For Christmas, I received a copy of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, the story of a tribe of Native Americans, hidden in the jungle canyons of Mexico, learned to appreciate the iconic Springsteen album has an entire culture built on running incredibly long distances. The Tarahumara run wearing nothing on their feet but thin, handmade sandals (strips of old tire, tied on with leather thongs), and have no running injuries to speak of. Parallel to the story of the Tarahumara and the first running of what has become the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, McDougall discusses recent research into the evolution of human running form and modern running injuries, and draws the conclusion that modern running shoes, with their high-tech cushioning, encourages landing on the heel. The heel isn’t meant to take that kind of shock, and there appears to be a fair amount of evidence that humans evolved to run long distances landing on the forefoot or midfoot. The book also describes research indicating that heel-strike running in cushioned running shoes causes more and worse injuries than the shoes prevent.
I’ve been hearing chatter about running barefoot or in shoes with minimal cushioning over the last couple of years, and while I was interested in the abstract idea, for the most part, I ignored the phenomenon. I didn’t see how it would apply to me — a middle-aged distance runner with little access to any running surface more forgiving than asphalt and cement.
Reading BTR convinced me to take it more seriously; I spent some time reviewing other websites and podcasts on the topic, I decided to try it out. As it’s January in Chicago, I’m not planning on going out for a barefoot run anytime soon. I tried a couple of short treadmill runs barefoot, and noticed right away that my gait changed to a forefoot strike. After putting my shoes back on (the treadmill belt is very rough on the soles of my feet), I tried to keep running with the barefoot gait, landing on the balls of my foot. My lower calves were sore for a couple of days because I was using different muscles, but my feet, knees, and hips all felt surprisingly good after these runs.
I ordered a pair of Vibram FiveFingers – follow the link, they’re impossible to explain otherwise – to wear on the treadmill and outside once it warms up. Unfortunately, they got here just as we got hit with a nasty virus Junior brought home from school, and I haven’t had a chance to try them out. Since it’s 45 degrees and raining right now – completely inappropriate weather for January – I think I’ll get my run on the treadmill this morning, and try them out for a mile or two.
If you’re interested, here are some additional links on running barefoot or in minimalist shoes:
I recommend checking the show notes for the Fdip episodes, especially #141; Steve does a good job collecting relevant links.
Time for a run.