I’ve read about the benefits of barefoot running for a while now. Among other things, it is better for your knees and the arch of your foot.
I didn’t want to literally run barefoot due to concerns about stepping on rocks, glass, etc. So a year ago I bought Nike Free shoes, which were among the first to target that market. After a few running sessions I had extreme pain in my knees. I read that barefoot runners run differently than normal runners, but the Nike Free shoes did not change how I ran or even feel much different than normal shoes. They had especially thick and solid soles, and a traditional shape. After literally barefoot running around the house, I found that proper barefoot running changes how you run so that you land on the balls of your feet. You cannot heel-strike, it is too painful. I concluded that my Nike Free shoes did not encourage or support barefoot form due to their design.
Yesterday, I bought Vibram Five Fingers shoes. The salesman at the store told me they are currently the most popular running shoes, and you should not use them to run on pavement, only on tracks and trails. What led me to pay $90 for them was that the soles are very thin and the heel is no thicker than the rest of the shoe, which addressed my prior complaint. This was immediately apparent at the track. I could feel the texture of the asphalt under my feet when I got out of the car; similar to actually being barefoot. Running, I did find that my posture and gait matched that of running barefoot – as with my prior experiment, I could not and did not land on my heels.
As an aside, I want to explain the difference in posture, since nobody explained this to me before and I couldn’t find any clear explanations online.
With typical running shoes, you land on your heels. The impact is absorbed partly by the shoes, partly by your knees, which you can see on this impact graph. That is why the Nike Free shoes are so bad – the sole is thick and solid, but it still has the design of typical running shoes, so you get the worst of both worlds. In order to land on your heels your center of gravity is more towards the back, with an upright posture, and you pull yourself forward with your feet.
With barefoot running, you (have to) land on your forefoot. Your center of gravity is past your toes such that you are actually falling forward. The way the salesman explained this to me was to keep your back and neck straight and aligned. Lean forward until you start to fall, without bending your upper body or neck. Just before you fall, you push off with your foot. The whole run therefore is a controlled fall forward.
I ran about 2 1/2 miles yesterday with the Vibrams. My calves absorbed the impact that previously went to my knees. The run felt easier although that could be because I have been working on my cardio anyway. However, a rock gave me a very painful lesson on just how thin the soles are, especially under the instep. Pebbles, gravel, rough asphalt are all OK. More than that and you’ll be limping.
In conlusion, I would mix it up depending on where you plan to run. It’s better to run on trails in general because it’s better for your knees. But the Vibrams are too thin for rough trails. For the treadmill, asphault, or well-maintained trails I plan to use the Vibrams. Regular running shoes for everything else.