It’s a trend that could have big-name trainer brands quaking on their cushioned soles – runners are slipping out of sneakers and taking to the streets barefoot. Well, not quite: they’re not pounding the pavements totally barefoot, but more and more running and fitness enthusiasts are choosing to wear only thin slippers with flexible, unpadded soles, in the belief that it improves fitness, reduces the likelihood of chronic injuries and enhances general physical wellbeing.
Cushioned trainers as we know them today have been in development since the ’70s, and encourage a running style where the foot hits the ground heel-first. Conversely, barefoot running encourages a more natural technique whereby the ball of the foot – the lateral edge of the forefoot – strikes the ground first.
Ben Ford, affiliate owner of LifeSpark Coaching, was a barefoot enthusiast before it became a fashionable sporting pursuit. ‘I grew up as barefoot as I could be living in Dubai,’ says Ben. ‘We used to live very close to the sea, so whenever I came back from school I’d kick my shoes off and run around on the beach.
I guess I just didn’t like shoes. I never knew much about the barefoot [running craze] until recently.’ Ben has always done much of his Crossfit training – a combination of running and weightlifting, among other things – barefoot. Recently, he completed the Wadi Bih race in a pair of Adidas Wadi Runners, a ‘shoe’ that is essentially a rubber sole with a sock attached. ‘I was destroyed,’ he concedes, ‘but I was fine within a couple of days – no problem, good to go again.’
Despite the immediate physical hardships of barefoot running, Ben attributes the fact that he’s never suffered lower back pains, shin splints or ankle problems to his barefoot lifestyle. And by ‘lifestyle’, he isn’t referring to exercise. Whenever and wherever it’s possible, Ben makes the effort to go barefoot. ‘I have a pair of Vibrams [a protective rubber sole developed for ‘barefoot’ sports, pictured above], so wherever I go,
I just throw them on.’
According to Ben, this is one of the best ways to make the transition from running with trainers to running barefoot, as is going for walks and gentle jogs along the beach – even as little as five minutes at a time and building up slowly. ‘The biggest thing,’ advises Ben, ‘is transitioning away from heel strike to mid-foot strike. If you do that on hard surface, it feels like you haven’t exercised for ages and are getting back into it and you’ll be sore afterwards. You want enough response to drive adaption, but not so much that you hurt yourself. You want the highest minimum intensity, if that makes sense. You’ll adapt a little more every day, so that your muscles and tendons can keep up with what you do.’
Dubai-based fitness enthusiast and author of blog Barefoot in Dubai Paul Hymers says the mistake he made when taking up barefoot running was attempting too much too soon. ‘What I should have done is [run barefoot] once a week. I should have built up the miles gradually.
I didn’t and forced myself into wearing the Vibrams every time I walked out the door, thinking the pain I was feeling was just my body reconditioning and strengthening my feet muscles. It wasn’t. It was my body telling me I was doing too much too soon.’
For Paul, the initial attraction of barefoot running wasn’t a way to achieve better times in his 10k races. Instead, he was looking for something that would keep him injury-free for longer, because it trains the muscles
in the feet and legs that are otherwise underexposed from wearing cushioned trainers. ‘I think the idea is to progressively change your running style to something called Pose Method [developed by Dr Nicholas Romanov]. Essentially, it’s like falling forwards, so the key element to run forward in this style is to lean slightly forward from the hips with a faster foot cadence – the strike rate – and when you touch your foot down on the floor, it should be under your centre of gravity.’
It seems there are huge benefits to running barefoot, providing you take a sensible, structured approach. Candice Howe, affiliate owner and coach at LifeSpark Coaching, did just this: ‘At first, [training in] Vibrams was tough, but I did a lot of research, so I was aware there was going to be a transitional phase – I geared it up, and slowly and surely I got better. If I’m given the choice, I will look to run on a slightly sprung track, or grass or sand, rather than on tarmac, but I wouldn’t go back to running in trainers.’ Maybe those trainer brands should be worried after all.
For more on barefoot running and exercise, see Paul Hymers’ blog, www.barefootindubai.blogspot.com, or www.lifesparkcoaching.com. Vibrams are available at The Society Shop, Festival City (04 232 6550)
or see www.vibramfivefingers.com