Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Barefoot" Philosophy and Shoe Review

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.

Much of the credit for the idea of barefoot or "minimalist" running in popular culture can be linked back just a few years to a very popular book called "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. In his book, Mr. McDougall talks about a tribe of "Superathletes" who live in Mexico. This tribe lives essentially barefoot, and more or less run everywhere they go. Despite their lack of modern running shoes, they are some of the greatest distance runners in the world.

However, barefoot running has been a subculture in the running world for quite a long time, much longer than  "Born to Run" has been on bookshelves. What seems to be a newer phenomenom is the practice of "barefoot" training in the Sports Performance world. Although this isn't completely true either. "Barefoot" or "minimalist" training also has been around for a long time. For years and years powerlifters often trained and competed in shoes like the Chuck Taylor becuase of it's low, flat profile. This type of sole keeps the lifter closer to the gournd and provides a biomechanical advantage in exercises such as deadlifting, over the raised heel commonly found in more "technologically advanced" footwear.

Wedding Picture...thats right, we rocked the Chucky T's

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.

What I've grown not to like about the Free is that I don't think they have gone far enough. Don't get me wrong, I used to love my Free's. And I still think they are a pretty good introductory shoe for someone interested in moving into the "barefoot" training world. But at this point in the game, I feel that they still have way too much support and way too much of heel drop. In case you aren't familiar with that term, it refers to the height difference between the heel and the forefoot of a shoe. Basically, most shoes are essentially some version of a "high heel". And the higher the heel, the more problems tend to arise and be masked by the shoe. I prefer a "zero heel drop" as I'll get into later.

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.

She's a 10lb Killer

The next shoe in line isn't a training shoe at all, although the company puts out several types of shoes in their "barefoot" line. The Merell Tough Glove is a shoe I bought to wear for casual dress in those rare moments I'm not wearing shorts and a T-shirt. The Tough Glove sports a typical looking brown leather upper with a Vibram sole (Vibram is actually a specific type of rubber often used for the "barefoot" sole, not actually a part of the "FiveFingers" brand).

I really like the feel of this shoe. It has a true zero heel drop which is tough to find in a "normal" shoe, and is extremely mobile. It also has the widest toe box of any of the enclosed shoes on this list. This is a big feature as it allows your forefoot to spread out in a similar fasion to the separated-toe shoes. This is one of the other problems with most traditional shoes, whether they are a running/training shoe or a casual/dress shoe. Shoes usually taper at the toes, compressing and restricting the natural mobility and movement of the foot. The Merell Tough Glove is wider in this critical area so it allows proper function.

Last but not least is the Adidas Adipure Trainer. This is the newest addition to my barefoot arsenal. The Adipure Trainer is the first "toe shoe" put out by a major shoe brand. Designed specifically with the weight room in mind, the Adipure is an extremely comfortable shoe. The Adipure comes in two variations; a laced and a laceless model. I, as well as the team I train have the laceless version. This is a slip on type of shoe that fits pretty snuggly.

One of the immediate "pro's" of the Adipure over the FiveFinger is the ease of sizing. With the FiveFingers you have to actually measure your foot with a ruler to get the proper size. The Adipure's come in "true to fit" size so you can just order them with your typical shoe size. They way Adidas accomplishes this despite the importance and variability of toe length is by using a stretchy fabric around each toe. This allows a little bit of play with size that the FiveFingers don't allow. However, this could end up being a "con" as it doesn't appear to be as durable as the FiveFingers which wrap the tip of each toe with a continuation of the Vibram sole.

Another aspect of the shoe that is different (not sure yet if it's a pro or con for the weight room) is a much stiffer mid and hind foot than the FiveFingers. The toes and fore foot are quite mobile, but the rest of the sole sits on a stiffer platform. This allows for a nice transfer of force during heavy lifing, but somewhat limits the stability and proprioception aspect of a more barefoot feel. They do however have a zero heel drop which is one of my biggest concerns at this point. Also, they don't fit quite as tight as the FiveFingers so there is a little bit more play during shuttles and lateral movement training.

So there you have it. My personal take on the barefoot training phenomenom and how it fits into my training philosophy, as well as some well traveled experience with several different variations on this sub-catagory of the shoe world. Hopefully I have been able to shed some light on the differences between these shoes and maybe spark some thoughts about what type of footwear is best when it comes to Sports Performance and Training.

1 comment:

  1. I came across the inov8 Bare-XF recently, I don't do crossfit but basically it's a zero drop running shoe designed for weightlifting and rope climbing, got them a few days ago tbh

    Apart from that I've been rocking the feiyues for about 2 years now, recommend you check them out too