Early in 2001-2002, Nike researchers observed Stanford athletes training barefoot on grass. As the story goes, they were either amused or confounded to see top NCAA athletes running barefoot when they were sponsored by Nike.
The multi-billion dollar question that needed an answer was: why is it that people had begun to train barefoot, when there were so many cushioned and comfortable Nike footwear on the market that promised pain-free running.
As it turns out, the researchers collected sufficient data to gain a deeper understanding of the natural human running form. This gave birth to the much applauded Nike Frees, a series of shoes that aimed to provide a natural running gait as well as optimum cushioning resulting in overall enhanced performance. At the same time, and a decade earlier, another story was unfolding that ultimately led to a revolution.
In the early 1990s, people began to hear whispers of a tribe living in the Copper Canyons of Mexico- a tribe that ran hundreds of miles on foot every week wearing nothing but sandals made of rubber tyres. And they especially came to prominence when they won the 1992 Leadville ultra, sweeping the field and taking the world by surprise. After that, as they say, everything is history.
10 years later as Christopher McDougall sat with Caballo Blanco in a dusty cottage close to the Copper Canyons listening to the past 10 years of Tarahumara’s rise and fall in the eyes of popular media, he realized that he had to see for himself just how good the Tarahumara really were. The raramuri, as they were called and known were arguably the best runners in the world as far as the average competency was taken into account. However, he birthed the wild idea to pit the best of them against the best of the world.
Early in 2006, Christopher had everyone he needed to realize his vision. Scott Jurek would be racing the best of the Tarahumara tribe in one epic race that would determine the extent of Tarahumara’s capabilities. Moreover, it would give a lot of insights to mull over by all as far as the art of running was concerned.
The product of Christopher’s extensive research into the Tarahumara tribe including the success of the above race and the quest to unlock secrets of running well was Born to Run- an incredible account of minimalistic and barefoot running including the many perspectives that it carries with it.
Published in 2011, it literally sent waves across the world and gave birth to the culture of barefoot and minimalistic running and it is highly recommended that you read this book if you have not done that already. Totally worth your buck, it will reveal to you ideas and narratives that were completely unknown to you and really make you think about the times when primarily podiatrists and orthopedists told you to quit running. Moreover, it will also reveal the inherent flaw in human reasoning when it comes to understanding our own bodies.
Plantar fasciitis, collapsing arches, shin splints, runners knees, IT band syndrome, muscular imbalances and more- all of these injuries that are so rampant in runners these days did not even exist before the modern shoe was invented!
As Christopher and hundreds of thousands of the barefoot and minimalist running philosophy figured, it is all about going back to our roots.
A few observers adopted this philosophy of running more naturally and created a line of shoes that catered to those who wanted to run more naturally. Altra, Merrell, Vibram, Vivobarefoot and Topo Athletic are some brands that are really providing great running shoes that promote natural barefoot movement. While there are a lot of people who consider running in any footwear unnatural, ultimately it comes down to personal choice. It is also worth noting that it is not completely feasible to run fast while barefoot on roads and rocky trails without skinning your soles bloody.
There are a few pointers that you should look out for when purchasing shoes that allow natural running:
- Heel-to-toe drop: This refers to the decline from the heel of the shoe sole to the forefoot. It is generally accepted that for a shoe to promote natural running gait, there must be a zero heel-to-toe drop. This is because
- Stack height: This is the width of the sole of the shoe, or, the distance between the ground and the sole of your foot. A lower stack height would mean that you recieve more feedback from the ground. This feedback is important so that you can adjust your running gait as needed to run more naturally. Most minimalist shoes have a stack height of less than 15mm. Anything above 20mm would greatly reduce the feedback you get from the ground.
- Support: The amount of support from the shoe will determine whether you’re running naturally or not. Props such as arch support and excessive cushioning disqualify your shoe’s claim in helping you run more naturally. The idea behind this is that for you to run more naturally, you’ve got eliminate any unnecessary support from the shoe.
You can mix and match according to your requirements and preferences. A lot of people do not prefer minimalistic shoes and shoes without support, and there are takers for maximalist shoes like those attributed to Hoka One One. Many others do not venture into the unknown and stick to what’s most visible in the market.
Ultimately, what matters in your quest to running happily and without recurring injuries is your running philosophy and the very important question: ‘Are my shoes and feet doing the right job?’
Happy running to you!