I resist any fad that holds up Neanderthals as a health role model. I’m not using boulders to resistance train and I am certainly not gnawing on a hunk of raw meat for lunch. My one exception to this rule applies to my feet: If running in lightweight animal skins or naked feet was good enough for our stone aged ancestors then by golly, it’s good enough for me.
Actually, I suspect Neanderthals left their training shoes back at the cave for the same reason some 21st century runners are ditching them. It’s too much work to pick up your feet in heavy, highly structured footwear. A new shoe category known as "barefoot" or "minimalist" offers an alternative.
The idea behind minimalist footwear (or running sans shoes) is that you shorten your running stride to a more natural length and land nearer to the ball of your foot. This is closer to the way our primal ancestors ran when they hunted and gathered for a living compared to trotting around in a typical modern running shoe, which forces your weight backward so you tend to strike onto your heel as you land.
An up-near-the-toes running style diminishes what’s known as initial impact peak, the force that shoots up through your ankles, knees and hips when your foot hits the ground; in theory, removing this force prevents injury. However, studies have found that the average barefoot runner’s stride is about 7 centimeters shorter than normal. Over the course of a marathon, this translates to about 7,000 additional footfalls above the 40,000 steps a typical racer will take to cover the 26.2 mile distance. So, though there’s less force per step, those extra steps present 7,000 additional opportunities for something to go wrong.
To date, no major studies have been completed to show whether barefoot runners are sidelined more or less often than those wearing standard shoes. Nearly 80 percent of runners are still sidelined with an injury each year.
My personal opinion — and the opinion of many of the biomechanics specialists I’ve spoken with – is that wearing minimal footwear seems to oblige the foot and ankle to work harder to support the body during movement, just as nature intended. After years of freeloading in stiffly structured housing with tons of support and cushioning, these joints must finally start pulling their own weight and as a result, much of their natural strength and flexibility are restored.
Wearing these wispier kicks has certainly worked for me because I put in serious miles with virtually no aches or pains. I used to lose toe nails on a regular basis but since switching to minimalists, I almost always have a full set when I go for a pedicure.
I think minimalists can work for you too, especially if you’re on the lighter side of 150 pounds, have decent running form and are already largely injury-free. If that describes you, I cautiously yet enthusiastically suggest you give them a try. Wear them for short runs to start and gradually increase your distance; they can be a bit of a shock to your feet at the onset.
What do you think about barefoot running shoes? Tell us in the comments section or tweet me your thoughts.
Liz Neporent is the best selling writer of 15 health books including The Winner's Brain and Fitness for Dummies, 4th edition. Follow her on twitter @lizzyfit and ask her anything you want to know about getting in shape and losing weight.