What are "barefoot" running shoes all about?
By now you've probably seen a runner or two sporting flashy-looking shoes that many claim improve speed and performance. Time to get to the bottom of this mysterious new footwear!
As the co-owner of Running Free, a running instructor and an athlete with a personal best marathon time of 3:05, John Posca knows the world of running inside and out. And did we mention he's also been in the running specialty retail field for almost 30 years? Oh yeah, there's that too. So if you're wondering whether to switch over to these flashy-looking running shoes, you'll benefit from hearing what he has to say.
What's the idea behind "barefoot" running shoes?
Posca explains that typical running shoes emphasize the heel as a way to dissipate the impact of the heel striking the ground as much as possible. But by doing so, they slow down a person's gait and make the foot less efficient. "Barefoot" running shoes, on the other hand, don't have a heel at all, so the foot can land toward the midfoot and ball of the foot, thereby giving the foot less time on the ground. The heights of the heels are also lower than conventional shoes, which creates a more natural gait and allows the foot to move in the way it was intended to. This style of running activates more muscles in your legs, which will eventually make them stronger. Meaning, your run could increase in strength and efficiency. And that's good news if you're trying to qualify for a big race or improve your best time!
Are "barefoot" running shoes for everyone?
In Posca's experience and given the feedback he's received from customers and staff, "barefoot" running shoes are not for everyone. If you run for fun and general fitness and are satisfied with your current distances and speeds, he recommends sticking with your current footwear. If getting complicated and technical is going to diminish the fun and simplicity of running for you, don't bother. But if you want to improve your leg strength and running form, he recommends testing them out. Wearing them will put more stress on your legs, so if you find you aren't adapting to the change well, switch back to your conventional shoes.
What are the pros and cons of wearing "barefoot" running shoes?
"Barefoot" running shoes are more lightweight and will improve your form and efficiency, Posca explains. They could also reduce your risk of injury if you build up slowly and remain consistent. Unfortunately it's a double-edged sword in that way. While your body is adapting to the new shoes, the stress on your legs will be greater, and overuse injuries could be more severe. So if you're going to make the switch, it's important that you commit to doing so at a pace that works for your body. "Barefoot" running shoes can make you less prone to injuries in the long run, but only if you're patient and build up your strength appropriately.
How to find the right pair
Posca recommends not going directly to the "barefoot" running shoe but instead starting with what he calls “barefoot transition shoes”. These shoes have some form of midsole to protect your feet from the hard surfaces you're likely to run on, but a lower profile than conventional shoes. Once you get used to the the lower profile midsole of the “transition shoe “ you can then experiment with the non-midsole "barefoot" shoes. The big running brands, such as Asics, Brooks, Saucony and New Balance, all have suitable options. Newton has some excellent selections as well, like this blue and green Gravity pair ($169). You can find them all on the Running Free website.
To get the right pair for you, stop into a Running Free location near you for helpful and experienced advice. Or if there isn't one in your area, feel free to shop its online store and rely on its customer service line if you have any questions. Buying a new pair of running shoes can be an intimidating process, so don't hesitate to be ask questions and ensure you feel great about your purchase!