In case you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of hype floating around right now about this “thing” called barefoot running. Well I’m here to tell you firsthand, BELIEVE the hype. It’s the real deal!
I’m sure at this point in your exercise career you have noticed someone walking around town with these glove-like foot coverings known as Vibram Five Fingers. These fall into the category of minimalist shoes. The entire minimalist market has been embraced with open arms by all companies and is quickly becoming a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who do not know what they are getting into when they buy a pair of minimalist shoes and that’s what we’re here to uncover.
The first question that probably comes to mind when you think of barefoot fitness is, why? Well, once you transition from shod to unshod, a whole new world opens up. Impact to the joints throughout your whole kinetic chain becomes all but obsolete. In exchange, the muscles in your feet do what they are supposed to do–work properly.
Expect to improve your balance and stability, and collect a handful of negative ions from the earth, which helps put you into homeostasis. This is commonly referred to as earthing or grounding. Latest research also indicates that earthing bodes well for a reduction in cardiovascular disease and hypertension risk.
I know you might be saying “Rail, you’re nuts” at this point, but it’s all true. I have put myself through the ringer in a quest to achieve barefoot fitness and I was successful. Allow me to explain the process a little further so you too can join the fun.
I love to exercise barefoot at all times. This includes weight training and running. When barefoot during weight training, your feet are firmly connected to the ground which allows you to have better balance and force production with exercises. This not only assists with lifting technique, but it will also give you an edge with weight increases. For you yoga-minded people, this is often referred to as rooting.
Now let’s talk about running specifically as this is a big craze these days. The first thing you need to realize is, you don’t just rip off your shoes and socks, fly down the sidewalk and say, “Look at me, I’m barefoot!” Before you even begin to venture toward barefoot running, you need to learn proper mechanics.
The average running gait is characterized by what’s known as a “heel strike.” As the name implies, your heel is first to hit the ground with every stride. This is why there are so many air-cushioned, fluffy padded sneakers on the market. I’m not throwing them under the bus, but I will tell you this. Every time your heel hits the ground, you are sending metric tons of force through your entire body.
Although you might not feel pain in your heel, your joints are definitely not happy with you. Fast forward to proper mechanics and you have a thing called a “forefoot strike.” Evidenced by the wording, the first thing to hit the ground is the balls of your feet, also known as the forefoot. Secondarily, your heel comes down nice and easy with little to no impact. That my friend is what saves your joints.
Once you have practiced and become efficient at running with a forefoot strike, you are ready to progress toward barefoot. This is where the minimalist shoes get invited to dinner. The goal is to gradually work your way down from a shoe with a high heel lift to a shoe with a very slight lift.
Think about it for a second. After wearing shoes with high heel lifts for years, your Achilles tendons and calves get conditioned to a certain length. If you take off your shoes and go for a run with your connective tissue adapted to these lengths, you risk suffering a major injury when your heel goes lower than it is accustomed to.
In the worst of cases, you end up in the emergency room with a torn Achilles tendon or calf muscle. That’s bad news and we don’t want that to happen. This is why you need to work your way down slowly to allow your Achilles tendons and calves to adapt. I’m not trying to scare you or sound like an elitist here. I just want to make sure you know all the facts.
The best way to approach the bench is to start with a flat-soled sneaker, then go to a minimalist shoe with a thinner heel lift, then go to a super thin heel, such as a Vibram Five Finger, THEN go barefoot. And once you are barefoot, you really need to separate yourself from ego.
This means start out walking short distances barefoot. Then go longer distances, then incorporate short jogs into your runs, and longer ones, and so on. When you first go unshod, ALWAYS bring your minimalist shoes with you in case you get in trouble. Remember, no ego! If your feet start to hurt or you even think a blister is developing, slip on your shoes. We don’t need to be heroes here.
I personally skipped the minimalist stage because I dedicated a lot of time and work to barefoot running. I only recommend you do this if you promise me you’ll pay strict attention to your biomechanics and drop the ego. When I say drop the ego, this means, be aware that you will not be able to run far or fast when you first start out. And, there is a good possibility you might have to mix in some walking during your runs if the going gets rough. That is totally fine. Proper form trumps everything else.
Lastly, when I drive around town, I’m barefoot. But when I get to Whole Foods I have to wear shoes. I like these particular types called Zem Ninja Toes. For me, they are way more user friendly than Vibrams when it comes to getting them on and taking them off, and are a lot more comfortable. But don’t take my word for it. Experiment and see what works best for you.