The emergence of the barefoot running movement has been a very interesting emerging trend in the world of fitness in the past couple of years. The concept was really brought into the mainstream by Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, which looks at the greatest ultra endurance runners in the world, the Tarahumara of Mexico.
Despite having no access to the latest scientific advances in training or equipment, Tarahumara men and women have regularly entered and won ultra endurance races (anything between 50-100 miles) wearing nothing more than a toga and sandals.
This has led to the a further investigation into the efficacy of running shoes. If the Tarahumara can run faster than most other people on the planet either barefoot or with a couple of pieces of rubber lashed to their feet, why do the rest of us need specialised shoes? The debate becomes more interesting when looking into the high instances of injury rates among recreational runners. A recent BBC Panorama documentary took a detailed look at the science behind modern day running shoes and found that there was almost no credible evidence to back their efficacy.
A point I think we should remember is that the human body has evolved over millions of years to perform certain tasks. Our feet our designed to support our bodies and allow us to walk and run both slowly over a long distance or quickly over short distances.
Shoes should be designed to protect the foot from injury and infection. They should not be designed to support the feet or change walking or running patterns.
We know what happens when you break a leg and it is wrapped in plaster for a couple of months. The muscles of the leg atrophy and once the plaster is taken off, that leg will be smaller and weaker than the other. We effectively do the same thing when we wrap our feet in big, padded shoes with cushioning. We lose the connection of the feet to the ground and as a result the muscles of the foot and ankle atrophy. This creates weakness which has an impact all the way up the body’s kinetic chain. The body works as an entire unit and issues in the feet or ankles can create upstream problems in the hips and even shoulders.
Running shoes have become ubiquitous for all forms of fitness and most people use them for all their training, including gym work. I am not a running expert by any means, but I would like to weigh in on the debate with regards to what type of footwear should be worn in the gym. I always recommend clients to ditch the running shoes as they are not at all suitable for strength training.
In the gym, it is important to have a shoe which provides stability and a good connection to the ground. If I asked somebody to lift a heavy weight over their head whist standing on a mattress, the lift would be harder because of the instability of the surface. If you wear padded shoes, it is akin to having a mattress strapped to your feet. A more effective shoe will have a flatter, thinner heel and provide a safer and more stable position.
Interestingly enough the best shoes for the gym are often those that are marketed for fashion, rather than fitness. One of my favorites is the good old fashioned Converse cons as they have a completely flat, thin sole which is good for lifting weights.
If you want to really stand out, you could wear a pair of Vibram Five Fingers which are also known as toe socks. Personally I find them a little creepy looking, but I know plenty of people that swear by them!
Barefoot training is an option, but don’t just rock up to the gym take off your shoes and start lifting. Remember that there are hygiene and safety concerns with regards to training without shoes so make sure you respect your gym’s policy on this.
Almost everyone has a pair of Converse or a similar type shoe with a flat heel somewhere in the closet. Next time you go to the gym try them instead of your bulky running shoes. I think you will be surprised by the results.