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My Case for Barefoot Running

Vibram Five Fingers

I’m writing this in response to an interesting blog post on the guardian website, written by Michael Crawley. I have nothing against the writer and this certainly isn’t an attack on his post, but I thought as I’ve been running in Vibrams for just under a year and a half now, I have enough experience to offer my own perspective.

The post starts by paraphrasing a barefoot runner, stating that after 8 months that they can’t run as far as they used to but it feels more natural. From my experience with Vibrams I would say that yes it can take up to that long to learn to run with the new style, depending on how much experience you have of being a heal striker, it can and should take time to unlearn this style and for your muscles to adapt. Having said that after 6 months my weekly mileage was probably a good 10km more than it had been prior to running in shoes, not as long a distance at one time, but that was probably because I didn’t have any long distance races in the future rather than not being able to. Moreover, I’ve currently clocked up over 700km since running in Vibrams, it took me a good 2-3 years to match that previously as I had 6 months off with torn ligaments in my achillies, granted I also had 4 months off whilst I was travelling.

The next point in the article is actually very interesting, and one I’d love to hear views from other barefoot runners. The posts states that we didn’t evolve to run on hard surfaces like concrete. The reason I find this so interesting is this is the exact reason I used to argue to a mate who runs in Vibrams before I gave it a go but since taking up barefoot running myself I’ve found it to be the complete opposite. The style in which I run relies heavily on the bounce in your foot to quickly get straight back off the ground, which works especially well on hard surfaces. Furthermore, I have to say the only time I ever feel any kind of hard impact is on the very rare occasion when I accidentally land on my heal first, and my feet tell me straight away not to do that again. We’re actually doing our interval training on grass in the park, this is more to do with having an uninterrupted loop where everyone can see me so they know when to go fast and when to go slow rather than the softer surface. On this softer, more cushioned surface I actually find I have more problems. As it’s less stable and I don’t have big thick sides to my shoes, my ankle has to stabilise itself. For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know that my right ankle is not as good at stabilising as my left, but I’m working on it.

Michael does raise a good point about the cost of running in Vibrams when essentially they’re supposed to be replicating something which essentially we’re born with and is completely free. I think this is partly why I haven’t replaced my own vibrams yet, they have a hole in the big right toe. People ask me does that not really hurt, my answer is only when I run incorrectly, then it reminds me not to put too much weight on my toes. If it weren’t for the risk of glass I would actually much rather run completely barefoot, something which I may give a little go after the running season has finished.

The post mentions a study into barefoot running in which people were split into 2 groups, one with shoes, one learning to run in Vibrams for a 10 week period. The results being that 10 out of the 19 Vibram runners showed raised levels of bone marrow edema and 2 having stress fractures. There’s 2 things about this study which I find interesting. The first is their conclusion is not that people should not run barefoot but that they should transition slowly, which without spoiling it for you is the same conclusion I’m going to come to. The second is that the study only lasted for 10 weeks. For me this is simply not even nearly enough time for people to adjust and I think in some ways would encourage the people in Vibrams to rush a little too much as they would want to show that they had made good progess in that short space of time. I can relate to that one as I made the rather stupid decision to take up Vibrams half way during the season. I started with my personal trainer 6 weeks before the City2Surf last year with the goal of running it in Vibrams. I was successful but ended up with a very swollen and sore foot, which stopped me running for 6 weeks. So I can assure you that 10 weeks is certainly not enough time to learn to run in Vibrams.

Personally speaking, I believe that anyone is capable of running barefoot, I had probably one of the worst running gaits before this (I have a video somewhere, will post one day). We’re all evolved to run this way, we just lose it from relying on shoes. Having said that I think the biggest thing I would like to say from this is that it does take patience, and form is everything. When people ask me if I recommend Vibrams (it happens a lot), I always say only if you’re really passionate about running and willing to put in the time to fix their bad form and any imbalances.

Finally, a quick list of recommendations for new people to running in Vibrams or barefoot:

  • Learn during the off season, and don’t have massive expectations for races early in the season.
  • I know I’ve said this a lot but take it slowly, patience is key, you’ll reap the rewards in the end.
  • It’s extremely important to lift your foot off the ground rather than pushing off with your foot, otherwise injuries will be sure to follow.
  • Always land on the ball of your foot, not your toes and certainly not your heal.
  • Runners attempting this should also do a strength and conditioning program on top of this to fix any imbalances you may have.

PBs Before and After Vibrams

  • 10km – 44:21 in shoes, 41:55 in vibrams
  • City2Surf (14km) – 66:05 in shoes, 60:03 in vibrams
  • Half marathon – 95:36 in shoes, ask me again in 4 weeks for vibrams (update: time was 93:16)

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