Natural is way to go
The bare facts of running
Increasing numbers of Australians are turning their backs on traditional running shoes and embracing the benefits of barefoot running. While a topic of hot debate, enthusiasts claim it strengthens feet and legs and can help avoid injuries typically associated with jogging.
SITTING on Oprah's couch a few years ago, Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, explained the origins of the new barefoot-style running shoes he had produced.
Pfft! It will never last, I thought. Interesting idea, though …
Knight explained that he had visited one of the college running teams in America and found them training barefoot.
Runner Laura Garvican running barefoot at the AIS. Photo: Rohan Thomson
The coach told him that the athletes seemed to get fewer injuries when they ran with nothing on their feet.
It was not what a shoe manufacturer liked to hear. So the gauntlet had been thrown down - make a shoe that's not a shoe. Get the kids back into footwear.
The naked shoe was born. Or, more accurately the Nike Free.
Fad. That's what I said, from my prime position on the couch.
And to be fair, some of the earliest models on the shelves at the local stores were deeply odd looking, and some still are.
There were the versions with the five toes separated, a massive departure from the big, bulky and colourful styles of the past few decades.
However, now nearly all of the major shoe manufacturers have put on the market their own version of the shoes designed to mimic the barefoot experience.
Australian Institute of Sport senior physiologist Dr Philo Saunders is able to shed some light on the subject. He has been doing some detailed work in the area, in conjunction with Deakin University anatomy and biomechanics lecturer Dr Jason Bonacci.
The traditional running shoes of the '80s and '90s, he explains, tried to do ''everything for everybody''. If your foot rolls inward when you run - it will add cushioning to make it stay in the more straight position, if you land heavily on your heels it will soften the blow.
In short, you can develop some very bad habits and the shoe will do its very best to save you from yourself.
But what researchers have found is that when it's not in a heavily structured running shoe the foot will move very differently - it will engage different muscles to stabilise itself, it will absorb the impact, it will not hammer the heel into the ground because it's simply too painful.
Running barefoot can make you stronger and faster, Saunders says.
But that doesn't mean it's for everybody. To avoid injury, runners should incorporate it into their program slowly, by starting with barefoot warm-ups on grass.
''What going barefoot does is it gets you into a better position and allows for better running mechanics,'' he says. ''It gets your lower legs to be a lot stronger and can mean less injuries because you have to run more efficiently. Running barefoot naturally puts you in a better running position and you recruit muscles you would not usually use.
''A lot of people have gone to barefoot and it's something that you need to progressively do. If you are used to running in a heavily structured shoe you can't just go to all barefoot all the time. It's a progressive thing. You have to get stronger again and running better gradually.
''There's barefoot and there's nearly barefoot with the shoes that simulate the barefoot experience so you are getting away from the gimmicks that shoe companies have been coming out with for decades.''
Saunders says there has never been any argument over which style of shoe was best for sprint racing, but training … that was another matter.
''If you look at the elite runners they have pretty minimalist shoes. They have spikes to grip the track and they have something on their foot but it's something which is just enough to protect the soles of the foot and not weigh them down.''
Saunders says taking video footage of people running could help identify if they were already in a good position or not.
''If you start to get into bad habits the heavily structured shoes don't help because they over-compensate and you will become weak and not recruit the right muscles.
''If you are running well you will use muscles in your foot, lower legs, hamstrings and up into your glutes to absorb the impact. I tell the athletes I coach about the benefits of it and to have a think about it.
''You can tell it improves the mechanics, but if they already have very good running mechanics you would focus on other things to help them improve.''
Bonacci had a word of caution, however.
''Running barefoot means increasing the amount of mechanical work the ankle has to do,'' he says.
''Which is why the program has to be a gradual and progressive program to prevent excess loading of the calf muscles and the achilles tendon. That's an important finding that came out of our research.''
Bonacci said even minimalist shoes changed how the foot moved and could not perfectly replicate barefoot running.
''It's a skill - you need to transfer what you do barefoot into what you are doing in the minimalist shoe. It doesn't just automatically happen by buying them from the shop.''
The Runners Shop at Phillip has seen the demand for barefoot style runners grow significantly over the past few years and now dedicates a wall to displaying all of the different models. Some of the shoes have the five separated toes design, some look more like reef shoes and others just look like a traditional, trendy running shoe.
However, shop spokesman Brian Wenn is quick to point out the differences.
He goes straight to the heels. ''You can see there is a lot less cushioning here, it's not a big heel at all.'' There is also the weight of them. The ones that look like reef shoes are lighter than any runners I have ever held before.
Wenn said reactions to the minimalist shoes were mixed.
''Sometimes lots of people have been eagerly waiting for a new one to come out on the market and they will sell very quickly.
''Sometimes people come in and they want them because the guy at the next desk at work has a pair and he likes them.
''Sometimes people can't get their toes into the Vibram five-fingers while they are in the store but will take them home anyway and get them on there.''
Wenn is firmly of the belief that there is still plenty of room in the market for the traditional, heavily structured shoes.
''It still depends on the individual and what they want the shoe for,'' he said.
''Some people will only want to use the minimalist shoe some of the time and still want their other runners and will have a few different pairs.''