Barefoot with Bikila!

Bikila is a name that half a century ago rocked running around the world.

Abebe Bikila was an Ethiopian marathon runner who became the first black athlete to win a gold medal and he did it barefooted. He went on to become the first marathon runner to defend the Olympic Gold in 1964 in Tokyo where he set a new World Record.

In 1962 he ran five and won five marathons.

Clearly, the name Bikila is one associated with excellence and natural running and it’s a name that once again is initiating rumblings amongst the running community and this time its from the ground up.

The newest addition to the Vibram Five Finger story is named after Abebe Bikila. The Five Fingers shoe (and I hesistate to describe them as shoes) is a glove like ‘garment’ for your feet that provides protection while allowing complete freedom of movement.

Ironically if the past 50 years have shown us anything it is that you can’t fight over two million years of evolution with a couple of decades of running shoe technology.

There is a need to question the role of all of the gimmicks, support and cushioning in the modern shoes.

Were we really meant to have a whole lot more padding under our heel?

Is it possible that in the greater scheme of things that marvel of human engineering, the medial arch, that contributes to the elasticity and spring in the stride, was actually a mistake, which should be replaced by a thermoplastic ‘plank’ of rigidity?

If a shoe has thick cushioning then part of the energy is being absorbed in the cushioning and not in the drive. Surely the more energy planted directly into the ground the faster we will run?

Simple logic tells us that shoes should have more in common with the shape and flexibility of foot than a plank of wood and yet a scan of the current running shoe counters would support the reverse.

Sure there will be a small percentage of people whose feet and running mechanics are on the extremes of the mass representing normality. But these will be minimal and in all population distribution typically account for around 5% at either end of the spectrum.

Five Fingers on Your Feet!

Now consider the Five Finger Bikila which can be seen to fulfill the essential functions of a shoe:

They provide protection to the sole of the foot preventing stones, nails, thorns and other such dangers that have become everyday concerns.

Then they also provide a basic level of cushioning that alleviates the impact change from running and walking in the veldt to being on the tar, concrete, stones or tiles that have been introduced over the last few centuries.

Additional protection for stones and the like is provided to the medial arch while maintaining virtually the full flexibility of the foot.

However with all of this in place, the Vibrams allow a totally natural running style, where the foot lands on the mid to forefoot, below and slightly ahead of the centre of gravity.  The actual landing and the amount of distance ahead of the centre of gravity varies with the running speed as in a correct style it is the momentum that assists the centre of gravity driven through the hips, to move towards the next step.

This highlights the need for a strong core as the forward motion is created primarily from the drive of the rear leg on the ground using the core as the key.

Fitting the Bikila, or any of the Five Finger models, is quite a task the first time-round and is as much a testament to how much other shoes have distorted our feet as it is to the glove like fitting of these feet coverings.

However the more you wear the Five Fingers the easier the fitting becomes not only because of the improved technique, but also the shaping and correction that occur with the feet. Toes are meant to be separated and certainly this does seem to improve with regular wear.

See the Difference

If you have any doubts as to a natural running style run along a section of hard flat sand on the edge of the ocean and look at the footprints. You will find that it is the ball of the foot that has the greatest depth in the sand. Now try moving from a walk to a jog to a run to a sprint and then decelerate. As you walk back watch how the foot imprint changes from being driven by the ball and toes when you are sprinting to a heel toe when walking. All speeds in between have a gradual increase or decrease towards these extremes.

Now try running in the same fashion in your ‘normal’ running shoes. What you will find is that walking leaves a similar pattern to bare foot, and so does sprinting, but then there is not smooth transition phase: instead there is a whole blurr of almost flat footed prints. How can there be anything else when manufacturers have handicapped and trapped the foot by placing a plank like plastic restriction directly under the arch?

There is the further proof that the majority of running shoes are just NOT what is required. Even on the road you will find it virtually impossible to hold the correct running position for a long distance race is there is one of these restrictive supports under the arch.

A final comment on about landing on the ball of your foot: It is no coincidence that cyclists go to great lengths to ensure that the ball of the foot is directly over the centre of the pedal axle. In this position, as in running, the body and legs can transfer the greatest amount of power.

So back to the Bikila’s:

The upper is extremely close fitting and a Velcro strap as a final, but possibly unnecessary, measure of security.

These shoes can be worn in all surfaces, but in many ways the most rewarding was when you are running faster work such as track or hills when you can feel your feet and leg muscles working to improve technique and quality.

That said I also really enjoy using them on my favourite low tide 15km beach run between Blue Lagoon and Vetches on Durban’s golden mile.

The sole grips well on most surfaces although the company does provide a range of models for different uses and environments and its well worth looking at the full range to select a pair that will best suit your most frequented conditions.

Another benefit of the skin-tight upper is that it prevents the intrusion of grip, sand or other foreign body that might cause irritation and then being so light and permeable means that running through mud, sand or water is without hitch.

To be honest my first session in the Vibrams did present problems. The involved a 6km road run where I took the skin off the underside of my big toe. The reason for this was because of a particularly strong but angled drive from my left foot because I was running with my foot skew compensating for a hip imbalance. Once this was corrected these problems subsided, and in that first session I was probably over emphasizing my forefoot landing.

Caution Means Go Steady!

A word of caution here: In the thirty year of running in South Africa I have always tended to be a forefoot lander and a user of racing shoes for distances even exceeding 100 miles. I have therefore substantial development in this style of running before even finding Five Fingers. This means my adaptation has been substantially faster than the average runner who has spent the last years in a shoe that does not flex throughout the length of the shoe.

Such runners need to make a gradual and progressive transition to the Five Fingers as they need to allow time for the muscles and soft tissue ion the foot to adapt and grow strong enough to handle this new feel.

Here ‘s The Irony:

Muscles and soft tissue grow stronger through use and exercise. The reason our feet are not strong enough and need time to adapt back to a natural running style is because of the supposedly ‘specialist’ running shoes that have been forced on us by the major shoe suppliers in this country. Not only are these bad for the majority of runners, but they actually weaken the feet because they don’t allow the foot muscles to operate in the correct fashion: unexercised muscles get weaker and then require more protection just to do a normal workload.

Though the world’s oldest pair of surviving shoes is 9 000 years old, some anthropologists such as Dr Bernhard Zipfel of University of Johannesburg believe we have been wearing them for up to 40 000 years.

This has been concluded by the fact that skeletons from the period show that humans’ small toes became weaker during this time. The invention of shoes has reduced the need for strong toes to grip the ground and help us balance. In other words, we’ve been damaging our feet ever since man slipped on that first primitive pair.

Furthermore the high heel and heavy cushion also take away from the normal running style. The heel forces greater heel landing, which destroys the momentum of running, and the higher the mid-sole area the less stable (or the more instable), the shoe becomes.

So why don’t the shops sell more of the correct shoes?  Quite simple: The majority of analysis and ordering by major chain stores is driven on the basis of what sold the year before. Since this tends to be financially driven rather than what’s good for the runner, it will require the end-user to demand a change in style. Without this the orders either continue on the same shoes or the latest model of the same shoes.

All Shoes Are Bad For You

While money is driving the SA running shoe market, the same cannot be said of Gallahad Clark who is a sixth generation descendant of the massive international Clark shoe company set up by Cyrus and James Clark over 180 years ago.

Despite having shares in the world-conquering company that made sales of more than £1 billion (R11 billion) in the 12 months to January 2010, Gallahad is clear: “Shoes are a big problem, no matter what type of shoe. There’s really good, independent science about this. I don’t want to become a hairy hippy about it, but barefoot is best. Shoes are really bad for you.”

Such a statement clearly has a negative impact on his family company, but he believes this to such an extent he has developed an ultra-thin foot covering of his own in direct competition.

There is more subtle evidence appearing within the international running shoe market. Overseas in the larger markets you will find Reebok, Puma, and Adidas all have virtual look-alike versions of the Nike Free shoes that have separate blocks of EVA in the midsole in order to provide the improved flexibility. It’s a small start, but an important one in the very conservative-minded running market.

Even these shoes have a way to go to get back to nature as the thinner the shoe the better.  This is a key feature of the world leading bare-foot Froggie school shoes, researched and developed in Kwazulu Natal that contributed to the international acceptance of ultra-thin, ultra-flexible shoes. In this format not only does the foot get tricked into thinking it is bare-foot, but the range of movement of the ankle and lower leg improves significantly. Such movements are impossible in either inflexible shoes or those with high heels.

Surely one of the most telling statistics for runners to make the shift into bare foot running and Vibram Five Fingers is that over 10000 runners completed the 90km Comrades Marathon between the first race in 1921 and 1980 when the early technical running shoes started to make their mark on the local market.  In those days they used the old absolutely flat thin crepe soled, canvas upper plimsole or tennis shoe. Now that’s not a million miles away from the features of a barefoot shoe and only a simplified version of the Five Fingers.

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