Fingers on toes make runners fly
BAREFOOT RUNNING has become fashionable in recent years, especially since Christopher McDougall’s seminal Born to Run was published in 2009. McDougall, a journalist, championed barefoot running and at extreme distances, taking inspiration from a hardy tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara.
His thesis was that modern running footwear, with all its supports and gel-cushioning, actually harms the foot. He also contended that the human being was designed to run for extremely long distance. Ergo, there is nothing more natural than running barefoot for a long, long stretch. His book has become something of a bible for barefoot-running enthusiasts.
Into that barefoot space, Vibram FiveFingers fits – literally and figuratively – like a glove. It is hardly a shoe, more like a reinforced glove that fits on your foot. It is the leading brand of what are described as “minimalist” footwear – the nearest the shod foot can get to being unshod. It has a thin, flexible sole (Vibram makes soles for mountaineering boots) and a soft upper with an individual section for each toe.
On a sodden Tuesday morning in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, Owen Loughrey gives a demonstration of this strange, hybrid pair of yokes. The Cork-based Belfastman had been running for years but was prone to injury and was beginning to find it all a bit of a slog. A friend told him about barefoot running and, his interest piqued, he bought a pair from Vibram online and his passion for running immediately revived.
“It opened my eyes. From the moment I got them I was blown away. It changed the way I thought about running.”
Loughrey, however, was put out that the shoe wasn’t available in Ireland. The company told him it had no presence here. And that was how barefoot.iewas born. Loughrey distributes Vibram’s range of shoes in shops and online in Ireland.
Trying out the footwear leads to a number of new experiences. Firstly, it is tricky at the start to get your five toes into the correct sections, and it feels weird for a little while. Secondly, you imagine it’s going to be hard on your feet but it’s far more comfortable than you imagine. And thirdly, you have to make major adjustments in running technique.
Many runners strike first with their heel before the rest of the sole hits the ground. With barefoot running it is the midfoot-cum-forefoot that hits first, with the heel going down after that. This takes a lot of adjusting, but barefoot enthusiasts argue that this is a more natural way to run. With minimum cushioning and support you engage all 26 bones, 33 joints and 100 muscles in the foot. That leads to a more natural way to run, prevents injury and makes the foot respond like a reflex muscle in the event of an awkward landing. It is a more gentle form of running – in Australia they call it “stealth” and “ninja” running because of its silent nature.
Loughrey hasn’t worn ordinary shoes in more than three years; there are also FiveFinger shoes in leather for more formal wear (the mind boggles!) and models for use in trail-running, mountain-running and watersports. He is convinced the trend towards them is permanent and not another slowly passing fad.
They do take time to adjust to, especially if you have flat feet. You start with very small distances (1k or 2k) and build up gradually. On the first spin, you will wake up the next day with your calfs on fire.
Some say that they are overrated and their benefits are overstated. There is no doubt that they require radical change in the way you run. A study by the University of Wisconsin for the American Council on Exercise concluded that if you want to run in Vibrams, you should be prepared to change your gait pattern.
I have used them a few times since and have found the experience enjoyable, but I’d have to test them more before making the leap. And it is a big leap, surely. At the same time a growing number feel it is worth it to make a leap that ends up striking the forefoot on the ground.