Maximizing the Minimal

Man wearing a pair of black Vibram FiveFingers...
Image via Wikipedia

The minimal footwear experience experiment commenced last summer with the Vibram FiveFingers KSO. I’ve been running monkey-footed and ballerina-like through the wooded park next to my apartment for over a year now, off and on, dependent on how exhausted I am after the school day or how snow-laden the street, and I can now level some experience at the topick and bear witness to the wonders that constitute the minimal sole running experience.

Without the easy comfort of the shod foot, the cushioned heel, I’ve found that I have to run paradoxically completely relaxed coupled with a profound awareness of form. There’s no getting away with sloppiness. Now, you may think, you who have run for some time, that you don’t run sloppy t’all. I didn’t think I did, either. But until you’ve run barefoot, you don’t realize how lazy your stride and body mechanics have become, encased as your dogs have been in their little pillowy houses.

I’ve always been amazed, when casually observing runners at a park, at just how much some runners seem to get away with. Some practically falling over forwards with their backs hunched over, many slapping their feet down against the pavement, each foot an obese child belly flopping into an asphalt pool. But according to statistics, these undisciplined strides inevitably pave the way to injury.

Running with minimal footwear will not magically dissipate the danger of faulty running mechanics. Unsurprisingly, podiatrists report an influx of folks arriving at their doors with barefoot running related injuries. Nerds such as I that have breathlessly drunk of the intoxicating legend of barefoot running and immediately began banzai barefoot running on concrete after a decade of running shoe wearing . . . like lambs to the slaughter went our little pigs.

It’s a compelling story, you see. Told elegantly and grippingly by Christopher McDougall in Born to Run, it’s a tale of a method of persistence hunting that was developed by our distant ancestors and whose embers are barely kept alive by the traditions of a small tribe in the mountains of Mexico, but that has been rediscovered and rekindled by modern running heretics that were crazy and tough enough to challenge culturally ingrained habits and comforts. Ironically, these heretical runners have led to a surge in a new consumer trend towards the high-tech product known as the Vibram FiveFingers. Barefoot running but better, it could be said. Now you can find a minimal shoe made by every major running shoe manufacturer.

But caution must be advised. To run barefoot after a lifetime of shoe wearing is to become a naked babe in the wilds of the unknown again. New neural pathways, muscular memories, and blood bearing conduits must be hewn. Callouses must be formed. A whole new way of experiencing, a new cultural awareness, a new method of seeing the world must be created. This is not easy nor comfortable to someone accustomed to mindless, zoned out running.

When I wore shoes, I used to run fast — short and hard. I ran to escape myself. Now, I tend to run slower, though my cadence is quicker. My stride is tucked in, my feet fall underneath me rather than in front of me. I jog, I see where I am, I take in the sights, I feel the way the pavement presses against my soles, the weight of my body falling forward borne in my hips and knees, carried through by my arms, centrally balanced by my skull sitting erect upon my spine. Now, I run to find myself.

Sometimes, I miss the mindless running that I used to be able to get away with. I just want to zone out, just run, not have to be aware of how my feet are falling at every single step. But there’s a payoff. It feels good to run in minimal footwear. When my feet keep nailing that sweet spot, and my body is balanced, I swear that I can feel my tendons releasing some kind of happy chemical. My body rings with it afterwards. I’ve never done yoga, but it’s how I imagine a good yoga session must feel — like it releases unknown toxins and tensions from pressure points in your body. No, I’m not just talking about the runner’s high — I’d been running for over 15 years before I began this barefooting thing. It’s like runner’s high and then some.

Over the last year I’ve also been wearing minimal footwear all day while teaching, a brand called Vivobarefoot. Strangely, I’ve found walking in minimal footwear more challenging than running. Sometimes, for no reason that I can discern, it’s just incredibly awkward and difficult. I don’t know why this is, but I suspect it has to do with my state of mind and level of tiredness.

Here’s the great thing about barefoot running: you don’t even require shoes to do it! For someone who opposes consumerist culture, or is simply poor, this is good news. But if you prefer to wear minimal footwear, there’s still a benefit, which is that since you aren’t wearing heels anymore, you don’t really have much to wear down that will alter your footwear. So you could potentially just keep on wearing it until it completely falls apart. It’s a better investment in shoewear, in other words.

Now that the minimal footwear phenomenon has caught on, and pretty much every running shoemaker has some style of minimal footwear, I’m noticing that there’s an interesting evolution in running shoe making. Vibram is slowly developing slightly more structure and padding into their soles, while traditional shoemakers are slowly developing less. It seems that there is a happy medium that we are moving towards between technology and natural running mechanics. I think this is why geeks have become so enamored with the FiveFingers. I mean, let’s be honest here: technology can make our bodies perform feats not achievable through natural means. Witness tennis rackets of today vs. the wooden ones of yore. However, what we’ve also been learning is that technology should not preempt nor distort natural mechanics, but rather support and enhance those mechanics. Our feet and soles were developed the way they were for a reason. All those sensors we naturally have must be there to guide us into balanced footfall.

I just purchased the Vibram FiveFinger Bikila LS, as I suspected that the new style would afford a bit more padding in the forefoot area that would allow me to pick up my speed a bit. I’ve gone out for a few runs in them now, and I was correct. After the minimal KSOs, the Bikilas felt amazing. It almost feels like cheating.

Is barefoot running for you? Only you can answer that question. But as for me, I’m clearly sold.