Barefoot Runners

The newest trend in running shoes is the oldest known to man

By Erin Seglem

Sara Hess, a Haverford college junior, kneels down, grey shoelaces wrapped around her fingers. She secures her sneakers, which she fondly refers to as “bricks.” Hess’ feet need heavy control because she tends to pronate severely, when she’s running –her foot rolls to the outside as it hits the ground. It can cause injury if not controlled. So, she wears shoes developed to provide her feet with strong control.

Ever since the 1970’s running fad, athletic companies have poured billions of dollars into producing the perfect running shoe that were meant to make running safer and prevent injury. Eventually the modern running shoe, full of cushioning and plastic control was developed.

A few years ago, however, runners began to question whether the extra support and control was necessary. So, shoe companies began pouring their resources into developing a new shoe and came up with a minimalist solution. So minimal they are called barefoot-style running shoes.

Part of the inspiration came from Christopher McDougal, a journalist and runner, who suffered from a seemingly unending list of

injuries. McDougal sought out the answer to his problems and found it within the Mexican Copper Canyons. The subjects of his 2009

Vibram Running Shoes

bestseller, Born to Run, are the Tarahumara. Members of reclusive society, they are known for running amazing distances barefoot or in thin leather sandals — generally between 50 and 100 miles at once. Despite the punishment on their feet, they managed to avoid the common injuries that most normal distance runners struggle with today.

McDougal discovered that a major difference between the Tarahumara and the average distance runner was their footwear. This idea has since spread to runners everywhere. Jordan Schilit, a junior at Haverford College as well as a member of the men’s cross country team says he does many of his shorter morning runs in a pair of Vibram Five-fingers, “It’s basically like running barefoot…but it’s a bit more protective on my feet when running over rocks and roots.” he said.

The shoe provides a thin shell that snugly fits the foot and has acts like a glove, separating the toes.

In the last year, two major athletic companies, Brooks and New Balance, have released new lines of shoes meant to mimic barefoot running. Like the five-fingers they provide little more than protection from things that might hurt a truly barefoot. Nike also revised their lightweight shoe, the Free, to more resemble the barefoot style.

Most runners seem to see the new style of running as something to try, but with caution. As Emily Scott, a Haverford College sophomore who, while at home, works for a running store, explained: “Whenever someone comes into the store asking about the minimalist shoes I make sure that they understand that our body is not used to it.” Shifting from a shoe with lots of support to one with none can cause new injuries because running barefoot creates an entirely different kind of footstrike.

Avi Bregman, also a sophomore agrees with Scott: runners need to build up to running barefoot, otherwise they’re likely to hurt themselves.

Annick Lamar, a professional runner and assistant cross-country coach at Haverford is wary of the new trend. “I think barefoot running is good in theory, dangerous in practice,” she said.

Though she agrees that most people don’t need the same intense support as Hess, “I think good running shoes are very important for injury prevention.” Lamar says that a light system of foot support is ideal.

Last fall, Schilit could not run due to a stress fracture in his femur. The injury got Schilit thinking about how he runs. “I was running in a stability shoe…and I found out the hard way that that was no the shoe I should be running in.” After six months of rehabilitation, Schlitz began running. This time, though, he started to change the style of his running shoe. “So by the summer of 2011, I adjusted to only running in [minimalist shoes].”

Schilit is quick to praise those who want to try barefoot style running as well as the companies that are now producing a minimalist type of shoe. “That’s basically what the idea is behind the Brooks Pure Project shoes—strip down all supportive elements of the shoe and teach yourself how to run properly…Minimalism shoes have helped me so much,” says enthusiastically.

A year after his injury, Schilit won the Centennial Conference Cross-Country championships and placed fourth at the NCAA Division III Mid-east Regional Championships. He said that minimalist shoes have helped him get rid of his bad running habits and will help him prevent future injuries.

“…I believe in the minimalism approach,” he said. “The shoe companies are only introducing [minimalist shoes] now because they know they made a lot of mistakes with developing so many “harness-inflated” shoes over the last few years; they know they screwed up big time and now they’re just trying to put on the ‘good guy’ hat.”

The trend looks like it may have some strong staying power. Putting the technical view aside, Haverford freshman, Lily Einstein says, “I love running barefoot and in Vibrams, especially on long runs in grass…it just feels nice.”