Guest Post: A Barefoot Running Beginning and a Look at Vibram Fivefingers

Dan taking his Vibram Fivefingers for a spin.
After seeing folks walking, hiking, running, and most recently, Crossfiting in what I've affectionately dubbed "monkey shoes," I figured it was time to learn something about them before I dismissed them as another fancy new fad. In an effort to liberate his feet from the confines of freedom-suppressing running shoes, Dan Herscovitch bought himself a pair of Vibram Fivefingers and agreed to share his experiences here. In the process, he learned a lot about barefoot running, how to do it properly and some of the biggest beginner mistakes.

What is Barefoot Running and Who Cares?

Barefoot running stems from the theory that early humans were natural endurance running hunters. Case and point: paleontologists have yet to unearth a prehistoric homo sapien sporting a pair of Nike Shox. Barefoot running involves deliberately changing the way your foot impacts the ground. This form change eliminates the shock associated with the heel strike, which is the most common way a runner's foot lands.

Traditional running shoes have wedge shaped soles with more padding under the heel. This shape encourages the runner to land heel first, then roll along the mid-sole until the forefoot makes contact with the ground. The problem with the heel strike is that it generates significant impact force and a corresponding shock wave up the leg and through the knee. Ouch. (For the climbers out there, think of the impact of falling on a static rope instead of a dynamic rope.)

The two other possible landing positions - mid-foot and forefoot first - are more common in barefoot runners. The mid-foot impact occurs when the runner lands with a perfectly flat foot, then rolls forward off the forefoot. With a forefoot strike, the ball of the foot hits the ground first. Impact forces are dynamically absorbed through eccentric contraction of the calf muscle. (Think of falling on a dynamic rope; the rope stretches, spreading out the force of the fall.) For an in depth discussion of barefoot running, I recommend the book Born to Run.

Vibram Fivefingers on the streets of Philadelphia. (D. Herscovitch)

What are Vibram Fivefingers and Minimalist Running Shoes?

Just as baseball players wear gloves to protect their hands from impact while swinging a bat, runners don minimalist shoes as a form of protection for feet. Minimalist running shoes typically have a 2-3mm thick footbed that is uniform throughout, or slightly thicker under the forefoot. They are also flexible, allowing the foot to change shape naturally and freely as it moves.

Vibram Fivefingers are a type of minimalist running shoe that look like slippers with individual toes. Vibram currently has a line of seven shoes created for different uses. The individual toe compartments allow toes to flex and spread independently, though it seems this could be accomplished just as well with the full slipper style. I purchased the Bikila LS model with my REI dividend for road and trail running. The Bikila LS features a slightly groove tread, full upper and the speedlace closure system.

Getting My Barefoot Run On

As soon as I got home from REI, I yanked the tags off the shoes, wrangled all ten toes into their respective cubicles, cinched up the closures and hit the streets of Philadelphia with aplomb and vigor! Translation: I started walking, eyes fixed on my snazzy new polypropylene foot gloves.

My traditional heel striking gait felt fine even in the absence of heel padding and I was rolling smoothly into each step. Though I was able to land the elusive forefoot strike, to do this consistently requires a gradual buildup of under-used muscles, tendons and ligaments. Moving between pavement, dirt, gravel and grass, packed dirt felt the best. The Vibram soles held up well over gravel, reducing stabby rocks to a luxurious foot massage.

The most obvious difference between the Fivefingers and traditional shoes was on the hills. I was able to fully extend my ankles while my foot retained contact with the ground going uphill, continuously transferring power from my calves. I landed mid-foot on the way downhill; the uniform footbed allowed a more natural landing.

A luxurious foot massage? (D. Herscovitch)

...And Then Comes the Sore

My first barefoot run was five miles and took 40 minutes, a leisurely pace and conservative distance for me. Evidently, not conservative enough...I was SORE. I waited through three days of soreness, the worst in my calves and arches, before I felt able to run again. To prep for run number two (six miles in 50 minutes), I did research on forefoot striking and the general biodynamics of barefoot running. I started the second run with intense concentration on forefoot striking, which lasted five minutes before I'd exhausted all the muscles I wasn't used to using and reverted to heel striking intervals. Running consistently with a forefoot strike may be beneficial, but it is a goal to be gradually realized. I spent the next five days battling the consequences - not only sore muscles, but ligaments and tendons, a bad warning sign.

For run number three, I planned a seven mile route in 45 minutes. I practiced forefoot striking as much as I could, still only managing three or four minutes at a time before "resting" with a heel strike for five minutes. Halfway through the run, which took me 55 minutes, my calves were Jell-O. As I write this post a week later, I can still feel soreness when I point or pronate my feet.

Lessons Learned and Beginner Recommendations

I definitely recommend anyone seeking to try barefoot running start slowly and ease into longer distances much more than I did. Don't think you'll be able to run the same distances you are comfortable with on normal shoes! A group of folks at Harvard created an entire website devoted to "the biomechanics of different foot strikes in endurance running," and I highly recommend reading it. The authors suggest starting out with only a few forefoot strikes at a time followed by a minute of "rest," or heel strikes. It is widely thought that transitioning from heel strikes to forefoot strikes, a runner should take at least a month before even beginning to do easy runs that are fully forefoot. So, get a pair of minimalist shoes and get out there, but don't overdo it! 

Have you tried barefoot running? What shoes do you use? Did you make the common too-much-too-soon beginner mistake? Got any tips? Tell us in the comments!

Dan Herscovitch developed a passion for the outdoors at an early age skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking and backpacking around his Southern Ontario home. An EMT by trade, he now lives in Philadelphia where he continues learning and growing in those pursuits. His recently unearthed passion for distance running prompted him to throw caution to the wind and embark on a barefoot running odyssey. When he's not hitting the Schuylkill Trail with his FiveFingers, he can be found scaling walls at Go Vertical or one of our local crags.


Jill said…
Every single person I see running in those shoes looks like they're being tortured. I used to think "why does that guy look like he's running on broken glass....oh." but now I can spot them a mile away, their gimpy, ouchy gait a dead giveaway. This is one trend I'm going to pass on...
Jill said…
Every single person I see running in those shoes looks like they're being tortured. I used to think "why does that guy look like he's running on broken glass....oh." but now I can spot them a mile away, their gimpy, ouchy gait a dead giveaway. This is one trend I'm going to pass on...