For this entry, I'm taking a path away from discussing Pinhoti 100 miler training to discuss the benefits of barefoot / Vibram Five Finger running drills. This is actually a piece I wrote for the Quest Outdoors blog page, but is completely relevant nonetheless...
What's the deal with all those people you see walking around in those goofy toe shoes? Are they wearing shoes, are they wearing socks? What gives?
Want to finally run injury free? Read on, this is for you...
Those shoes are called, “fivefingers", and they're manufactured by the Vibram Company. Lately they have taken the running community by storm, partly due to the runaway success of the book Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall.
Fivefingers were designed to simulate being barefoot.
I want you to try the following exercise; Pretend you are about to run. Stick out your right leg as if you're about to make your first stride. What part of your foot hits the ground first? Chances are, your leg is out-stretched straight, and your heel is touching the ground before any other region of the foot. This is typical running form in our country, and it is also what causes most injuries associated with running. This is known as a Heel Strike.
Running with the longest stride possible is what makes the fastest runners the fastest runners though, Right? NOPE. It's all about economy. Before we get into running economy, let’s do another exercise.
Go ahead and stick out your right leg again, and point your toe upward with your heel touching the ground. Your leg is straight; your knee is not bent. In this Heel Strike position, the straight knee cannot perform the function in which it evolved millions of years to do, which is absorb shock. The shock that the body experiences while running is therefore transferred to the shins, and to the knee.
Let’s look at modern running shoe design.
Shoes are made to absorb shock and provide cushion. About 50 years ago, sport scientists theorized that longer running strides could possibly equal faster runners, and they thought that by providing runners with shoes which had cushioned heels, they could facilitate this longer running stride. Unfortunately they didn't have the foresight to see the resulting injuries that would occur. During this time, we were taught to run with long loping strides, and we abandoned the Mid-Foot Strike.
An easy way to examine the Mid-Foot Strike is by studying a child’s gait while running. Chances are if you are watching a kid run, they are probably running with a mid-foot strike. Coincidentally, kids learn to run barefoot, in the most comfortable, non-jarring method possible. (Keep in mind this is only an anecdotal example however!) Mid-foot striking is characterized by the ball of the foot and the heel landing at the same time. Landing with a mid-foot strike will usually feel like most of your body weight is actually landing closer to ball as opposed to the heel. In landing with a mid-foot strike, the aim is to land with knees slightly bent, with the upper body still, and leaning slightly forward. This allows the quads and the hamstrings to absorb the shock of landing with each stride, and gravity to pull you forward slightly.
A mid-foot strike, slightly leaning forward. Knee Slightly Bent
There is one other major style of running called the forefoot strike. This strike involves landing solely on the ball of the foot and the heel does not touch at all. Sounds great right, non-jarring? No. When you land solely on the ball of your foot, unless you are running for shorter distances like the 100 meter sprint, this puts too great a stress load on Gastrocnemius, (the calves), as well as the Achilles tendon.
So where does all this get us? It means that to run injury free, we need to re-adopt a mid-foot strike. The best way to do this is by doing running drills, such as running barefoot! Running, although on the surface seems to be the most simple of all sports and exercise, could actually be one of the most complicated!
Running in fivefingers allows the wearer to run “barefoot” without the concern of skin integrity compromise. You can begin to examine what proper form should feel like because without the added cushion of shoes. You will naturally run with “soft” feet, and begin to strengthen the 26 bones, 33 joints, and 20 muscles in the human foot. Shoes are NOT evil, and I am still a wearer of “standard” footwear on longer runs, but fivefingers are a necessary tool which enables runners to focus on form, and run injury free.
Quest Outdoors has an organized fivefingers run on every Thursday at 6pm at Tom Sawyer Park. The run is for ALL levels of runners, and usually we go about 30-40 minutes. This is the perfect amount of time for a fivefingers run, as they are great for these barefoot style drills. Swing by the shop, or stop by a run at Tom Sawyer to ask us more about fivefingers and running form.
Fivefingers come in a variety of styles, from the slip on simple no-frills “classic”, to the backcountry hiker, the “KSO Trek” which even has a kangaroo leather upper. There are many others suited for everything from yoga to kayaking too!