Runners Abandon Cushioned Shoes

Low-Tech Running Gains Advocates

Footprint In SandCredit: Vera KratochvilRunning is a very low-equipment sport. Most people who run may like to invest in extras like an iPod nano or special clothing that wicks away sweat. But to get started, most runners only need a good pair of running shoes. Or do they?

Like any sport, running is subject to trends and even fads. But the latest movement in running has runners tossing away their shoes and running barefoot.

The idea of running without shoes is not new. In 1960, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila chose to run barefoot at the summer Olympics instead of wearing ill-fitting running shoes. Bikila, who previously trained barefoot, won the gold medal for the marathon while running barefoot.

But the modern trend toward barefoot running can be attributed to the book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” by Christopher McDougall. In the book, McDougall cites examples of indigenous people who run barefoot as well as Harvard studies to make the case for running barefoot and not using padded athletic shoes.

“Everything I’d been taught about running was wrong,” McDougall says in his book. “We treat running in the modern world the same way we treat childbirth—it’s going to hurt, and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly with minimal damage."

In his book, McDougall claims that running shoes with lots of cushioning forces runners into an unnatural gait that emphasizes the heel as a striking surface. This is the major reason a runner’s body breaks down and why runners suffer from back and joint problems later in life.

But according to McDougall, running barefoot helps to correct a runner’s gait by forcing a runner to use the ball of the foot as the striking surface while running. This puts less stress on the body.

McDougall’s claims have drawn enough followers that the running shoe industry is taking note. But Shoe companies that want to keep up with trends are forced into an interesting quandary. How does a company based around the idea of protecting the foot through cushioning the foot market to a consumer that is rejecting the very idea?

Early adopters of the ideas put forth in McDougall’s book include Sketchers – who produced a shoe with a curved bottom that forces the foot into a natural gate. But more recent entries into the shoe market have used the opposite marketing strategy.

Vibram-a company known for making rubberized soles for work and hiking boots – released a shoe that resembles a glove for the foot. The Vibram Five Fingers is in such high demand that many sporting goods stores must order their stock well over a year in advance.

Other shoe companies have since gotten into the act. Merrell has produced a barefoot running shoe with a larger toe box and no padding Fila has come out with a foot glove that they call the Skeletoes and Nike has produced the Free, a shoe that has a many-segmented sole for added flexibility.

In the end, will running consumers return to cushioned running shoes, or is barefoot running here to stay? Only time will tell.

Part 2 - The Pros and Cons of Barefoot Running