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