Monday, September 14, 2009

"Barefoot" Running Shoes - Go Retro Instead and Wear Moccasins

There are a number of shoe brands and some start-up shoe companies that are now offering a "new" nearly barefoot athletic shoe to the public, touting that their minimalist qualities are "natural" for the human body because the athletic or running shoe designs are similar to being barefoot.

Because these companies have a vested interest in their shoe, they'll make great claims and sponsor studies and athletes to support their product marketing. In reality, the trend towards minimalist footwear is a step backwards in shoe design.

Here's why some people like the minimalist shoe:
  • Weight: very light and compact
  • Perception: shoe buyers perceive the shoe is good for their feet and has high cool factor.
  • Direct Foot Power: there is no influence of the shoe in the push off portion of the stride.
Here's the problem with minimalist shoes:
  • Ancient Ancestry: For the tens of thousands of years humans have been walking, we've been barefoot or wearing minimal footwear. Most of those ancient steps were on natural earth, not concrete, asphalt, tile or other types of uniform hard surfaces. Historically most humans didn't live long enough to reap the results of wear and tear on their bodies. Modern middle-age until just the past hundred years or so was old-age for most of human kind.
  • Excellent Biomechanics: Only athletes with both excellent gait technique AND bio-mechanics can excel with minimalist running shoes. Young athletes may feel fine with barefoot style shoes not realizing that they are running out of their personal biomechanical "grace period" that everybody has. When that grace period is up, wear and damage to the body sets up conditions that may lead to chronic injury and joint conditions.

If you really want to experiment with minimalist footwear shoe technology, here are my suggestions:
  • Gradual Break In: Depending on the mileage you are doing, the break-in time from standard supportive athletic running shoes to barefoot style shoes could be as long as 3 to 6 months.
  • Running Surfaces: Avoid ANY hard unyielding surfaces. This includes natural surfaces such as rock paths.
  • Age Related Option: If you're middle age and older and want to experiment with barefoot running shoes, only run on soft beach or desert sand.

So, if you want to authentically go retro when buying running shoes, buy some good, North American made moccasins. North American Indians are still making moccasins like they have for thousands of years, with a few minor alterations to their technology. Though you can buy very expensive, handmade custom moccasins, my favorite moccasin company is Laurentian Chief. The Laurentian Chief moccasin company, based in Quebec, Canada still employs some workers of indigenous ancestry to make their ancient style of minimalist footwear.

Remember, if you do get biomechanical strain, see me at I've experimented with making my own moccasins and used them with and without orthotics.

NOTE:Laurentian Chief does not sell direct to the public. One company I found on the web that is very invested in the Laurentian moccasin line is Get Outside Shoes in Toronto, Canada. They ship to the U.S.

If there are any other moccasin shoe companies that manufacture their moccasins in North America, let us know and we will add you to this blog entry.


Unknown said...

You mention humans not being meant to walk/run on hard surfaces. There are some amazingly hard surfaces out there in Africa, Mexico, and other such locations where humans live. Also do you think we are more evolved to run with an inch of rubber under our feet?

I am also going to disagree with your other point about bio mechanics. I think, on the other hand, running in minimal shoes corrects any stride problems.

Randall Barna said...

400 Watts- Can we agree to disagree?

My evidence is anecdotal (as I believe yours is as well) but it comes from twenty years of clinical, observational gait analysis. My office floor is half carpet and half tile. I want to see their gait on both and I direct them to walk diagonally in the room. Many walk only on the carpet and I have to re-direct them to get on the tile. My point is that most people prefer some cushion.

On biomechanics I follow simple rules, like Newtons Laws. Force follows the path of least resistance. This means that the weakest parts of the foot will get the force when the mobile foot meets resistance from hard ground.

billwagnon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
billwagnon said...

Hi Randall!

I started running shoeless in May 2009 and I have run about 250 miles so far. I run on a variety of urban surfaces (concrete and asphalt) with occasional forays onto grass or dirt.

My gait *has* changed substantially since I started. I used to run 6 miles once a week, but now I can run 6 miles two days in a row because I'm not beating my body up.

I'm 41 and just under the "obese" BMI. I'm running 20 - 25 miles a week. What part of my body should I expect to wear out first and what will the early signs be? I want to stay mobile as long as possible.

Unknown said...

Surfaces are harder now, but all that really hints at is that any running will be more stressful; if one style reduces body forces on a soft surface it will on hard.

Further, do you know it has been shown in recent studies that increased cushioning in shoes _increases_ impact forces?

Much of the reason for minimal shoes is not the lessen of cushioning anyway, it's to allow proper mechanics, which are harder to achieve with modern running shoes, which all have a raised heel (for which, btw, there is no scientific evidence supporting the benefits of).

Of course the debate can and will rage on, so my advice to people is always do what you're doing now if it's working, but if it's not do look into the minimal approach because thousands of people (myself included) have found marked increases in their ability to run (read: less injury).

Randall Barna said...

The holy grail of shoe companies is reducing shock to foot during the stride. The more efficient an athlete is with technique, their body can reduce shock more than a shoe combined with inefficient technique. The caveat is that this takes a LOT of TIME, ANALYSIS and TRAINING that's not readily available to the general public because it's expensive and professionally trained experts are few and far between.
As for when someone's body will wear out -- Everyone has their grace-period. You won't know til it's over.

Randall Barna said...

Note to readers: If you have things to say, and you want a chance for your comments to be published, we will consider this if you use your real name and refrain from extreme language. Anonymous inflammatory and derisive posts will not be posted.

Penumbra said...

Randall, I'll provide you with a bit more anecdotal evidence. I've been running since I was 14. I'm 39 now. In the past couple of years, I've been noticing more the knee soreness after long runs. This was especially the case when I lifted weights, doing squats, after a run. I could barely squat down. In the past couple of months, I've started wearing vibram five fingers. I discovered that my prior attempt at correcting my biomechanics was completely wrong and I didn't know it because of the running shoes I was wearing. I've got about 300 miles under my belt with vibrams. My stride, landing, and general movement is something I can't not notice when I run in vibrams. I'm constantly checking and correcting where needed. I just ran 9.5 miles today and my legs and knees feel great. FYI, yes, I had a break in period for my achilles tendons to lengthen. Taking it slow is definitely important. I also find, that for monitoring my form, pavement is best even though I love running trails. It provides an even surface that allows me to develop a consistent landing. If your form is correct, there is nothing stressful about running on pavement.

I would say that until you've tried this and have understood and experienced the technique, you won't realize how right the minimalists and barefooters are.

Finally, I will agree with the poster above. The more cushion you have the more impact force on your leg and knee as your body tries to find the stable landing which is difficult if not impossible with cushioned shoes.