Christopher McDougall is a runner. But he is also an American author known to most for having published in 2009 the beautiful book “Born to Run: a hidden tribe”. McDougall’s bestseller is a journey to discover the Indian tribe of Tarahumara, in the Western Sierra Madre in northwest Mexico, whose members are able to run away from ultramarathoners without running into injury using simple rudimentary sandals called huarache.
The thesis of the American author/runner is that it is precisely the super-absorbed shoes to which we are accustomed and the absence of natural stress to which the Tarahumara are accustomed to facilitate accidents.
Since the success of Born to Run, the spotlight has been on the barefoot movement like never before. The concept of natural running has taken on a central role in the debate, just as the principle that man is naturally predisposed to running has returned to the fore. This technique is essentially based on the support (and therefore on the unloading of the weight) of the forefoot (or of the midfoot); in the natural running it is avoided to unload on the heel just to avoid to the body the shock of the impact that, in the absence of opportune protection, is transmitted to the ankle, knee and hip.
There is an interesting article by Harvard Medical School entitled “Where runners go wrong” that highlights the research carried out by Dr. Irene Davids on the correlation between a softer landing (forefoot) and a lower presence of injuries. The champion examined by the doctor was made up of 249 runners with a minimum of 20 miles run weekly. This research is in addition to that of the now famous Daniel Lieberman also known for having done similar study a few years before Davids.
First the technique, then the shoes
Moving the attention from the technique of running to the instrument (shoe) makes a mistake of perspective; the ability to run from the forefoot is confused with the use of a product (shoe) and this is perhaps a symptom of an approach more oriented to things than to their use. A more natural and soft approach to running is not due to the use of certain shoes, although it is undeniable that without a certain type of shoes it will be much more difficult to have a soft forefoot support. That’s why before we talk about minimal footwear or barefoot we have to talk about technique.
Acquiring a proper running technique is not something you get from today to tomorrow and for the same reason it is at least unconscious to go from a well cushioned shoe to a pair of Five Fingers Bikila EVO from one day to the next; in the latter case you will almost inevitably run into injury and the fault will not be the shoe (tool) but the use that has been made of it! That’s why every good barefoot runner will repeat to your exhaustion the words transition and frequency (steps per minute).
The transition is the path that the runner who wants to approach barefoot running must take. It is a long and slow and very delicate path, through which you learn to rest your foot on the ground in a natural way and in a way that does not go to solicit in the wrong way your joints, your muscles and your tendons that will now take on a leading role in your life as a sportsman. On the transition you will find many ideas online, I remember reading a detailed pdf of Vibram entitled “Vibram FiveFingers: born to run – Transition guided to use” (in Italian) and one of the VivoBarefoot “Proprioception, making sense of barefoot running” (in English). In any case, remember that the transition is everything when it comes to using barefoot shoes.
Minimal or barefoot?
When is minimal and when is barefoot?
Very often the term barefoot is abused and used as a synonym for drop 0.
Drop is the difference between the height of the heel and the forefoot; it is customary to consider a cushioned shoe when the drop is greater than or greater than 8 millimetres, when the heel is therefore raised from the front of the foot by 8 or more millimetres. Usually if the drop is less than or equal to 6 mm the shoe also has less cushioning and is therefore called minimal and is a must for those who want to switch to barefoot. The minimal shoe allows you to live a more free running experience, a more natural movement of the foot without sacrificing the protection of the foot itself.
Shoes totally without cushioning instead make the foot live the experience of running barefoot (barefoot means just barefoot) and consequently have drop 0, the drop that of course we have barefoot. The fact that a shoe has drop 0 does not mean that it is barefoot. For example, there is a well-known brand of shoes that has a drop of 0 and a particularly thick sole. We can not consider a shoe with two inches of sole as a shoe that allows you to live the experience of running barefoot.
A barefoot shoe is such if in addition to a zero drop does not offer significant support to the foot as well as protection from grazes, which is the only reason to use so-called barefoot shoes: protect the foot from cuts and abrasions that the road surface can cause to the foot.
In conclusion, is it better or worse to run with minimal shoes or barefoot? The answer cannot be univocal because the foot and the athletic gesture of each of us is different. For some of us it is a necessity to run naturally, for others it is not. If you’ve always run with cushioned shoes and you’ve never been hurt, why change? Let’s listen to our bodies and remember that for many of us running is a pleasure and a gesture of love towards ourselves and this should remain.