What The Tarahumara Indians Know That You Don’t

The human body is an amazing thing, capable of much, much more than we realise. What if I told you, that there are people out there who can run up to 150km a day? It sounds unbelievable, but it’s possible, and the Tarahumara Indians know how. They don’t use protein powders or electrolyte-infused sports drinks. They barely wear shoes!

Is Barefoot Running Safe?

A trend that’s been slowly gaining traction is that barefoot running can be good for you, and might just be better than running in shoes. Regardless of what you hear, don’t throw your shoes away just yet! Even if barefoot running is great for you, you need to learn to crawl before you can run, so to speak.

The Evolution of Our Feet

The human body has evolved over millions of years, adapting to handle whatever nature might throw at us. Our feet alone are made from 26 bones, and over 100 muscles and tendons (per foot), which combine to create one of the most complex and comprehensive suspension systems available.

In millennia gone by, humans had to travel long distances, hunting, gathering and migrating. We did this walking, running, and at times sprinting, and it was all done in bare feet. The animals we hunted did not wear shoes, and nor did we.

Over time, due to societal and technology changes, we began to protect our feet with woods, leathers and other materials. Our toes were encased in rigid, and often unnatural shapes, while our postures, gait and other traits adapted to the newly acquired footwear.

The Evolution of Athletic Shoes

The sports shoes you wear on an almost daily basis are relatively new in terms of footwear. Air cushioning, gel padding and other marketing terms technologies only came about in the 1970s. Before then, the technology in our shoes was much simpler in nature.

In order to protect runners from injuries, improve their speed, and improve profit margins, shoe makers worked on creating new designs of shoes, targeted at athletes and your average joe. How do you prevent sore heels? Add more padding to the heel of a shoe? How do you make shoes lighter? Use new materials, gels, or nothing at all — air pockets.

These advances in shoe technology, and understanding in injury management are a positive thing overall. However, modern research now indicates that the increase in shoe technology has been detrimental to the natural movement and behaviour of our feet.

After all, our served us well for a long time before any hexagon-shaped, gel-packed, shock absorbing shoes did.

The History Of Barefoot Running

Tired of his constant injuries, and unable to pursue his love of running, author Chris McDougall began, what some would argue, the mainstream barefoot running revolution. After suffering constant injuries, and unable to find any fixes from the best running shoes and doctors available to him, he began his journey to discovering the benefits of barefoot running, and how it might help him get past his injuries.

Western societies have grown accustomed to the rapid pace of technological advancement in all parts of life: sciences, nutrition, and footwear. More traditional tribal people stick with what they know: barefoot running.

In North western Mexico, Chris McDougall discovered a tribe of Tarahumara Indians who are known to run up to 150 kilometres a day without any fancy running shoes. With little more than a simple leather sandal to protect their feet from rocks and cuts, these Tarahumara Indians can run over three marathons a day.

While Chris McDougall wrote his book “Born to Run”, he spent time with the Tarahumara Indians, running coaches, doctors and other medical professionals. He noted that barefoot runners will use a mid-foot strike instead of the more common heel-strike. Regardless of the extreme distances these people ran, they did not suffer the common injuries that plague runners in the modern world.

Toe, Mid or Heel Strike?

The common trait amongst barefoot runners is that when they run, they run on their toes or mid-feet, and never with their heel. This allows their feet to act as natural shock absorbers. This provides several benefits to the runner:

  • Reduced impact injuries from landing on hard surfaces
  • Reduce stride length, promoting faster and more efficient travel
  • Better feedback from the pain of improper landings allows for immediate adaptations to the running style

Our modern athletic shoes have been designed to protect our feet, but that protective padding also reduces our built-in feedback system: pain.

You can try this yourself, quite simply by going for a very short run of no more than  20–50 metres. Run as you normally would in your typical running shoes. Pay attention to how you run, and where your foot strikes the ground. Now, repeat the process in bare feet. Are your heels sore? If so, then you’re not running correctly. It’s a bad habit that most of us have developed from years of wearing shoes that protect our feet a little too much.

As the shape, padding and protection of modern athletic shoes have progressed, it has masked the changes in our running styles. With the added padding, our running styles have morphed over time into most of us landing heel-first, rather than toe or midfoot first. Running shoes do not give the same feedback that barefoot running does.

Now that I’ve hopefully explained what barefoot running is, and why it might be good for you, are you tempted to try it?

Don’t!

Not yet, at least.

You have undoubtedly grown up wearing shoes for most of your life, and your feet won’t be ready for the stresses of barefoot running.

How to Start Running Barefoot

Whether you’re 20 years or 50 years old, you will need to allow your body time to adapt to barefoot running. You have a lifetime of habits to undo, and it’s not going to be a quick change.

Shoemakers have adapted their shoes and now offer several types of shoes that allow you to reap the benefits of barefoot running, without going completely barefoot. I recommend you do this rather than running completely barefoot. You can purchase a pair of Nike Frees or New Balance Minimus, which would be considered a minimalist style shoe. Whichever shoe you choose, make sure you get a good fit, and start off easy.

  • Run short distances to give your body time to adapt
  • Pay close attention to your feet, and how you land while running
  • Reduce the length of your stride to prevent heel-strikes

If you’re interested in ditching the shoes completely, look at switching over to Vibram Five Fingers. These weird looking “gloves” for your feet provide good protection from glass and rocks but still give you the benefit of running barefoot.
Remember, listen to your body and be safe!