Some of us are fans of all things Western: John Wayne, cattle rustling, shoot-outs at the OK Corral, while others are not. But not as many as you might think. Deep down, the majority of us are cowboys at heart. That’s because, if you wear shoes with heels on – as many, many millions do – well then, you’re just following a trend that cowboy boots started. They feature a pointy toe to allow your foot to slide easily through the stirrup and then the heel works as a brake.
“Seriously, that’s true,” laughs Ben Le Vesconte, running coach and movement expert at Vivobarefoot.
Barefoot running, or at least using 0mm drop shoes like those made by Vivobarefoot, is trying to reverse that trend and provide you as a runner with all sorts of benefits, from improved sensory information to better balance and core strength. Sensing the word ‘but’ usually follows that statement, Ben is on the case straight away, stopping that train of thought in its tracks. “There’s no science to cushioning,” he laughs. “As for pronation control, what’s that all about?”
The thing is, his is an easy argument to understand. We can all visualise ourselves floating across smooth sand, barefoot and running as nature intended. Long-striding and relaxed. And it doesn’t take much to imagine how shoes could be super-restrictive and how so many running injuries could be the result of shoe-related design issues. Sore Achilles, tight calf muscles, bunions – they’re all problems we’ve encountered as runners and it would be lovely to see the back of them forever. The thing is, even for us off-road-loving runners, there are some uncomfortable objects lying in wait on just about every run, from sharp stones to unforgiving tree roots, even the occasional pavement.
“You are right,” says Ben, again demonstrating his mind reading skills. “Our feet have become deconditioned. We’re not ready for such a challenge.”
Yet. Barefoot running, or using Vivobarefoot shoes and the minimal protection they provide is all about the long term. If you bought the shoes tomorrow, you wouldn’t be flying down the trails in them for many months yet. “It can take anywhere from six weeks to six months, or longer to get used to them,” Ben explains. “Early on, you can only wear them for a few minutes,” he continues, suggesting that even 10 minutes would be a lot in them initially.
That’s vital to understand. There are so many positives associated with the idea – better toe flexor strength, better balance, improved running economy, your technique improves – that you feel the need to crack on and starting benefitting. Hold your horses. Using the shoes is a bit like learning to drive and you need to get all the basics in order before you hit the accelerator. Check your technique, embark on a programme that includes barefoot hopping and speeding up your cadence. “At no point should you run in these shoes while your feet are not conditioned to them,” Ben laughs, agreeing that’s not the sales pitch they teach you in marketing class.
But there’s nothing stop you walking in them. “Wear them to work, as your everyday shoe and you’ll slowly improve. After all, your foot is a complex system that is armour-plated if you treat it right.”
Your new toe yoga routine
When you run, your legs transfer energy produced by muscles into motion. And when you’re running, how does this energy get to the ground? Through your feet, of course.
But, with up to 3.5 times your bodyweight going through your feet on ground contact, you’re left with two prime suspects for injury, or at least points where you may lose speed and efficiency.
This foot workout will take about five minutes once you’re used to it. A set or two each day will be beneficial to strength and train the nerves to better feel the ground, aiding balance and placement.
1 Try lifting your big toe while keeping your other toes and whole foot on the ground. Pushing your other toes into the ground whilst lifting your big one will help, and engage the key foot muscles and tendons. Hold your toe up for a second or two and repeat 10 times.
2 Next, you’re simply going to do the same but this time with all of your other toes being raised while keeping that big toe firmly on the ground, along with the rest of your foot. Again, 10 reps is a good number to work to, holding at the top for 1-2 seconds.
3 Next, attempt to spread your toes apart from each other. Try to avoid using the ground to kind of force them apart, instead lifting your toes, separating them and trying to place them down whilst keeping them apart. Often the big toe will remain where it is while the rest spread around, which is normal.
4 Without moving anything but your feet, try and ‘roll’ your feet onto the outside. Your knees should remain in line with your hips and not open up as you roll your foot. After completing a set on the outside, try rolling your foot to the inside and lifting the outside, again keeping those knees still! Do 10 of each.
5 To finish, lay a small towel or T-shirt flat on the floor, and put just your toes on to the edge. Scrunch your toes to pull the item towards you, aiming to bring it all the way. Your heels should remain on the ground at all times. This is best on a hard floor, as a carpet can make it difficult to drag the towel towards you. An alternative is to lay a pen or pencil down and try picking it up with your toes.
Ben Le Vesconte is a coach, personal trainer and functional training specialist. He is also a movement expert for shoe brand Vivobarefoot.