Run Faster Like the Kenyans

Nike And Vibram compared - Shoes that help you run.

In a recent article we discussed  the benefits of running barefoot . (We also covered some beginning foot exercises for barefoot living). Here, I want to take a quick moment to review some important research related to natural, or barefoot, running – and what that means to you when choosing a shoe.

A Quick note on Running History - Quite frankly, shoes for running are a new thing. In the 1970's, widened interest in running sports such as track and field, and the new medium of television that helped portray them, got many people off their couches and down the street. In the 1980's, popular author's such as George Sheehan published books on running and it's benefits to cardiovascular fitness, pushing even more people into the sport. As always, the shoe market developed running shoes to meet this new demand. But it wasn't that long ago that our friends and family just slapped on a basic pair of flats to go running in.

So all this hoopla about barefoot running is not so absurd. We are, in a way, just “running in circles” back to where we started.

Kenyan Runners - In a recent study published in Nature, and further reviewed by Harvard researchers, the techniques of habitual barefoot runners in Kenya were examined more closely. Now, we all know the Kenyans are freaking fast. As a young American lad, I found this quite frustrating. Frankly, it was a major reason I never pursued running more seriously (sub-20-minute 5k's were about as involved as I got). I always figured no matter how fast I got, there was always going to be some Kenyan that had gained his experience running from rhino's and lions who would beat my rear-end.

 For these guys, running is a way of life. And unfortunately, shoes are scarce so they do their running barefooted. For this study, they followed an ideal group of people to study the hows and whys of barefoot running.

 If you read my first article on the benefits of barefoot running, you would understand that we American's have extremely weak – coddled, even – feet. We also do not have the mind-body connection to efficiently run barefooted. The Kenyans, however, have both amazingly strong feet and the practice to run barefoot skillfully.

 What was discovered is that the barefooted runner lands with more of a forefoot or mid-foot strike, allowing the rest of his foot to help cushion the heel before impact. This spreads the impact over a wider area, and uses the leverage offered by the natural form of our foot to it's best advantage.

 Now, you don't have to run barefoot to begin realizing some the benefits of a forefoot strike. Even when running in shoes, those who use land on their forefoot or mid-foot area, will suffer less impact damage and be able to run further with less pain. Next time you watch the elite runners in a long-distance even, notice how they always land on the front area of their feet. It is more efficient and less painful. Elite runners know what barefoot runners are just re-learning.

 The Importance of Barefoot Running Shoes - There's more to it then landing on the pad of your foot, though. Running barefooted on a regular basis still has some amazing benefits in further strengthening your feet and mind. However, with most of us living in concrete jungles, there is a very real risk of foot injury due to sharp objects.

 To help protect our precious feet, there is a new line of barefoot and minimalist shoes that are now on the market to help the natural runner in their quest.

 One thing to remember as you begin experimenting with these shoes, is that your foot is not used to it's own, natural state. We are used to being cushioned and coddled into a correct running stance by our current shoes, so the first time in one of these shoes can feel, well, natural.

 Here I want to review a couple of them briefly.

 Minimalist Shoes - I have a friend who is a fan of his minimalist shoes. He bought one of the first pairs of Nike Free that hit the market, and proceeded to rapidly damage his heels before he discovered the importance of a forefoot strike.

The major benefit with these shoes are that still provide enough cushioning to significantly lessen the force of stride impact on the runner, while still allowing and encouraging proper foot movement and running stride. (as my friend learned the hard way)

Since his initial frustration with the Nike Free shoes my friend has gone on to run many miles (primarily 5k and 10k distances) using his new, healthier, stride.

 There are other (and possibly better) barefoot shoes on the market including the Newton Running line, the Merrel Barefoot True Glove and the Vivo Barefoot.

 Toe or Five-fingered Shoes – Inspired by my friend's success I focused more on running barefoot, slowly transitioning from my Asics shoes with pronation control to running on bare grass. However, when I discovered Vibram Five-fingered shoes, I instantly became a fan and bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Classic style and put them through the paces.

 Since my initial investment, I have become a bigger fan of some of the other shoes Vibram offers, such as their Sprint and KSO's, which work well both for running and for outdoor and water activities. The biggest advantage of these other styles over the Classic style is that these shoes have a Velcro strap instead of elastic for holding the shoe on. It took me several months of wearing my Classics a few hours a day to break in my feet so that they weren't always raw from the tight elastic.

 There are several other toe shoes on the market similar to the Vibram FiveFingers, but when you factor in for durability of this shoe (and its coolness) I really feel that there is none other worth the investment.

Regardless of whether you are going to run completely barefoot, or hope to speed your running progress  by stepping into a pair of barefoot shoes, you can use the techniques of Kenyans and Elite runners to your advantage.