Running in minimalist footwear

Originally published (in Dutch) on the Dutch Bushcraft Forum on May 22, 2011.

For a year and a half now I have been experimenting with running in minimalist footwear (footwear without cushioning). I’m doing this mainly out of historical interest. I assume that people in the past used to walk barefoot or in very simple footwear like selfmade moccasins or sandals. I also suspect that they were running regularly in this footwear, e.g. when hunting, and I wondered how that must have felt.

Here are some types of minimalist footwear I have experimented with:

Vibram 5 Fingers

I have run about seventy times in a pair of Vibram 5 Fingers, Classic model (purchased from Dutch outdoor store Bever in Oct. 2009 for €85). These “shoes” are fairly difficult to put on your feet because your toes do not always want to get into the little compartments – especially your little toe – but once they are in, the shoes fit fine and they protect your feet well against little stones and the like. You can run with them on virtually any surface, even in the rain or in a thin layer of snow (can be slippery though). In winter my feet sometimes did get cold however (coldest day I ran was -7 C).

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Vibram 5 Fingers

By now I have run five half marathons with the Vibram 5 Fingers (a half marathon is 21 km or 13 miles), three of them official races, and a fairly large number of shorter distances, including some 10 km races. It turns out that the Vibram 5 Fingers don’t prevent you from going fast. Last Sunday I ran the Leiden half marathon race in 1 hour and 28 minutes and a week earlier, I ran the Tilburg 10 km race in 38 minutes.

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Marc running the 2011 Leiden Marathon on Vibram 5 Fingers

After most runs my feet and legs felt fine, aside from muscle aches and sometimes a little painful soles. People on the street often stare at you when you run in minimalist footwear, but that doesn’t matter much of course 🙂 More product information: Vibram 5 Fingers website.

Invisible Shoes Sandals

April last year I bought these sandals online in a self-assembly kit from American Invisible Shoes, a company of Steven Sashen (about €25 incl. shipping). Steven calls them Huaraches by the way, which are the traditional sandals of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. They consist of a thin rubber Vibram sole (4 mm thick) and some nylon cord and you can assemble them in one afternoon. It’s a bit of a puzzle figuring out the binding and its tighness (there are different methods – in the picture below you see the ‘traditional’ binding).

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Invisible shoes sandals

I ran on these sandals eight times on the road (maximum distance 13 km), including one time in the rain, and that went ok. Of all minimalist footwear I tried, this is the closest thing to running barefoot.

The nylon cord did sometimes rub between my toes and close to my instep which was annoying. This improved when I replaced the nylon cord by a leather one and will perhaps disappear altogether when you grow more calluses on your feet. Another problem I got were blisters on my feet, especially behind my toes. I should probably slowly build up the distance and speed with these sandals. More product information: Invisible Shoe website.

Luna Sandals

These sandals I bought in kit form in March this year from the American Luna Sandal Company of Barefoot Ted (about €40 incl. shipping). This company has various types of sandals and I bought the Original Luna with leather laces, 6 mm neoprene sole topped with a piece of suede leather. These sandals too can be put together in one afternoon and you can use the same binding methods as with the Invisible Shoes sandals (on the picture below again the ‘traditional’ binding).

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Luna sandals

I’ve only run three times on these sandals on the road (maximum distance 12 km), every time in sunny weather, and that went ok. The Luna’s are more comfortable than the Invisible Shoes sandals (thicker sole, leather insole, thicker binding cord) but also with these sandals the cord rubbed on my skin sometimes and I got blisters in the same spots as with the Invisible Shoes sandals. Again, I should probably build up use a bit more slowly.

At the end of last year, Barefoot Ted wrote on his website that the American runner Patrick Sweeny won a 10 km race in California on Luna Sandals in 33 min. so you can definitely go fast on them. More product information: Luna Sandals website.

Bare Feet

November 2009 I first went running barefoot in Amsterdam. It was a very special experience and made me very aware of where I walked. It was amazing how doable it was on all these different surfaces (sidewalks, asphalt, bike path, grass, earth) and how quickly you get used to it. Some types of surface however, such as gravel and coarse rocks, feel really bad and you don’t really get used to these.

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Bare feet

By now I’ve run about 20 times barefoot (usually 6 km and max. 8 km) on fairly “foot-friendly” trails in the park (mostly sidewalk, asphalt, grass and footpaths). In the beginning, I often came home with tingling feet and small blisters but over time it got better. I also felt, strangely enough, every time a bit of a psychological barrier to go outside without shoes. It didn’t effect my speed much though, because in the end, I ran almost as fast as I did with running shoes. Of course, it has been proven before that you can run fast barefoot, for example by the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila who won the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome (in 2 hours and 15 minutes).

Injuries

Perhaps you wonder if you won’t be prone to injuries when running in shoes without cushioning. It is certainly something that you have to start very carefully. Initially my calves got very sore (they still do occasionally), as did the soles of my feet, and for a few months I ran with sore Achilles tendons.

On the other hand, research by Harvard scientist Daniel Lieberman demonstrated that the shocks experienced by your body while running barefoot, are not that big. He writes that most people who run in conventional sports shoes, experience a short shock-peak because they heel strike (and this shock is only partially absorbed by the cushioning in the heel of the shoe). People who run barefoot (or in minimalist shoes) on the other hand, don’t experience this shock-peak because they land on their forefoot or mid foot.

So it could even be the case that by running barefoot (if your muscles and feet are properly trained for this!), you have a lower risk of injuries than running in conventional sports shoes. This has not been scientifically proven however so the jury is still out there. More information: Lieberman’s website.

These are my running experiences so far. If you also run on minimalist footwear, let me know how you like it!

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