Barefoot running and training has caught the attention of many over the past few years, with both positive and negative reception. I happen to be mostly on the "positive" side of the fence, especially when it comes to training athletes, which is of course what I do for a living.
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In addition to the sport of powerlifting, many astute strength and conditioning coaches have had their athletes perform some if not all of their training barefoot and/or on different surfaces, such as in the sand and grass. This was done to provide a different stimulus or to supposedly increase the stabilization demands from a more unstable surface. But the advent of "barefoot shoes" is somewhat of a new idea, and the utilization of this type of footwear in the Sports Performance and Training worlds seems to have gained a lot of traction over the last 5 or so years.
My Philosophy on Footwear
Before I explain my philosophy strictly on footwear, let me start with my general philosophy on training. As a Sports Performance Coach, I am and have been fortunate to work with athletes from a wide variety of sports and a rather large range in age and ability. The guiding principle which I have developed during my time training people is that the human body is the human body. With few exceptions, it is supposed to work the same way, no matter what sport you play. So when I train athletes, or regular Joe's for that matter, I don't see a hockey player here, and a baseball player there. I see a human body that needs to move the way the human body was designed to move. Whatever skills you choose to develop on top of that foundation of human movement is what makes you an "X" player. The foundations of athletic development are the same no matter what sport you choose to participate in.
And this brings me to my philosophy on footwear. The foot-ankle complex has 26 bones and 33 joints. It was built to be extremely mobile. At the same time, it has over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments! It was also designed to be extremely stable. On top of all that, there is an incredible amount of proprioceptive feedback that is supposed to be coming from the foot. This feedback is extremely important, as it help's to dictate how the rest of the body moves and reacts with the ground during every foot-strike.
What does all this mean? Well, as we have seen the foot should be both mobile and stable, and be able to transfer the proprioceptive feedback from its interaction with the ground back to the brain. This feedback lets the brain dictate whether the foot needs more mobility or more stability in an instant. Most traditional footwear just doesn't allow any of this to occur to the level our feet were designed. Even worse, I believe that constant use of "regular shoes" and/or not enough time spent barefoot can actually cause a negative adaptation to the feet, whereby they lose the mobility they should have and at the same time lose the strength and stability they need. Just to add one more log to the fire, regular shoes often impair the very important proprioceptive feedback that the brain needs to be able to make those instantaneous decisions about how to react and respond appropriatly to movement and the environment. So....
I am a big, big, big fan of "barefoot" training in Sports Performance. For most people. I do think that there are legitimate cases of structural deformations where a person will actually do more harm than good by training barefoot, although I think this is more the exception than the norm. In most cases however, I think spending time training barefoot or in a "minimalist" shoe can be hugely beneficial to both injury reduction and performance enhancement.
In short, getting out of a structured, supported, one-size-fits all training or running shoe and allowing, or more appropriatly, asking the foot to do what it was designed to do will help athletes move better in the long run. And moving better is really the name of the game.
So on my path of "barefoot education" over the years, I have experienced and experimented with several different types of "barefoot" shoes. I will break down what I percieve to be the pro's and con's of 5 different selections.
First, the Nike Free. Several years ago Nike took a bold step into the barefoot world by introducing a shoe they called the "Free". Basically, the original conception was a running shoe who's sole was made to be very flexible and mobile, mimicking the foot's natural movement. At first the shoe didn't catch on very well. At least not to the masses. They certainly caught the attention of many in the Performance Field, but they must not have sold well becuase they became increasingly difficult to find.
However over the last year or two the Nike Free has made a resurgence, with several models available and catering to different niches. There are several devoted to the running community as well as 1 or 2 marketed for the training world. Either way, Nike did a great job introducing the idea of the "deconstructed shoe" to the general public this time around. This is certainly a positive, as well as the overall comfort of the shoe. I personally have worn many pairs of the Free and enjoyed them all. I have tended to lean towards the more mobile of the selections, which are generally marketed for running rather than training, but all in all I think the line is a step in the right direction and has certainly led other major shoe brands to jump on the "minimalist" bandwagon.
While I began my "barefoot journey" with the Nike Free, I have also had several of my former collegiate volleyball teams train in different variations of this shoe, all to rave reviews.
Next up on the shoe review is the Vibram FiveFinger. This is the shoe which was featured in "Born to Run" and has really become popular. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm sure you will recognize the footwear in this picture below.
Ah yes, the dreaded "Toe Shoe". To my knowledge the original, the Vibram FiveFingers have been around before they became rather popular because of the book. I know I was wearing them long before Mr. McDougall published his best seller.
The brand features many different models, ranging from the ballet-slipper-looking "Classic", to the leather-boot-style "Bormio". While the thickness and stiffness of the soles vary to some degree, even the "beefiest" Vibram FiveFinger is about as close as you can get to barefoot without being barefoot. These shoes are designed to be essentially a bit of rubber traction hugging the bottom of your foot, allowing it to move, feel, and react the way it was meant to.
I will admit my bias here; I love the Vibram FiveFinger shoes. Sure, they can get pretty stinky if you don't wear socks, and they take a some getting used to the look. But to me, this is the ultimate "barefoot" shoe. There is no heel drop, they are extremely mobile, and while there has been some debate about the positive or negative effects of the individual toes on "inter-toe-proprioception", I think the real benefit from separating the toes comes from forcing the foot to spread out.
As for real world training experience, not only have I worn this shoe for the better part of the last 5 years in my own training, but I had my entire team of collegiate women's basketball players train in them for about two years while in my former position. They were incredibly well recieved, and I feel the ability to train "barefoot" was a significant peice of the puzzle in decreasing injuries with this team.
Next up in the shoe review is the New Balance Minimus 20.
This shoe is actually designed for trail running (though they do make a similar shoe for the road, and another "Minimus" shoe for training...that one is quite different however). The sole is pretty mobile...not to the level of the FiveFinger, but significantly more than the Free. The major "pro" for most people is that the forefoot is closed; that is the toes are not seperated. I originally bought this shoe for just that reason. I wanted a "barefoot" shoe that looked a little more normal for wearing to work. I really enjoy the mobility and foot feel with this shoe even though it is a little stiffer and thicker than what I would consider a true barefoot feel.
What I dislike is the slight heel drop. I believe it is only 4mm, but in training it is quite noticable. Probably because of all the time I have spent training in the FiveFingers or fully barefoot, but nonetheless I really feel it while deadlifting and Olympic lifting. However I really like this shoe for its intended purpose; trail running. Because of the slightly stiffer and more padded soles, my feet get just enough feel on the turain to give me immediate feedback, but not enough to have me limping off of every little pebble. In fact I got into trail running after I bought this shoe, so I probably have some thanks to give for me and my puppy's newfound hobby.
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