Vibrams & Barefoot/Minimalist Running

I’ve logic-ed it out, and I think this barefoot running stuff makes sense.

I’ve had Vibrams for about a week, and they only have 2 miles on them so far (frequently ignored muscles quickly became sore), but I’m psyched to get my body adjusted to running in them. It might take a while, but it will definitely be worth it.

These Bikilas are Vibram’s running-specific shoe

Among other things, Running in Vibrams is just more fun than running in sneakers. With them on, I felt like I was bouncing along the pavement, naturally moving forward, rather than pounding through it, pushing myself forward with every foot strike. I was a little kid discovering the most natural and exciting thing I had ever found. And with every other runner I saw, I wondered if they knew what I was figuring out — I felt a little bit sneaky, like I had found some elevated awareness of what running was supposed to be. I felt like my whole body was involved in my run– I could feel the ground my feet were interacting with and I could feel my legs and muscles working in a completely different way. I felt each step. And I’m still thinking about this twenty-something minute run.

Running in Vibrams was like discovering a secret. And I’ll try to share that secret with you all, by talking a bit about the shoe itself, the difference in my running step with the Vibrams, and why I am psyched about how sore my calves were post-vibramed run. 

The aim of the Vibram shoes is to provide the little bit of padding and sole-protection (I think there’s 4mm of rubber) to make barefoot running a bit more practical for a modern society with cement running paths and feet unaccustomed to being barefoot.  Vibrams are also very flexible & move with your foot in a way that sneakers can’t. See?:

I guess they provide a bit of structure and support, but not in comparison with regular sneakers.  There are many other minimalist shoes that are intended to protect your foot while still allowing it to move naturally, so if you’re not into the toe thing but are curious, there are other options. Clearly, I don’t know much about them, or I’d be less vague.

Everyone’s running step is a bit different, but I’ll share my shod step verses my vibramed step. I initially made a video to explain this, but the video is super 1983, and I didn’t want to ugly up the blog with such a piece of trash.  

Notice that with the sneakers, my heel just barely hits the ground first, taking full advantage of that well-cushioned sneaker to absorb some of the impact. My foot is in front of my knee when I hit the ground, and I’m using that rolling motion of my foot (heel to ball) to propel myself forward. The heel of my foot is grabbing the ground in front of it, and pushing it out of the way.

Think about this. Does the heel have any give, other than the sneaker? No. Heels don’t move. The impact of my foot hitting the ground shoots through the sneaker, into my heel, and probably right into my joints and bones and stuff. Joints & bones were not meant to take impact. Yes, it’s possible to not heel strike with sneakers on, but the big cushiony heel seems to encourage it, don’t you think? Why else would the majority of the padding be in the heel? It’s really easy to heel strike in sneakers because the cushioning stops you from feeling the impact of the ground and with that big padded heel, it’s hard to strike the ground with the toe first unless you are viciously pointing your toe. We do have a bit of natural padding on our heel, but I think that’s for walking. Because it certainly doesn’t feel natural or comfortable to heel-strike when barefoot.

Now, here’s my vibramed foot step.

First, notice that my heel doesn’t touch the ground at all (but if there was half an inch more shoe under it, it would). The ball of my foot grabs the ground right underneath it, and through a bounce in my calves, I push off from my toes. My foot is involved in the step and that foot movement is what is propelling me forward. I am running with my feet, rather than just running on my feet. Can you see how much more my calf muscles are engaged? The impact of my foot on the ground goes right into my calf muscles, and guess what?–muscles and tendons were built to react to impact in ways that joints & bones were not. My feet stay closer together and my body stays closer to the ground. My feet don’t touch the ground until my knees are above them–my muscles are always engaged, so they are protecting my bones and joints (a reminder that I am an english major & googler, not a scientist).

The Vibrams naturally inspire a much softer and more delicate step–it’s a totally different sport like this. My knees remain more bent, my movement is more fluid, and each step flows seamlessly into the next one. It’s a lot more instinctive to keep my upper body relaxed with these shoes, too. And this is the step that I naturally took when I put on the Vibrams. I didn’t google “barefoot running form” and then try to mimic it. This is what happened. And then google confirmed.

Regardless of how I strike my foot, the force of my body hitting the ground is the same amount of force. But with the Vibrams, that force was going into my muscles. So I could actually feel it. The amount of force that my calf muscles spent 3-4 days recovering from is the exact same amount of force that has been going into my bones and joints during all of my shod running. That is crazy. And that is why I think these shoes are awesome. Calf muscles will get stronger with more running, but bones and joints will get more worn out. It’s cool, huh? It is.

When I was talking to the running shoe guy about Vibrams, he said that he believed them in theory, but had a problem with running on hard, man-made surfaces with them. Understandable. Cavemen didn’t have cement. Running in Vibrams on the sidewalk felt very different than running in Vibrams on dirt. The balls of my feet were not so psyched about sidewalks. On harder surfaces, it’s possible to run softer and more delicately, involving leg muscles and that natural bounce even more. Whatever bounce the ground doesn’t give, your muscles can give. Really. That said, until my feet toughen up a bit, I am planning more dirt runs than cement runs. The soles of my feet did hurt after about ten minutes of sidewalk running.

I’m really excited to become a different kind of runner, and re-teach my body how to run in a way that is more comfortable for it, and the way that my body was intended to run. I’m not just spitting hippie crap at you all–I’m totally 100% serious about this.

So go to a store and try on a pair of Vibrams. You’ll see what I’m getting at–as soon as I put them on, I could tell that they would change the way I ran. Also go read “Born to Run.” Seriously. It’s fascinating. Also, check out this excellent post about how to transition into Vibrams, if you’re interested in learning more. 

I’m off for Vibramed Run #2 right now. I’ll be bouncing around by the river, dodging pedestrians, dogs, and shod runners, and enjoying the secret, basic, natural pleasure that my wonderfully well-intending sneakers have been protecting me from. Or something.


6 Comments to “Vibrams & Barefoot/Minimalist Running”

  1. Great post! I’ve had a pair of Vibrams for about a year now and have never run in them, just walked around. They are not comfortable to me.
    My hubby has like 5 pairs and runs in them exclusively. He loves them and will be running his first marathon in them soon.

    • I thought I would see a lot more vibrams when I was watching the marathon, but I didn’t! Saw lots in the BAA 5k–I guess it takes a lot to build into being able to run long distances in them. Which I’m sure your husband has figured out!

  2. Thanks for the explanation, I have been a little fuzzy on the whole Vibram movement! In track and cross country, my couaches had always stressed the importance of finding a running show that worked well for you and sticking with it, so I spent years with the same model of Nike Air Max Triax. I have only recently tried other shoes and the Vibram is on my list of shoes to try. Your explanation of the mechanics was very helpful.

  3. I’m not entirely certain on the whole barefoot running thing these days – I used to as a kid, but as a 30 something post baby Mum I’m not so sure. I’m a neutral runner so wear light shoes anyway, but I have to say I have had my eye on the vibrams. I would however, suggest that you do exercises that strengthen the Tibialis Posterior – this will strengthen your feet & protect against shin splints. One of our top experts in NZ explains how to these properly. See his clip on You Tube ( Anyway, thanks for an informative post & happy minimalist running – I will keep an eye on your posts to see how you get on!

    • Thanks for sharing that video!

      If you’re running pain and injury free, I don’t see any great reason to change anything that you’re doing — I went to the vibrams because of a pain in my leg that I can’t understand, and after just trying out the barefoot thing and feeling what it does to my muscles, it makes a ton of sense to me & just feels great.

      And it’s cool– my feet have been changing a bit and I am just more aware of using my feet when I’m walking around–that makes no sense. But. I don’t know. It’s really cool how these things are influencing just about every aspect of how i walk/run/stand. ah, i love them. And I’m looking forward to my feet and legs continuing to get stronger through more vibram time & videos like the one you shared!

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