The barefoot revolution

The hunt to reverse-engineer the world’s most advanced running shoe.
7 June 2011
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photos: Nick van der LeekAlthough Prof. Noakes acknowledges a major shift in his thinking, he prefers running with the softest cushioning because over the years, ‘our feet have adapted to the technology’ and to run without shoes entirely risks further injury.

The running industry has been shaken to its core by an obscure tribe of Indians that resides – and runs – in the Copper Canyons of northern Mexico.

It all started with a 75km endurance race between a few Tarahumara locals and some world-class athletes, including Scott Jurek. Jurek, a sponsored champion who races for a living in expensive shoes, was beaten by a 27-year-old Tarahumara goat herder, who had probably hiked 30 miles just to get there, and was wearing pieces of car tyre on his feet. What happened that day confounded the world’s running experts, provided inspiration for the Born to Run book, and introduced the world to the weird but not wrong Barefoot Ted McDonald (more on him later).

“Ultra-running seems to be an alternative universe where none of planet Earth’s rules apply: women are stronger than men; old men are stronger than youngsters; Stone Age guys in sandals are stronger than everybody,” writes Christopher McDougall in Born to Run, in which he makes two astonishing points.

One is the almost profane idea that everyone is a runner (and worse, a highly-evolved, finely-tuned ultra-distance runner), and two, we’re supposed to be capable of running crazy mileage barefoot.

In April this year, Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai won the world’s oldest annual marathon in Boston. His time of 2:03:02 was the fastest marathon anywhere, ever. Mutai lopped 57 seconds off Haile Gebrselassie’s record, set in Berlin in 2008. While neither of these athletes raced barefoot, both of them won wearing exactly the same footwear: the ultralight Adidas AdiZERO. Despite its lightness and forefoot flexibility, the AdiZERO is by no means a minimalist shoe. In fact, it features that typical heel cushion that has been the foundation of the $24 billion running shoe industry.

Vibram Five Fingers

Before would-be world-champions join the stampede for a pair of AdiZEROs, a steal for R1 149, or Puma FAAS for R899 (sponsors of the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt), McDougall has proposed ‘Three Fundamental Laws of Barefoot Running’: “The best shoes are the worst. Feet like a good beating. Human beings are designed to run without shoes.”

History gives this idea some support. Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, running barefoot, won the Olympic marathon in Rome, and broke the world record. He was the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice. His victory in Tokyo was remembered first and foremost because Bikila looked fresh as a daisy after finishing.

Meanwhile, in apartheid-era South Africa, Zola Budd, aged 17 and running barefoot, broke the women’s 5 000m world record. Budd subsequently became the world cross-country champion in 1985 and broke her world record in the 5 000m by ten seconds the following year. In 1991, she was still the world’s second fastest 3 000m athlete, and still barefoot.

South Africa’s best-known athlete today is undoubtedly Caster Semenya. Semenya grew up under impoverished conditions near the Limpopo River, and per Britain’s Sunday Times, ‘used to sprint barefoot to classes across blood-red earth’.

The science of the foot

My current thinking has been changed dramatically with the realisation that humans evolved as Born to Run describes.

Professor Tim Noakes

Being too poor to afford shoes has advanced the prospects of would-be world-class athletes around the world. The world record holders for marathons are dominated by shoe-less cultures emanating from Ethiopia, Kenya and even Japan.

The arch is the centre of the foot, which McDougall calls ‘the greatest weight-bearing design ever created’. Why would anyone want to cover such a hi-tech mechanism in fluff and bits of plastic? The magical property of an arch is it activates under stress. It needs stress to work. And as McDougall correctly points out, the way to weaken an arch is to put ‘support’ right under it.

Says Irish physical therapist Dr. Gerard Hartmann: “Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast.”

As it turns out, in order to transition back to barefoot running, you also need a shoe (or you could well injure yourself).

Predictably, Nike claims to have the solution to getting back to barefoot basics – the Nike Free 5.0, which a product engineer calls ‘a weight room’ for your feet. At 312g apiece, they’re a far cry from bare feet. Nike says the Free is halfway between barefoot and a traditional shoe.

Back to basics

The option no shoe manufacturer would dare to mention, however, is that anyone can start strengthening their feet by progressively walking barefoot. Athlete ‘Barefoot’ Ted McDonald, one of the founding fathers of the barefoot revolution (he ran the Boston marathon in 3:20 wearing Vibram FiveFingers), advises simply tuning into one’s body and especially listening to one’s feet in order to transition away from artificial running.

“The main problem with barefoot running,” says McDonald, “is that it’s free.”

In the early 1970s, Nike introduced the idea that running on the heel was more natural and comfortable, and, fortuitously, it provided a shoe that provided cushioning to the heel, a format that survives to this day. This artificial mode of running led to explosive growth in a new footwear industry dedicated to runners, and at the same time, a new generation of athletes plagued by a slew of new injuries.

Professor Tim Noakes, co-founder of South Africa’s Sports Science Institute, says that the heel-striking running psychology was a heresy.

“My current thinking has been changed dramatically with the realisation that humans evolved as Born to Run describes. We didn’t know that when I wrote Lore of Running in 1991. So there’s been a major change…The fourth edition of Lore of Running discusses the fact that running shoes don’t reduce injury rates. Hence, I’ve said, ‘Maybe expensive shoes aren’t the answer’. What interested me is why did running shoe manufacturers never publish injury rates; why did they never research injuries?”

Noakes says he agrees with Harvard’s Dan Lieberman.

“He says our biology, and our mechanics, are determined by running. He’s said we’ve been running for two million years, so why do we need shoes? That’s a very compelling argument.”

According to the leading proponents of the barefoot revolution, the most advanced shoe, even for racing on tar, is no shoe.

“[But] there’s so much money in shoes; it’s created an inertia based on its own success…[and],” Barefoot Ted adds, “there’s no fast ticket to this method of locomoting yourself.”

Stripping down

McDonald compares the transition process to “learning a new language” or “switching from fast food to growing an orchard. Barefoot running requires sensitivity, care and consistent focus.”

While our bodies are evolved to be ultra-efficient running machines, our brains, says McDougall, are evolved to be ‘bargain shoppers’, to find the easiest, best, least taxing way of achieving anything. In the veld, this meant even while out on a long hunt, always maintaining a reserve (presumably for the hunter-gatherer’s journey back home after a failed hunt). It is this combination of endurance and being able to run strategically, systematically and speculatively, in a pack, clinging to every bit of energy, that has made our species effective hunters. It’s the secret to our success on this planet.

Professor Noakes, meanwhile, has been developing the Central Governator Model, which demonstrates how the brain is the primary organ dictating how far, how fast and at what level of exertion humans can exercise or race. It appears to demonstrate that world-class athletic performance, whether you’re a hunter-gatherer, Caster Semenya or Geoffrey Mutai, is still entirely about the mind. This means, in the end, shoes or no shoes, it is the mind that maketh the man, and the mental game that is running. But having good strong feet can’t hurt your chances.