It’s Not Making You Faster

Huarache sandals

©2013 Scott Smuin

Who do we blame?

Born to Run?

Vibram?

Luna?

Barefoot Ted?

Beyond The Minimalist Movement

I’m going to piss-off a lot of my friends with this semantic exploration into the current trends in racing footwear, but, well, c’est la vie, because Cranky believes it’s getting waaaay out of hand.

Footwear, or the lack thereof, has been rapidly changing in athletics over the last five years. What was old, like “Nike Waffle Racer in 1973, old”, became new again, and minimalist footwear hit the athletic shoe world with tremendous force.

Nike Waffle Racer shoe

photo: This looks like like it would be an excellent OCR shoe, yes?

First, it was the minimalist models that began trickling in, most notably models from New Balance, Inov-8, and pretty much anything supporting a neutral gait, with low profile, 4mm or less heel-to-toe drop, and weighing in at lighter than 8 ounces.

This was good.

Barefoot Running?

Then, came the barefoot movement. Seemingly, not so good.

I mean, ok, so there have always been “barefoot runners”, but they certainly weren’t considered “hip”, nor progressive – just a little crazy. The mid-foot vs. heel-strike movement started to ramp up, people started looking towards pose running, which lead them to more minimalist footwear options, and BAM!, some of the more extremists went straight to barefeet.

Sounds good, right? I mean, Who’s going to heel-strike barefoot?

When Barefoot isn’t Really Barefoot

If you haven’t already, you will soon hear someone say, “I run barefoot…” and then follow that up with, “…in Vibrams.”

Unless I’m missing something, that’s not really “barefoot”. Barefoot means bare, feet. No shoes. But somehow, Vibram Five Finger runners have redefined the meaning of “barefoot”.

vibram

Photo: as shown at vibramfivefingers.com

Let me start by saying, I own a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I felt like, and continue to feel like, occasional training in very minimalist footwear, like Vibrams, helps to improve my overall foot strength and flexibility. That being said, I would never race obstacles in them.

Besides looking completely ridiculous, I see absolutely no advantage for obstacle racing athletes. Because most OCR races are run on the trails, and a majority of obstacles require a lot of jumping, and landing, it seems counter-intuitive to the needs of the racer, and seems that it would promote injury, force more careful foot placement, and ultimately slow the runner down.

Huarache Sandals and Various Knock-offs

It gets better.

Sandals.

Now, there are a lot of athletes, with whom I carry a great amount of respect, that choose to race in this kind of extreme minimalist footwear; but, I simply do not understand this incessant need to run in Huarache sandals, or any other sandal, when solid athletic performance is a desired outcome.

Unlike Vibrams, they look cool and interesting enough, but I have seen countless examples of OCR athlete, sitting on the side of the trail, all sad and dejected, with their cool, new, hip sandal in their hand, completely blown-out.

Or worse, feet that that have suffered some gnarly blistering from the in-between-toe straps, the ankle straps, or the loose footbed sliding around underneath.

Why is this better than, say, an Inov-8 Bare-X model shoe with zero drop heel-to-toe, minimal upper or cushioning material, and ultra-light at about six measly ounces? or a New Balance Minimus Zero model? Both of these shoes would feel every bit as light as Vibrams or sandals, but would provide that additional protection necessary to run faster, more worry-free, and less injury-prone.

It’s Not Just the Footwear

Overzealous athletes deserve some of the blame.

Many times, athletes jump on the bandwagon without taking the appropriate time to get used to minimalist footwear. The amount of new strain added to the calves, achilles and overall foot musculature is much greater in minimalist shoes, and it takes some acclimation before one can resume the same levels of racing and training.

In Cranky’s opinion, CrossFit is the best training methodology ever invented for the masses, but many people will tell you that CrossFit is a recipe for injury; and it can be, if athletes do not first take the time to learn proper technique, scale the loads and movements, and build a foundation for which to grow.

Minimalist footwear acclimation is exactly the same thing, and when this “foundational” process is ignored, people get hurt.

But Who Cares About All That?

All grouchy commentary aside, I believe that uber-minimalist footwear like Vibrams Five Fingers and Huarache sandals makes athletes slower, more careful runners, and rarely promotes maximum performance potential.

Ask yourself this, why do none of the Kenyons, ripping through 2:05 marathons, wear Vibrams or run barefoot?

Why are none of the fastest, elite, top-finishing trail runners, from distances as short as cross country, to ultramarathon distances of 100 miles or more, wearing Huarache sandals?

Or in OCR, where’s Hobie’s Huaraches? Cody? Ella? Margaret? Oh that’s right, Margaret races for Inov-8 🙂

These athletes do not choose this extreme footwear for racing because it does not make them faster, nor perform better.

So, Cranky has to ask, for those of you that do rock the Five Fingers at races, or the {gasp} latest model of primitive sandal, why?

What are you gaining by doing this?

How are your race performances benefiting?

Are any of you getting faster by doing so?

Cranky doesn’t think so, but is open to hearing your experiences.

 

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Comments

  1. I run all of my OCR’s and ultra’s in my 5 fingers, and do a lot of trail running in Luna Sandals. I also run barefoot quite often. I have NEVER had a problem with my 5 fingers “slowing me down” in and OCR or any other performance based area. I also feel more than enough protection from them. As for my Luna Sandals, if you have the right lacing system and footbed in them they will hold up fine in an OCR. A lot huraches, and they are slowly making their way into OCR’s, and with this the sandals are becoming more OCR friendly when it comes to security etc. That being said, I again state that neither have slowed me down.

    • I just dont see how security features can make any sandals more OCR friendly? unless you had toe protection, anti chaffing technologies, heel protection and…. make it a shoe?

      • With all that you might as well take out personal accountability as well right? I have NEVER had “chaffing problems” and why would you need heel protection if you don’t heel strike? I have to force myself to heel strike and when I do it hurts, and feels unnatural, in a normal shoe or not. So why do it? Toe protection, is called watching where you are landing your foot. It’s called being more aware, and not blindly slamming your foot down because you think your shoe will protect you. And as far as the security I mentioned, I was talking about a lacing system and footbed of the sandal designed to prevent slippage, when it comes to mud, water, etc. which is easy enough to. and guess what? You wont have to continue to run with all that crap on your feet and in your shoe weighing you down because it wont be there.

    • I run in vibrams for OCR & sand trail running. I feel that I am more stable and less likely to turn my ankle when I’m not wearing regular running sneakers. I also run about 10 miles once a week at the beach barefoot. When I run on the road or on a treadmill I always wear a regular pair of running sneakers because I really need the cushion since I am a forefoot striker. I tried trail running and OCR in regular running sneakers and will never do it again.

  2. I don’t always agree with the Cranky Bastard, but when I do, I hate it.

    • I thought Cranky Bastard was Matt. In that case, I just agree. Sandals for OCR -> weird. But to each their own. That’s what’s great about this “sport” – we’re all pretty accepting of each other’s quirks, especially knowing that we’ll all off in some way.

  3. I did a lot of switching between regular trail shoes and merrell trail gloves when training, and while I certainly do not run faster with the later, I found out that I feel the ground better when/if I slip and it prevented many time a twisted ankle, unlike my other cushinned shoes (older columbia trail shoes).

    Aside from this I shoes my shoes based on the training I do, zone 2 training means more cushionning, I dont need much when doing Zone 4 intervals and like the lightweight feeling and toe gripping the ground.

    I certainly do not undertand the five fingers and the added risk of something getting in between your toes for a potential injury while OCRing (roots, rocks, metal thing) and think barefoot or sandals should be banned from OCR as there is just too much mud or other combos of dangers for the feet. The guys running in huarache are doing it on clean grounds (dirt roads) not muddy trails.

    • You sign waivers for a reason. Think of them as just another obstacle. a very MINOR obstacle. if you would even call it that. Again comes personal accountability and watching your footing. How many instances have you personally seen where someone gets something in between their toes while wearing 5 fingers and running and seriously injured themselves?? Honestly. And you think people who wear huraches only run on clean grounds? I guess it never rains where these people live. Lot’s have ran on “muddy trails, and mountain trails, etc. including me in Luna Sandals or another form of hurache, and have had no problems.

  4. ” I see absolutely no advantage for obstacle racing athletes. Because most OCR races are run on the trails, and a majority of obstacles require a lot of jumping, and landing, it seems counter-intuitive to the needs of the racer, and seems that it would promote injury, force more careful foot placement, and ultimately slow the runner down.” having no-to-minimal rise in your shoe helps prevent rolling your ankle on a root, stone, or when jumping off an obstacle. What would you be more stable walking around in, Gene Simmons Kiss era platform boots or Hugh Hefner’s slipper flats? You may be more awesome in the platform boots, but you are much more likely to topple over. That is what traditional running shoes are doing – they are putting a platform under your foot. As for careful foot placement, that is what trail running is all about. It’s not about thrashing around and mashing up the trail, it is about treading lightly and assuredly. To (para)quote Caballo Blanco in “Born to Run” – “If you are deciding whether to take 1 step or 2 between rocks, take 3.”

  5. Elite Kenyan runners grow up running barefoot on trails. They log 20k miles barefoot, hard-wiring that barefoot gait, before they put on shoes to race.
    When they do put on shoes, Kenyans and Ethiopians run in tiny little, barely there, racing flats.
    Racing flats that have very little support, almost zero cushion, and no motion control – very minimalist.

  6. I have been running the last year and a half with my KSO VFF. The first two mud runs I did before then were with “trail shoes” that held mud in and felt bulky. I was used to my indoor soccer shoes and often played barefoot scrimmages in HS so thought I’d give the minimalist a try. I’ve not looked back. I have run 25+ races in my current pair and bought a “training” pair to get more OCR miles out of my race pair. I feel more aware of my strike and it has helped me reduce injury by not running as carelessly as before. I’ve worn my asics from time to time on road races but that feels awkward so I stick mostly to trails and off road races where I can run wild and free…lol. Preference does play a part. I would not expect someone else to do what I do and I would accept the same from them. I have friends that run completely barefoot and have taken into consideration all the repercussions of that choice, thorns, rocks, and all.

  7. I started training for OCR’s in 5-toed shoes and then ran my first few events in them. I enjoyed the trail running and training in them until I broke my little toe, TWICE!, from rocks and roots. When i used them on OCR runs they were just as slippery as regular shoes with duct tape wrapped around them. I started this year with Inov-8 212’s and love them. I have never had an issue, I make it through the courses faster and have shaved minutes off my time just from being able to go up hills without using the ropes like everyone else. They have gotten me through 18 events so far this year and probably have another 18 in them. I would never go back to the barefoot shoes except for boating, canoeing or playing at the beach. They just aren’t the right shoe for what we do.

  8. Voice of Reason says:

    Okay, so here is the real question. Who here is actually fast AND racing/training in these barefoot options? I’m not talking comfortable or successful, I am talking actually FAST. Have you run any of the following times?
    Mile: 4:20 or faster
    3k: 8:59 or faster
    5k: 15:59 or faster
    10k: 32:30 or faster
    HM: 2:10 or faster
    Marathon: 2:30 of faster
    Or placed top 3 in a MEANINGFUL race with actual competitive runners? These times are obviously subjective but you get my point. I think people who use huarache/vibram et al are simply not fast and never will be.

    I just don’t believe there are many, if any, actual fast runners doing this. Provide a link to the results to verify their authenticity. Thanks!

    • Voice of Reason says:

      HM: 1:10*

    • Is it all about being fast? fast is relative, what is your 50 mile time, how about 100 mile? 😉

      • Voice of Reason says:

        Yes, racing is about being fast.

        I personally don’t care whether someone is fast or not, that doesn’t impact who they are as an individual.

        However, this post is titled, “It’s Not Making You Faster”, so I commented based off speed. 50 mile times and 100 mile times would be absolutely acceptable, as I believe the people winning those races are not wearing sandals or vibrams, either.

        • The fastest runners run in minimalist shoes (not Vibram 5 fingers) and they always have. The top marathon runners and distance runners are NOT wearing the Asics Keyano Gel or the Reebok ATV or any other bulked up, super cushioned, motion controlling monstrosity. – they are wearing super low profile, thin, light, papery racing flats. AND (if you read my post above) they grew up training barefoot… running on sub-Saharan mountainous trails wearing no shoes at all.

          • The speedgoat 50k has become a prestigious ultra in the past couple years. Last year Killian Jornet won it in salomon sense (4mm drop, thin, light shoe). This year, Anton Krupicka took second in New Balance 110s a very minimal shoe, Ruby Muir took 3rd female in vibrams. This is all on one of the most rugged “trail” races around. I say “trail” because much of the 11,000 feet of alpine ascent and 11,000 feet more of descent were on a course so rocky that one can barely call it a trail. That being said, the race director Karl Meltzer who is a god of a 100 mile runner runs in Hokas, the most comically oversized shoes imaginable.

  9. Hey Cranky,
    Try on a pair and let me know what you think then. I think it is less about being the fastest one out there and more about experimenting with new ways to challenge ourselves and race minimalist and more self sufficient. However, I can take you down some rocky trail in TX or nasty jungle trail in Nicaragua faster in sandals than in shoes. It all takes some training.

    For Hunter Gatherer, the challenge is to get through a long distance and the challenges using minimal and mostly self-made equipment, testing self sufficiency. This is just part of the race, but not saying everyone needs to race in sandals all of the time.

  10. Hey Cranky…
    It’s like this. People find their place and make it their own. There is a ton of bullshit out there. Period. Listen to your body. Choose what works for you and go with it. Too many people buy the flavor of the day and expect results TODAY. Have some patience folks. Plan the work and work the plan. At the end of the day shoe companies are out to make $$$. Be an educated consumer and don’t blame the shoe company when you fail yourself. (Vibram lawsuit). Let’s help everyone get out there and get off the couch. Who gives a shit about what they have on their feet.

  11. First off, I think the author over exaggerates the difficulty of an obstacle race. I did my first OCR this summer, the Utah Spartan Beast. It was not that hard, I am a runner, an ultra runner and a mediocre ultra runner at best. I also, climb a bit and am generally pretty athletic but I did absolutely no training for the obstacle part of the race. I did exactly zero penalty burpees and I finished with a pretty good time. I blew through most of the obstacles and jogged/ran in between. I ran the entire thing in a pair of luna sandals. They worked amazingly. Within a quarter mile of each mud/water pit my feet were dry while everyone elses were still heavy with water and mud. After it was all over I had not a single blister. And do you really need a ton of shoe to climb a rope, pull yourself over a wall, throw a spear, climb a net, etc, etc?? Certainly not. I’m not going to say that sandals are the end all be all. For rugged 100s I don’t wear them. I wear fairly minimal shoes for 100s but I know plenty of people who have worn sandals for the entirety of a 100 and finished much faster than me. It’s all a matter of personal preference. If you want cushy shoes, wear cushy shoes, if you think sandals are cool, wear them. But don’t try and tell me that an OCR is way too rugged and demanding for a certain shoe without getting some first hand or even second hand knowledge first.

    Besides, you guys all want to pretend you are spartans, well didn’t spartans wear sandals? 😉

  12. Joe Rivera says:

    Looks like Cranky needs to find another topic to chat about seeing that he is way out numbered on the minimal/vibrim comments. I for one can honestly say it has made me faster both in OCR and on the regular road to the point that now I run my road races in Adidas Adipure Adapt, Sacony Hattori and NB Minimal road shoes. The whole minimal crazy broke me from the traditional heel striking many folks still do and has made me a more stable efficient runner.. Ankle rolls are almost non existent and my comfort level and traction attacking obstacles has tremendous improved. I have raced in numerous Vibrim 5 fingers, Merrils and NB minimal trail shoes and will never go back to a mattress style, gel filled, air pumped, zigzagged, silicone implanted, foam laden, honey combed, Monroe shocked shoe ever again in my races….

    MudRunFun Joe

    • @Joe

      I almost wrote your comment off with, “yea yea”, “some ol’ same ol'” and “prove it dude”, and then I read this:

      >> “…and will never go back to a mattress style, gel filled, air pumped, zigzagged, silicone implanted, foam laden, honey combed, Monroe shocked shoe ever again in my races…”

      That’s funny and I like you now.

      And, me? outnumbered? yup. That’s how I live my life.

  13. hey guys, please credit Scott Smuin for the photo used in this article.

  14. Invalid Argument says:

    Pretty elite/fast in my book… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yskK6T5ts8s

    Also, Julianna Sproles won WTM 11 in Vibrams.

  15. Hey, those are my feet…back in 2011 at the White River 50 mile trail race. I was eventually going to take those sandals and run the Leadville 100 a month later. That model came to be known as the Leadville.

    We at LUNA are like surfers making surfboards…we make sandals…and some damn fine ones too.

    Our newest model for off-road running is called the OSO (Bear in Spanish)…and it is the first LUNA that can truly begin to handle the complexities of a wide variety of terrain including off-road and muddy conditions.

    I think that LUNAS are a viable option for performance driven competitors although performance alone is not the driving spirit behind our sandals. We are also interested in getting people to reconnect to footwear designs that have been part of human history for thousands of years.

    One huge benefit of LUNAS is that they are super easy to clean up after a hard event and dry quickly…so your race footwear can then become your casual footwear all on the same day.

    LUNAS are made to last. Made in Seattle and shipped around the world.

    BFT

    • @Barefoot Ted

      >> “performance alone is not the driving spirit behind our sandals. We are also interested in getting people to reconnect to footwear designs that have been part of human history for thousands of years.”

      And that’s cool. I get that.

      But, and as was the point of my editorial piece, in most cases, they will not make an athlete run faster.

      I get the whole minimalist thing – be it training, diet and even footwear – but again, not to beat a dead horse, the editorial was about speed and improvements in timed event completion, and I’m just not seeing the fastest competitors moving in this direction.

      Maybe that will change, but I doubt it.

      Good luck with Luna. It’s seemingly growing like wildfire.

  16. Voice of Reason says:

    So, I know it’s been a long time since this thread was started, but I just stumbled across is again.

    In response to JDilla: I’m not talking about racing flats and spikes. Those are obviously made to race and I use them myself. I am talking people who train and race in minimalistic “shoes”. To say that Africans are growing up running barefoot is a gross generalization and lazy at best, and racist at worst. Not even close to half of all great runners from Africa grew up barefoot. Also, look at any, and I do mean ANY, runner who was barefoot due to necesity when growing up. To a man (or woman), every single one switched to the most cushioned training shoe they could find the moment they got a shoe contract or some other way to afford consistant trainers. Yes, we all race in lighter shoes than we train in, but most good runners don’t train minimal.

    And as far as Juliana Sproles goes, I know her very well and her feet were so beat up after that race that she never raced in a pair again. She wore them to fulfill a spoonsorship and races primarely and Soloman now, I believe.

  17. Voice of Reason says:

    in Salomon*

  18. I run most of my trail miles in my DIY huaraches. If I were running a 50K race in a sweet forest clean trail, I’d run it barefoot or in my huaraches, and I’d do it fast. However, add a lot of variable size gravel, or worse, I’d opt for my NB minimalist shoes. A 50 miler with a variety of surfaces? I’d switch back and forth as I do with fast-packing. The right footwear for the right conditions for speed. Overall, I can do everything in my DIY huaraches as I did when I fastpacked the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) in June this year. And the TRT has a wide-range of surface conditions.

    Generally, I enjoy my huaraches way more than shoes. They are more comfortable, NEVER give me blisters (which can slow you down!), never swell up from sweat, and never let me down. I cannot say that about shoes.

    But, if you want to move as fast as possible, in general, wear shoes. I am not a contender for winning anything. If I finish a 50K 20 minutes slower because of my huaraches vs. shoes, meh? I don’t care.

  19. Jason huber says:

    I run completely barefoot and take offense when someone claims they run barefoot when they don’t. They run minimalist, which is completely fine, but a whole different thing. It is like someone saying they play in the NBA when they play for a Rec league. No shame playing for a rec league but it is a far cry from the NBA. I don’t do it to be faster, it has its advantages and its disadvantages, but it is harder to do full barefoot than with shoes, and requires more technique. It is a handicap that is self inflicted, and I enjoy the challenge of beating people who started before me and ran in shoes while I carry a speaker blasting tunes while I run barefoot. Just a personal preference resulting from a bet between a navy guy and an army guy to prove who was tougher (navy won)
    Just my opinion from a true barefooter.

  20. I’ve noticed a huge difference in my running since switching to minimalist shoes nearly 3 years ago. Constant knee problems, likely due to poor form, caused me to quit running at 22 years old. Two years later I took a chance on the minimalist approach after hearing they almost automatically correct heel striking and have been running injury free for almost 3 years now. Transition time is key, it took me about a year to get comfortable in wearing them. In this time, I’ve seen my fastest mile go from 6:12 to 4:57 and I’ve run further than I ever thought I’d ever be capable of. I’ll even be racing my first 100k in 2016 – in minimalist shoes.

    Can my improvement be attributed solely to the shoes? Who knows. But I do know it’s impossible to improve when your knees always hurt, so corrected form = more time on your feet = faster times. I’ve also noticed when I wear the one pair of regular sneakers I own at work (as a surgical nurse for podiatry, so I know feet!) my knees HURT.

    Specifically to the questions in the article: obstacle races in minimalist shoes are not any more difficult than in sneakers. I’ve raced in several and if anything I’ve found being able to engage my toes individually a major help. As for just running, I only run trails and 90% of my runs are on very rocky and technical terrain, so it can be done. I’ve found I’m much more engaged during my runs, constantly picking lines (much like in mountain biking) and I enjoy feeling everything under my feet. My foot and leg strength is astronomical compared to 5 years ago and my feet have actually shrunk from a size 10.5 to size 9 and I’m 20 lbs lighter. You must keep in mind nobody can definitively say a shoe can or can’t improve performance. Everyone is different and what works for some won’t necessarily work for others. While it may not have worked for you, minimalist running has worked wonders for many, myself included.