On September the 10th 1960 Abebe Bikila, an unknown runner from Ethiopia, won Olympic gold for his record breaking 2 hours 15 minutes and 16 seconds Marathon run. However, more astonishing than his unimaginable pace, was the fact that he ran to victory not in any mechanically advanced trainer, but in his bare feet. Bikila’s barefoot triumph is perhaps the most famous in modern running history. His accomplishment not only secured his status as a revered historical figure but forced us to reconsider and question the limits of performance footwear. Do trainers really have an impact on performance? Or, as miraculously demonstrated by Bikila, are we better trusting in the powers of our own extremities?
When Bikila went up to take his place at the start line, his shoeless feet and skeletal frame prompted the now infamous remarks made by fellow runner Ray Puckett, ‘’Oh, well, that’s one we can beat, anyway’. Bikila soon showed, in the most overt of ways, Puckett’s judgment to be ill-fated. His display of strength and toughness was so astounding, it has become legendary. He carved out an identity for himself, one that was minimalist (barefoot, slender frame and unphased demeaner), but resilient, and hardened by miles of shoeless training on the high Ethiopian Planes. Bikila’s performance coupled with his unassuming appearance has contributed to the rhetoric that ‘minimalism’ connotes strength. On the face of it, such a connotation seems logical. Indeed, it has been common amongst competitive runners to opt for a more minimalist option in terms of footwear. Many have studied from people who live closer to nature, such as the Tarahumara Indians, whose prowess and limitations as runners are well-known in the running world.
Put simply, minimalism embodies the premise ‘less shoe, more you.’ The idea is that less cushioning and support from the shoe, means that the feet will be more engaged, and strengthened. Minimalism aimed to reconnect runners to an organic experience, one that would ultimately improve form. Here, we can see how this ‘back to basics rhetoric’ aligns itself with the idea of being tough. When one is running in such close proximity to the earth, with no substantial support between foot and ground, more strain is put on the body, forcing it to work harder, build strength and ultimately improve performance. Taking this into account, it seems reasonable to suggest that a reliance on minimalist footwear lays the foundation to make a better runner.
As previously mentioned, minimalist footwear has indeed been a firm favourite amongst competitive runners. In addition to Bikila, acclaimed English runner Ron Hill, himself a marathon world record holder, ran many of his famous races barefooted. To get to the top, Hill consistently sought out ways to train harder than any human had done so before. He is quoted as saying that after a bad race, a form of self-punishment would be to go out and ‘run a hard 20 miles’. Whilst this may seem extreme to most, it is this ‘toughness’ and determination to be the best, that has cemented the iconic status of Bikila and Hill. While running barefoot was more of a common practice in Bikila’s native Ethiopia, for Hill, training barefoot was a way to test the limits of his endurance on his relentless search for improvement. Hill raced barefooted in both the International Cross-Country in 1964 and the Mexico Olympic 10,000m, coming second and seventh respectively. Hill’s experimentation with barefoot running and minimalism similarly took place off the track as well. With a PhD in Textile Chemistry, Hill was able to combine his technical expertise and running background to produce a core range that catered to the needs of runners. A champion of synthetic materials, his ventilating mesh vests, waterproof jackets and reflective safety strips were breakthroughs. His championing of such a minimalist aesthetic therefore provides arguments promoting minimalist performance footwear- and by extension minimalist sportswear- with further legitimacy.
Since Bikila and Hill’s amazing performance, scientists have analysed the running motion and the development of muscle fibres through running training. The best distance runners have the most elastic muscles: every step the calf, quadriceps and gluteal muscles lengthen and spring back, pushing the body up and forward. However, questions remain about minimalist footwear. Does it increase the strength and elasticity of muscle tissue? Or, does the increased strain on the muscles and tendon results in a greater risk of injury to runners?