Have you seen the alien shoes spotted on celebrities recently? Matthew McConaughey and girlfriend Camila Alves wear them to work out, actor Channing Tatum runs in them, and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George sports them for beach football.
Just what are these funky, rubber glove toe socks? They’re Vibram FiveFingers—shoes that are meant to mimic the experience of running without shoes, yet protect your feet from dirt and debris. Why would people want to run without their cushy trainers? Running without shoes can strengthen your feet, ankles, and lower legs and improve balance. Some say modern running shoes are to blame for injuries. And one man wrote an immensely popular book that concluded as much.
The 10 laws of injury prevention
Vibram started making the five-toed shoes in 2006, but the trend really picked up steam last year, following the publication of Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run.” The book describes how Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians have become some of the greatest long-distance runners in the world despite running barefoot or in sandals fashioned from tire rubber. McDougall chronicles an ultramarathon race in Mexico’s Copper Canyons attended by a group of Americans including “Barefoot Ted” McDonald, who either ran sans shoes or in FiveFingers, in case of sharp rocks. The author argues that we’d be better off without the souped-up shoes marketed to us by giants like Nike and Adidas, which he says have done nothing to prevent injuries. The book made “The New York Times” bestseller list, and now TMZ is photographing celebrities in their very own lizard shoes.
According to CNN, the FiveFingers have become so popular that the company is having a hard time keeping them in stock—and stopping counterfeiters from selling knock-offs online.
Some barefoot devotees simply like the sensation of feeling the surface they’re running on while others swear up and down that ditching traditional running shoes has helped them prevent injuries. While there’s no scientific evidence to support the latter claim, we do know that running barefoot or in barefoot-style shoes like the FiveFingers or Nike Free changes one’s running mechanics. When runners aren’t wearing shoes with built-up soles, they tend to land in the middle or toward the front of their feet rather than on their heel and researchers believe that such midfoot or forefoot striking results in less impact on the body. But as Susan Paul, M.S., exercise physiologist and program director for the Orlando Track Shack Foundation says, “To date, there are no studies indicating that running shoes contribute to injury or, conversely, that barefoot running reduces injury or makes you run faster.”
If you’re thinking about shedding your shoes, consider these guidelines:
- Barefoot training is not for people who are just starting to run or returning from a long layoff—it’s something to slowly incorporate into an existing running regimen.
- If you have persistent or serious foot problems, consult your podiatrist first.
- Ease in slowly. Paul advises starting with a few minutes on a flat, relatively forgiving surface once a week. Grassy fields, smooth roads, and soft trails qualify. Running on sand might be tempting, but barefooting newbies should stick to wet sand at first as the unstable soft stuff puts a lot of torque on your joints and is much harder to run on.
- Listen to your body. “Barefoot Ken Bob” Saxton, founder of runningbarefoot.org and finisher of more than 70 barefoot marathons, says, “Luckily, your feet are sensitive, which is a good thing. Listen to them and they’ll keep you from doing something stupid.”
Susan Rinkunas is an associate editor at Runner’s World, a magazine (and website) that informs, advises, and motivates runners of all ages and abilities—and we mean it. Her blog on Yahoo! Shine offers tips on running technique, nutrition and weight loss, shoes and apparel, and balancing fitness and life.
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