Photo by Clare Hennig/The Gazelle

Fancy footwear brings runners back to basics

Photo by Clare Hennig/The Gazelle Running shoes. Side-by-side, these two words conjure up the unremarkable image of a typical pair of lace-ups one ...

Mar 16, 2013

Photo by Clare Hennig/The Gazelle
Running shoes. Side-by-side, these two words conjure up the unremarkable image of a typical pair of lace-ups one might find in any gym: Nikes flashing past on a treadmill, a small mountain of Adidas piled near the door of a yoga studio — nothing out of the ordinary.
In Sama’s Fitness Centre, however, one pair of feet stands out from the rest. They seem to be wearing more of a sturdy glove than a shoe. Each toe is individually encased and separated from the rest, giving a peculiar barefoot look.
These Vibram FiveFingers feet belong to freshman Lingliang Zhang, an avid runner and member of NYUAD’s running team.
“I think it makes running more fun,” Zhang explained. “It feels much more natural. I feel like I have more energy when I run with them and I can go for way longer.”
Vibram FiveFingers shoes are based on the concept of running barefoot which allows the foot to move in a more natural way and increases efficiency while lowering the risk of injury. The shoes, available in a multitude of styles and colors, are increasing in popularity but have not yet convinced all runners.
Zhang has been running in his toe shoes often in the past months. His is one of 16 NYUAD students preparing for the Limosollal Marathon, which will take place in Cyprus on March 24. In addition to his current training along the Corniche, Zhang has used the same shoes to run through mountainous terrain in Oman for Wadi Bih, a 72k relay race held last month.
“I started running with them and never looked back,” Zhang said.
He is such a fan of the shoes that even the loss of his first pair — because of a mishap with a dryer — did not stop him. Zhang bought a new pair and continued running.
Zhang admitted that it takes time to adjust to the shoes, which require a slight change in running style. But adjusting to pushing off from the ball of the foot and taking lighter steps, Zhang said, is definitely worth the effort.
“Once you get it, it’s just so much fun,” Zhang explained. “You keep running and running and running, you won’t want to use your old shoes again. Ever. I only use my old shoes for playing sports now. ”
Robert Speare, a GAF who ran cross-country and track for several years at Princeton University, is currently coaching the running team. He said he is cynical when it comes to the concept of barefoot running.
“I believe [barefoot running] has a place for speed work, but should be best kept to the track or to a soft grass field.”
Speare often encourages the team to sprint barefoot on grass after longer trainings, in order to improve speed and minimalize injuries. However, he is against barefoot-style running for long distances and said a simple running shoe is just as effective.
“I think training big miles or running entire races barefoot or in Vibrams is a bad idea,” Speare said. “But that's just my opinion.”
Wayne Young, Associate Director of Athletics at NYUAD and mentor of the running team, acknowledged that there may be some truth to the effectiveness of the concept of barefoot running.
“I think … it makes you a more efficient runner and so possibly a little faster,” Young said. “You certainly have a little more energy when you’re running because it forces your foot to do the work that it was designed to do.”
For the 16 members of the running team going to Cyprus next week, half of whom are doing the half marathon and the other half doing the full 46km, there is very little time remaining to make any equipment adjustments. According to Young, the most important thing at this point is not what kind of shoe the runners will be using but rather what shoe they have been comfortable training with.
“As long as they’ve been training in [Vibrams] it’s a good idea,” Young said. “That’s what they’re used, that’s what their feet are used to. They’ve been training in those shoes, so they can run the race in those shoes.”
Clare Hennig is features editor. Email her at
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