Home > running, VFF > 5 reasons to wear or train in minimal (or no) shoes

5 reasons to wear or train in minimal (or no) shoes

Five reasons to wear or train in vibram five fingersVibram provided a nice summary of the benefits of wearing/training in their shoes. All of their points apply equally well to other minimalist shoes, with increasing applicability as you get closer to barefoot.

  1. Strengthens muscles in feet and lower legs.
  2. Improves range of motion in ankles, feet, and toes.
  3. Stimulates neural function. Important to balance and agility.
  4. Eliminates heel lift to align the spine and improve posture.
  5. Allows the foot and body to move naturally, which just feels good.

About Nerves

Point #3 in the above list comes from the closer connection you have with the ground permitting you to feel more detail in the terrain you’re walking/running on and transmitting more accurate body positioning info from your feet to your brain. Turns out our feet are jam packed with nerve endings:

The sole of your foot has over 200,000 nerve endings in it, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in the body. Our feet are designed to act as earthward antennae, helping us balance and transmitting information to us about the ground we’re walking on. (From “You Walk Wrong,” New York Magazine, 28 April 2008)

For a good demo of these nerve endings, have a friend run their fingers up the bottom of your foot, then compare that to doing the same thing on your knee. HUGE difference.

Wearing shoes for most of your life causes these nerve endings in your feet to dial up their sensitivity, essentially trying to ‘feel through’ your footwear. When you start going minimal, your hypersensitive feet will suddenly find themselves awash in ‘new data’ — and they will likely complain about it.

When you go to a movie theatre (or sit in a dark room for a couple of hours) and then walk out into bright daylight, your eyes hurt and it’s painful to see, but after a minute or so they adapt. An analogous thing happens with your feet when you suddenly start going minimal or barefoot after taking your feet out of the confinement of your shoes. Because your feet have been protected for so long, the adaptation process is correspondingly longer.

But the amazing thing is: you don’t really lose any sensitivity. Once the sensory nerves in your feet re-calibrate to being barefoot or minimally shod, you can still feel all the small random bits on the ground that you step on — they just don’t bug you so much.

Caveat Cursor

If you are are runner (“cursor” in Latin) these benefits also come with risks as you start increasing the duration and/or intensity of your workouts in minimal (or no) shoes. There’s a natural tendency to do too much too soon because, as your feet and legs begin adapting, it “just feels good” (Vibram’s point #5).

Coming from the comfy shoe world, it takes a long time to build up the strength in your feet and lower leg musculature & connective tissue required to tolerate running in minimal footwear. So keep most of your runs in your regular shoes and use the minimal shoes just occasionally (once per week max) for the first month or two, and ramp up gradually from there.

And as usual, get clearance from your doctor before starting an exercise program or making a major change to your existing program.

Resources

There is a growing array of online resources for people interested in getting into minimalist or barefoot running, many of which you can find on the blogroll on the right. Here are a couple of good ones to get you started:

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  1. February 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Playing devil’s advocate, here are some reasons to keep your shoes on.

  2. July 6, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    I have a pretty urgent question. I am going to Air Force Basic training in about 2 months. I am flat footed and have plantar fascitis and now in the past week killer shin splints. Since I am a brand new runner and ABSOLUTLEY HAVE to run and run a lot all of a sudden should I START running as a barefooter? I dont have time to learn to run and then learn to run correctly. I figure a couch to 5k will get me the distance required and if I impliment the barefoot technique and minimalist shoes for the other times I will be ahead of the game. Am I mistaken to think I should start this way? Any advice I will be grateful for

    • July 8, 2012 at 12:17 am

      Anna: You have my sympathies, with that double whammy of plantar fasciitis and shin splints. First things first: you need to let those injuries heal before doing ANY running, barefoot or no, which could make things worse. Take some time off running (but keep cross training!), try some icing & ibuprofen to get the inflammation down. Consult with a physical therapist. When you’re mostly pain-free, slowly ease into running, and yes I would recommend trying barefoot & minimalist shoe running. It doesn’t work for everyone, but is worth a shot. Shin splints typically result from heel striking and stride length issues. The forefoot mechanics of barefoot/minimalist shoe running could help you since it encourages a shorter, quicker stride and less bone jarring. Best advice for when you start trying to run is: GO EASY! For example, WALK barefoot for a few minutes on some grass or a rubberized track. If OK, then try barefoot jogging in place for 30 seconds on grass, astroturf or soft carpet. If that’s not painful, try a bit more but don’t go over 5 min on your first few days. Then try some outdoor running on those soft surfaces. Try barefoot, minimalist, and conventional shoes as well. I would also strongly recommend working with a running coach or experienced runner friend that can evaluate your form and provide pointers. Barefoot running encourages correct biomechanics but is no guarantee. Best of luck in the Air Force and remember: listen to your body!

  3. 'Anna' Angela
    July 8, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    I will try to get into a therapist this week. I bought some NB minimist shoes hopefully they will keep me off my heals. I will do your warm up ideas tonight and let you know how it goes. I really liked the couple laps I did barefoot last week… I could definately run with less fatigue and wanted to keep going but didnt wanna hurt my tender tootsies. I also have had foot surgery with a lot of weekness and some stiffness in one toe. Its funny how none of these things were “issues” that i even noticed before I tried to take up running. I guess running injury free is one very good way of assessing my overall health and sound-ness so that is a cool byproduct. Okay… I hope I dont sound too ignorant but what IS ‘cross training’? When Nike made cross trainers I just assumed they were shoes that would work for lifting walking running hiking etc…. but I am guessing there is something far more specific to barefoot running that you are talking about :) Thanks again!!! Wish me luck- Im leaving as soon as I know the sun is done baking the race track LOL. Oh what do you guys think of taping for running barefoot. I wonder if you could apply tape to tender places so you could run a little longer barefoot… similar to running in VFF shoes; just to protect the skin like every other day or something. Just an idea. Thanks again!!!

    • July 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm

      I’m talking about cross training in a more general sense, meaning training in a different sport besides running that involves other muscle groups and modalities of motion. The idea with cross-training is to do things besides running in order to reduce the running-specific impact on your body and reduce chances of injury, while keeping your training going. Cycling, swimming, and weight training are examples of things to try. I’d strongly recommend core/functional training as well, and this is something I promote via MoreCore.org. Here’s an example of a plyometric + core workout that would qualify as cross training: Plyometric & High Intensity Interval Training (YouTube).

      As for taping your feet, I’ve never tried it. I know long-term adhesive exposure can be irritating to some people and might not be the best thing to put on your feet when tender. Feel free to experiment with it and see how it goes. Just remember it may permit you to go further than your feet & legs are ready to go, so watch out for overdoing it!

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