Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Running without Shoes is So 2009

I’ve struggled writing a post on barefoot running, or more correctly, running without shoes. It's a good thing I didn't make it the main theme of this blog. So much has been said about it on the internet already. All I can give is my opinion, but that’s what blogs are about, right?

Ok, I think my story was pretty typical (another 12-step program):

1. I had a running injury (my heels hurt really badly) in mid 2009.
2. I read “Born to Run” (thanks to Dan, another barefootist!).
3. I read all the blogs I could find with “barefoot” in the URL.
4. I studied efficient running form.
5. Once I ditched the shoes, I ditched the shoes.
6. I practiced running without shoes, slowly and occasionally.
7. My feet adapted to hard surfaces.
8. I built up mileage adaptability over several months.
9. I ran a marathon with no shoes 9 months after ditching the shoes.
10. I still curse rough surfaces, but hardness and most debris isn’t a problem.
11. My feet still get sensitive after so many miles (in the teens).
12. I’m still running without shoes because I like it.

I should expand on step 1. My injury was a chronic occurrence for 4 years, Achilles tendinitis. I tried several types of well-padded shoes and inserts. Ditching the shoes wasn't something that happened without a lot of thought. Besides all the reading and studying, I also saw a podiatrist and physical therapist. They both recommended that I give barefoot walking a try to strengthen the feet.

During these steps, I started to see shoes as casts that reduce the mobility of the foot and weaken the muscles, etc. Even in the shoe-wearing portion of my day (conformity at work and most shopping trips), I converted to minimalist shoes. Actually, minimalist shoes would be a generous description, as I buy them from the same area of the department store that sells slippers. They don’t come in a box. The engineer in the office next to mine calls me “Slipper Boy”. I suppose they are slippers.

It was around step 6-7 that I started saying to myself, “Man this is fun and liberating. Everybody is going to start doing this.” Ok, I was wrong about that, although I’m not sure why. Not only has the barefoot trend apparently not grown since “Born to Run”, I think it has shrunk. Well, it depends on what you mean by “barefoot”. Minimalist shoes’ popularity has apparently grown by leaps and bounds if judged by the number of new brands reviewed on the internet. If you run in barefoot shoes (as they are called by their manufacturers) are you running barefoot? I think not, and so barefoot running is just about dead as judged by internet chatter.

There is a middle ground where several runners choose to be. Some barefoot runners say shoes are tools, meant for technical or extreme environments. Some shod runners say barefoot running is a tool, meant for occasional sprints in the grass to strengthen the feet. From either of these points of view (same really), barefoot running has always been alive and well as long as it’s a part of the toolbox. From either of these points of view, performance limitations from bare skin on ground are not acceptable.

But I find myself wanting to hold onto my point of view (extreme as it may be) that I learned in 2009 about listening to my body, specifically my feet. I still believe that the immediate feedback that I get from bare skin on ground is a good warning signal, letting me know that something bad could happen if improvements in my running efficiency are not made. I’ll compromise possible performance limitation for this feedback.

I think it will take my lifetime (maybe I’m slow) to master efficient running form, so I think that I will always run without shoes. I recently took 4 months off from running because I pulled an ab muscle from crossfit-style exercise. Now that the muscle has healed and I’m getting back into running, I’ve discovered that distances/paces that were no challenge 6 months ago are now putting blisters on my feet. One could argue that my feet aren’t as tough as before. I don’t agree. I think the blisters were caused by the friction between sliding surfaces. If I can minimize the sliding by not pushing off, then blisters will not occur.

I suppose that I’ve become a barefoot purist, which gets me back to the title. Many folks (including me) jumped on the barefoot running bandwagon when Chris McDougall published "Born to Run" in 2009, but the trend seems to have shifted to minimal running. I’m happy barefoot, but to each their own.


  1. I'm a back-and-forth barefoot and shod runner. When I say barefoot, I mean without shoes or socks (I'm a stickler for language like that). All my shoes are minimal since the winter of 2008-2009. I was never hurt in shoes, so I don't have that radical sense of "I need to ditch the shoes forever."

  2. socks...well I suppose they should be lumped into the minimal category, and so, I'm not so pure. Of the running that I did do in the winter, it was usually in surfer booties or aqua socks.

  3. I must confess a mild bewilderment when runners learn to run barefoot, then still choose shoes. Not betrayed or anything like that, I just think it's so enjoyable I guess.

  4. Guess we just live in a society that loves shoes. They are so personal. I'm as bad as anyone, as I became so excited when I found the last pair of aqua socks that I bought for only $9.99. Well, finding a bargain is delightful. I even talked my dad into buying a pair.