The human body has an amazing ability to adapt to all of the things that we put it through and find a way to do them in the most efficient way possible. People have been running for as long as we’ve been in existence, and our bodies have evolved and adapted to become extremely efficient runners. The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, and 19 different muscles- it is truly an amazing display of natural engineering. That being said, Nike must still think that their engineers are better.
Shoes have of course been used to protect feet for much longer than Nike has been around, but the creation of the “modern” running shoe by Nike in 1972 changed everything. Rather than the goal of shoes being to just protect the feet, Nike wanted to completely change the way people ran. They felt that running with a longer stride would help people run faster, which seems like a perfectly reasonable conclusion. The problem is that if you lengthen your stride too much then you naturally land on your heel rather than your forefoot, and this is a very jarring motion to continually repeat. To solve this problem, all that was necessary was a bit of cushion to absorb the shock. Unfortunately, this changes the entire dynamic of the running motion. When taking a longer stride, the front foot now lands ahead of your center of gravity rather than under it, the front leg has to almost fully extend and is not in a position to absorb impact, and much less momentum is carried from one step to the next- and that is just the beginning. Even without changing one’s running stride, the cushion prevents the sensory receptors on the bottom of the foot from being able to have a good connection to the ground. The instant that contact is made with the ground, these receptors should be sending signals to many different muscles that need to fire nearly instantaneously for proper shock absorption and this reaction is changed and slowed down by a dampened connection between your foot and the ground.
Once a person has re-learned what would come natural to someone who has never worn shoes, a more natural running form can be achieved (though this transition process is often rushed, which leads to injuries). Once a person learns how to properly land with minimal shock and a smoother stride, then running becomes much easier on the joints- and believe it or not, it actually becomes more enjoyable! I don’t think I’m breaking any news by saying that the majority of people do not like to run, but a huge factor in that is the fact that the way that people are taught to run makes for a very jarring and unnatural activity. I’ve personally seen many people who never enjoyed running (even those that were very fast runners!) that suddenly began to enjoy running once they changed the way they ran- myself included.
As for choosing your footwear to accommodate this change, it is important to be careful to not fall for the marketing gimmicks that have saturated the running shoe market. Nearly every shoe company out there now offers at least one “minimalist” style running shoe. The problem is that VERY few of these products are truly minimalist shoes. In particular, the shoes that are marketed as “cushioned minimalist shoes” are a huge contradiction, because a true minimalist shoe has little to no cushion. The majority of shoes claiming to be minimalist shoes fall into this category of being overly cushioned- but some of these can still be a good transition shoe for someone that is not quite ready to make the leap from A to Z in one step. The Nike Free is an example of an in-between shoe that is a good starter for most people, without taking the step of eliminating cushion just yet. As for a final destination, my clear winner is Vibram Five Finger shoes, though for those who do not want to wear shoes with toes there is the Merrell Vapor Glove (the sole of these is made by Vibram, and it is the only minimalist shoe without toes that I have ever tested that actually gives a comparable experience to Five Fingers). That being said, the separate toe slots of Five Fingers still provides an added benefit of spacing out the toes so that they regain their natural position that was likely lost from years of wearing “one-toe” shoes. Just imagine wearing mittens every day of your life and then suddenly getting a pair of regular gloves. Perhaps Five Fingers are the only “regular” shoes, and not the other way around.
After reading all of this, you might be wondering where to start. A simple exercise that I recommend for learning how to run properly is what I call the “treadmill ninja”. I personally prefer running outside whenever possible rather than on a treadmill, but for the sake of this exercise a treadmill works better. When people first try to run barefoot or in shoes such as Vibrams on a treadmill, the shock of each landing on the treadmill leads to a pretty loud thud. For this exercise, all you are trying to do is run at a relatively slow pace for you (4.5-6mph depending on the person) and try to land as silently as possible. The sound you make when landing is a great indicator for how well you are absorbing the shock of the landing, and with practice you can get to the point where you land so softly that there is very little impact at all. Since landing on a treadmill is much louder than landing on the ground, the treadmill just allows you to get a better gauge of how well you are doing this. So, as the exercise is named, try to run as if you are a ninja sneaking up on someone.
Here are two other great articles that I recommend checking out for anyone interested in barefoot running (I also highly recommend the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall):
Harvard study on barefoot running
Barefoot running article from Podiatry Today