“The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.”
A fascination with barefoot running began among enthusiasts as far back as 1960, when Adebe Bikila ran a world record-breaking marathon at the Olympics in 2 hours and 15 minutes. It wasn’t until almost fifty years later that enterprising footwear designers came out with a pair of shoes named after the runner and modeled after his ‘primitive’ strategy for success in endurance running. Behold, Vibram Five Fingered Bikila’s:
These babies have tricked out individual toe-slots to ramp up dexterity, their quick-lace closure system tightens to a comfortable fit with just one tug, their anti-bacterial treatment and moisture-wicking nylon stops the stink. However, our recommendation is that you wash them regularly.
I remember the first time I saw a pair of Vibram Five Finger running shoes I was sitting in an upscale café in Washington DC, and somebody walked in off the street with a pair on his feet. I thought to myself, “Is it okay for that guy to be in here like that? He’s not wearing shoes—are those shoes?” Before long, my roommate, who had debilitating joint problems for years, was sporting a pair and trumpeting their efficiency. “I feel so much better,” he gushed. I myself have had some back and knee problems and I wondered whether or not it was time to try these fancy new contraptions out. Before investing in a pair, I sat down to do my research.
The man who’s done the most research into this subject is E. Liebermann who has actually built an entire website to display his research. The first article that I found on Google was a report from Science Daily adapting Harvard Research Materials. The article gives a good breakdown of the motive behind engineering ‘barefoot’ shoes, and does a good job supporting its assertions with data and theory. Essentially, the gist of the article is summed up in a quote from E. Liebermann, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University:
People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike. By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel strike. Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain. All you need is a few calluses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot. Further [it seems to be] less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.
After describing the scope of the study that they performed to support their thesis, Lieberman’s partner in the study chimed in to say:
Heel-striking is painful when barefoot or in minimal shoes because it causes a large collision force each time a foot lands on the ground… Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing, avoiding this collision by decreasing the effective mass of the foot… Our hope is that an evolutionary medicine approach to running and sports injury can help people run better for longer and feel better while they do it…
So: how does theory play out in real-life?
I bought a pair of Vibram’s Five Fingered Bikila’s for a hundred bucks and decided to put this concept to the test. As Antonio Porchia said: “Certainties are arrived at only on foot.” They arrived in the mail on a Monday after I came home from work. I slipped off the Mephisto Marlans that I wear to the office, and slipped into the Bikilas shoes. Immediately, just walking around, the sensory shift was dramatic. Five fingered shoes are (obviously) almost weightless. Essentially the experience is very similar to walking around in extremely durable tote socks. I stretched out and went for a run.
Though my usual regimen is at least 4 to 5 miles in the spring, I ran a 1 ½ the first day as per the recommendations of friends. I’d been directed to run only a mile or two a day until the ligament and musculature in my feet had a chance to develop and correct themselves. As we can see from studies published in the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery (the last time that a bare foot lifestyle was common, apparently) the bones of the foot form to fit its container. In other words, if you’re wearing shoes with high arches, especially when you’re young, your feet will have high arches.
Just take a look at the photos.
After a week or two of running on this limited regimen I started dialing up my training. On week three I ran 4 miles a day. By week four, I was back up to five miles a day in the Vibram’s—and feeling great! I’ve been running trails with them for the past few weeks and the experience is completely different on a tactile and experiential level. It feels—well—primitive, but it also feels just fantastic. It’s helped with my IT band this past weekend and, by all accounts, I can expect continued benefits if I keep using my Bikila’s as I have been for the past two months. From posture correction to knee-problems, these shoes are supposed to work out your kinks. We’ll see what’s changed and what stays the same next autumn.
In the meantime, I’m a happy customer.
Thomas Stone is a contributor at Pom Poms and Cigars