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The Pitfalls of Running Barefoot Can Be Avoided

A cautionary tale about one runner’s experience without shoes.

In recent years, a revolution of sorts has slowly taken hold.  Inspired in large part by the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, in which a group of marathon runners travel to Mexico to take on a tribe of endurance athletes, people across the country have begun running barefoot.

They run barefoot not because the tribesmen or athletes in the book ran barefoot (most of them didn’t), but because one man did. His name was Barefoot Ted McDonald, and ran 50 miles through the most rugged terrain in the world sans footwear.

I tried to contact Barefoot Ted some time ago, but he very politely expressed his regrets that he had no desire to speak with me. Nonetheless, I became quite inspired by his story and by another running guru, Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, so I decided to give it a try.

I set out on a sunny afternoon along my usual route of about 4 ½ miles.  I felt great while being careful to run on the balls of my feet so there would be less impact on my knees and more fatigue in my calves. The change in my running style activated muscles not typically engaged.  I felt inspired and invigorated by the change, but ended up tearing my feet to absolute ribbons.

After the run, I hobbled around for days in Neosporin-covered feet, barely able to walk. My pain inspired a mixture of sympathy from my wife, and also a great deal of laughter, as I acknowledged that, of all the stupid things I’ve done (and there have been many), running 4 ½ miles barefoot ranks somewhere near the top.

I spoke with Rodney Wells, who leads a group called Barefoot Runners of Northern Virginia and DC.

“Well, I’d say the first thing you did wrong was running 4 miles,” he said.  “That’s a little too ambitious.”

Wells recommends starting small.  “When I began running barefoot I started by doing a minute or so at the end of my runs.  I did that for a week, then moved to two and three minutes, slowly building up to where I could run distances. You also can use minimalist shoes, like Vibram FiveFingers or Huaraches, and then slowly transition over.”

The benefits, as Wells described them, include a resistance to injury and super feet.  “My feet are tougher, but they aren’t calloused.  When you run barefoot the ground serves as a pumice stone, which makes your feet very smooth.  My plantar fascia has gotten much tougher and more resilient as well.”

Having run for a long time, I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie runners tend to share.  Though running is essentially a solitary pursuit, wherein each runner is lost in his or her own world of effort and sometimes pain, we still share a nod and a grunted “Hello” when we pass one of our own.

Not when you’re barefoot, though.  Instead, there’s an awkward meeting of eyes, followed by a glance downward and an embarrassed look away, as if I’m shaming the other runners I see, or they think I’m an utter lunatic.

Tracy Endo August 10, 2011 at 05:55 PM
Wow. 4 miles barefoot. I'm surprised you are still able to run! LOL. Have you tried the barefoot or minimalist line of running shoes (ie Vibrams, etc.)?
Mike Conway August 11, 2011 at 02:16 PM
Usually I run in a worn-out old pair of Asics. I have looked into Vibrams, and a lot of the barefoot runners out there recommend them. Just be careful when you're shopping. A lot of "minimalist" shoes aren't minimalist at all -- they're just funny-looking shoes. I had one running store clerk tell me I wouldn't want Vibrams because "the soles are too thin." He recommended another five-fingered shoe with a thicker sole -- which, to me, sort of defeats the purpose.
Dick Patterson August 11, 2011 at 04:52 PM
A major issue that is not often looked at is the issue that most people spend 10+ hours a day in shoes (most of our employers are not so keen on a dress pants and barefeet). There are bio-feedback based insoles that can be used in those shoes to encourage a strengthening of the foot’s supporting muscles. One thing that minimal shoes still continue to do is provide sensory insulation, putting something in direct contact with the foot’s plantar surface can provide the sensory biofeedback stimuli to encourage muscle activation and development. I would strongly agree with the proponents of barefoot, however as a realist we still need to wear shoes – so we should be looking at bio-feedback insole systems, there is one called Barefoot Science, that make the in-shoe environment healthier and less of an atrophying environment. I’m not 100% sure that making the purist barefoot commitment is realistic for all people, and t for those for whom it is not they can still benefit from stronger feet.
Tracy Endo August 13, 2011 at 02:42 AM
Well, I'm glad you aren't an owner of Vibrams. I'm not sure I would be able to take your article seriously if you were! :) Just joking, of course. I write a lot of articles for local triathletes and this is a subject I've not yet discussed. Maybe I'll have to consider it for a future article.

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