Why I Run in Newtons

by Turner on June 16, 2010

There wasn’t a sharp crack, one that we often associate with smashing a wrist or breaking a leg.  In fact, I was amazed at just how unnoticeable my first stress fracture was.  I had woken up early that morning to enjoy a brisk jog along the beach at Santa Monica; it was your typical scene out of a cheesy Hollywood surfing movie with the shining sun, sounds of kids playing, men and women riding bikes, rollerblading, running in the shadow of the Pacific.  Unlike those people, I thought of myself as an “elitist runner”, someone who knew better than the masses what was right for my feet, and just how best to push them to take me to seven marathons on seven continents.  Apparently, even the high and mighty can fall.

Nothing too obvious at first, just a slight pain a little above the arch of my left foot.  I mean, I was running on sand!  Who thinks of getting a stress fracture on the beach??  When the pain kept building, and it soon became obvious it was almost unbearable to walk, I knew something had gone terrible wrong with my plan to break a 2:30 marathon.

Newton running shoes

Why did this happen?  I wasn’t an ignorant runner, having started cross country races in 7th grade, finishing two marathons – Austin and Boston – in good time, and knowing full well the 10% weekly mileage rule.  After reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, I thought I had stumbled upon a more natural form that better suited me, and so I began training (SLOWLY) in Vibram FiveFingers.  The implications of the book seemed to hold true:

  • Your feet need a good pounding.
  • Running barefoot means shorter strides, and burning more fat than carbs.
  • Natural motion, hitting the front of the foot first as opposed to the heel, makes for better performance over longer distances.

I started out on grassy fields, soft trails – any natural surface I could find, and only doing a few miles a week. I had not gotten my hands on any barefoot running book yet, so I had to create my own training plan. When the time came for me to move abroad, I continued my training in the New Zealand countryside, finding a nice 8-mile loop in the hills south of Auckland.  Eventually, I just assumed my legs were ready for the added pressure, and started going full time on concrete and asphalt.  It wasn’t particularly painful… just a change from my usual running style, one I thought I had adapted to over six months.

Yes, six months.  Six months from the moment of beginning training “barefoot” on unnatural surfaces to not being able to walk down the street.  Maybe I wasn’t using the proper form.  Maybe I should have started a 5% rule for those beginning barefoot running.  Maybe I just had bad genetics.  In any case, something about the experience prompted an investigation.  Not running for the rest of my life certainly wasn’t an option.  Once it gets in your blood, no other form of exercise will quite satisfy that need.

Bottom view of the Newtons

So the search was on: now that training barefoot full time was out, which footwear to use?  New Balance had just released their 100 ultralights, but the design still seemed to prompt a heel strike.  Then I saw a notice outside one of my favorite running stores promoting a seminar on the physics of running and Newton shoes.  Now that I was certain fate was stepping in, I set out and heard the following from the people at Newton:

  • Vibram Fivefingers do indeed give you natural motion without making an effort to correct your form; however, they aren’t meant to be used on manmade surfaces.
  • Newton shoes simulate natural motion if you keep your strides short; although your shoe will appear to strike almost flat on the ground, inside, your heel is coming down last.

So which is it: barefoot, FiveFingers, Newtons, some other brands…?

My personal experience has taught me to play it safe when it comes to taking care of your feet.  Although some of the most seasoned ultramarathon runners succumb to stress fractures on occasion, there are those doing comparable mileage who have never known that pain.

Thus, I believe that the shoe chooses the runner, and not the other way around.  The second factor is nurturing that motion from almost the moment one is able to run; clearly the Tarahumara from McDougall’s book, who have been training barefoot and in huaraches their whole lives, are less likely to develop stress fractures.  Most of us have softened up our soles and joints with constant shoe wear, and tend to pronate incorrectly when we do actually run.  I’m not saying there aren’t runners out there who can slip on a pair of FiveFingers and jump into their usual mileage without ill effects, but for my own part, I will be sticking with the Newtons in the city, and saving my bare feet for beach and trail runs.

What do you think about minimalist running shoes? Do you wear them or do you prefer to go completely barefoot?

Photo Credits: Morton Liebach on Flickr
Side shoe shot
Bottom shoe shot

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Sir Isaac June 16, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Just wanted to say great post! Barefoot running is great in theory but it is our belief that it is not practical for those whose feet have been changed by wearing shoes their whole life.

Let us know if you have any question about the shoes and run strong!

Sir Isaac

Abbie June 16, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Thanks for reading our article & your comment – we try to present many different view of barefoot/minimalist running!

JR June 17, 2010 at 6:27 pm

With minimalist running gaining popularity these days, a lot of shoes for such runners have come out with their own sales pitch. Which is why I like to read comparison reviews of barefoot running shoes first prior to buying anything.

G.E. Anderson July 1, 2010 at 9:40 pm

So the author had a problem running in Vibrams, went into a shoe store, and came out with Newtons.

Let’s call this what it is. The author went from minimalist running (not barefoot) to running in a heavy pair of Sir Isaacs. (I own a pair of Sir Isaacs, so I know how heavy they are.)

Either this article is out of place, or your blog is not properly named.

A lot of people have this mistaken impression that running in Vibrams is the same as barefoot running. It’s not. The whole point of barefoot running is that contact with the ground gives you feedback that allows you to adjust to the proper running form. The Vibrams prevent your feet from getting that feedback. So, yes, it is entirely possible to run improperly in Vibrams and injure yourself.

The good people at Newton have created a shoe that helps you not to heel strike, and that’s a very good thing. They can also teach you a lot about proper running form. That’s another very good thing.

But the Newton shoe has a thick sole that completely isolates your foot from the ground. While not heel striking is good, it’s only half the battle. The rest of your body, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet must also do the right thing in order for you not to get injured.

The argument for barefoot running is that direct feedback from the ground, through the naked soles of one’s feet, is what helps our bodies to find that natural running form. Sorry, but Newtons, as awesome as they are, just don’t provide that.

Of course, if you don’t buy the barefoot argument, you may seriously want to consider re-purposing your blog. :-)

Abbie @ BarefootRunning July 3, 2010 at 8:54 pm

@JR – I totally do the same thing. It’s always nice to see reviews before buying something!
@G.E. – Thanks for your comment & for reading the post! The reason we chose to publish this article is because the Newtons do help reduce that heel strike, so it could be a good option for those who don’t want to go “all the way.” The term “barefoot running” has grown to encompass both barefoot and minimalist shoes, and while I agree that Newtons are neither barefoot nor minimalist, they can be a step in the right direction so to speak. I also think it’s important to show the good with the bad in that maybe Vibrams aren’t for everyone, or as you said, they aren’t the same as barefoot and you have to be careful.

Sean July 6, 2010 at 12:57 am

I’m on board with G.E. There are plenty of places to read shoe reviews, but only a handful of places that properly explain barefoot running. The Newtons aren’t barefoot, aren’t minimalist, aren’t even a “reduced shoe.” They are another naive attempt by technologists to solve only one part of the problem: footstrike.

I’m still new to barefooting, but from what I’ve read repeatedly there is one key rule: start slowly and let your feet guide the process. Clearly the author was asking for injury by training for a 2:30 marathon and part way through trying VFFs. I cannot think of anyone that would advocate that. I got started with VFFs and later barefooting after I had an injury that knocked me out for the winter. In the spring, I started over from the beginning and listened to my feet. So far, no problems.

The author’s injuries should be described in terms of false expectations and possibly impatience (too much too soon) before the VFFs become the culprit. Years ago switched Asics models in the middle of marathon training, ruined my foot, and spent a month cross training. I wouldn’t think of pointing a finger toward Asics, but I confess a training error.

Abbie @ BarefootRunning July 7, 2010 at 2:54 am

Thanks Sean. I think the author did contemplate what caused his injury, not just blaming Vibrams – “Maybe I wasn’t using the proper form. Maybe I should have started a 5% rule for those beginning barefoot running. Maybe I just had bad genetics. In any case, something about the experience prompted an investigation.”

Stories like these are important to help us remember that we need to start slow with BF running!

Ralph Havens January 10, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Great post. I looked at barefoot running back in the mid 1990′s after taking a physical therapy course in running biomechanics. At the time I was a 2:28 marathoner and looking to improve my times further. My stride frequency was 99 rpm ( most world class runners and local fast guys frequency is 90 to 95) So I started training some in barefeet on grass for strides and drills, and running some on trails in Nike aquasocks. I also stared aggressively stretching my achilles and attempting to get 20 degrees of dorsiflexion in my ankle ( something I “learned” from the class). Well my stride frequency dropped to 90 rpms, my stride length increased. I felt more powerful running. I was able to run up hills stronger compared to my teammates. In short it helped making my feet stronger and improving my form/power. I subsequently came down with a calf strain that did not go a way for 6 months ( finally fixed up with Integrative Manual Therapy). It changed my life, at first I thought for the worse but now I look at it as a blessing.
Now when I advise runners on form, and how to improve it, I recommend a very gradual process and not to force anything ( i.e. don’t stretch achilles tendons!!!).
I think a lot of runners would be well advised to take changes like barefoot running slow and listen to their bodies.
thanks for the post
Ralph Havens
San Diego

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