Posted by: Mark | November 5, 2009

Barefoot Running

I love this time of year because it’s marathon season, and so each city’s paper inevitably has an article or two about running in anticipation of hosting tens of thousands of crazed marathon runners for a weekend. I ran the Marine Corps marathon several years ago, my first and only marathon, and I’ve run several half’s. I like running, a lot, and naturally I enjoy reading these articles when they come out, as I get to pretend I’m being sophisticated by “reading the newspaper” when instead I’m reading relatively irrelevant fluff about running. The NYTimes this fall has mostly emphasized whether or not long-distance running is even naturally human or not, but the stories that have mostly caught my attention have been the ones about barefoot running.

Yes, there is a fringe movement within the burgeoning running community that is openly advocating running barefoot, in any and all situations. Weird, huh. I’ve told this to a couple of people and they don’t believe me. The basic argument is that throughout our long evolution, humans have almost always been barefoot. Our feet were not naturally in shoes, which is only an invention of a few hundred years…a drop in the bucket of human existence. Running shoes, an even newer invention at maybe a century old, overly pad our heels, and so humans run and land much of their weight on their padded heels. However, when you run barefoot, you instead put your weight on the balls of your feet, which is how the foot is structured to actually support your own body weight. If you landed on your heels when you are barefoot, it hurts a lot. But with padding, you can ignore that pain, and subsequently, run in poor form. In other words, by running barefoot, you’re using your foot how it’s supposed to be used; when you run in protective shoes, you let yourself run more sloppily, and invite more injuries.

I’ve been intrigued by this concept since I first heard about it over a year ago, but for some reason it came to the tipping point for me today, so I went for my first barefoot run. While I anticipated doing an 8 mile run, I instead went for about 6.5 miles. The first 1/2 mile was on the road, and the slapping of my bare feet on pavement, I have to admit, felt pretty good. I deliberately designed my run to spend the bulk of it on the beach, as I live very close to Ocean Beach. This is totally consistent with barefoot running ethos, which in general advocates starting your barefoot running on sand and grass, which is also more historically consistent with the material that humans have run on. (Cement, in the grand scheme of human evolution, is a very new invention.) I spent about 70% of the run on the sand, with the last 30% on pavement, and felt great throughout it, as well as through the rest of the day.

Running barefoot is almost unavoidably elitist. It’s hard to not run barefoot and feel a tad bit superior to everyone else. It’s kind of like biking as your commute, rather than driving. You know the type. You meet a new person, say a friend of a friend at a bar somewhere, you’re chatting, somehow your 40 minute drive commute comes up in the conversation, and new conversationalist that you’re talking to sort of nods emphatically, sighing a bit, saying, “Yeah, too bad you’re trapped in your car. I bike to work, feeling the freedom of the fresh air every morning.” So yeah, as I was running, I felt a bit elite about it all. Look at those poor saps walking along the beach in shoes. Suckers. When the waves rush up on the sand, they have to skittishly avoid the water so their shoes and socks don’t get wet. I pity these people. Me, on the other hand, I am splashing through the water proudly, in slow-motion no doubt, with the heavens playing the “Chariots of Fire” theme song, because I’m barefoot, I don’t care about my feet getting wet. For a real-life example of this type of attitude, get this line from a forum on runningbarefoot.org: “Don’t get disheartened, it takes a while to transition from foot-coffins to freedom!” Foot-coffins, huh.

No seriously, it is pretty cool to run barefoot. You’re more in tune with the feeling of the run, as your feet are literally on the earth and absorbing every bit of it. It’s a no-brainer that running on sand and grass feels good (pretty much every established article on barefoot running starts with a nostalgic memory of running through sprinkles during the summer, as a kid, carefree…..wait for it……BAREFOOT!), but it’s cool to find that running barefoot on pavement actually doesn’t hurt that much. Sidewalks are particularly smooth and feel quite good. Roads can be a bit more inconsistent, and so I found it’s best to run on the sidewalk.

I definitely plan on repeating the experience. Next run I do, it’ll be barefoot. It’s prime surf season, so running may be sporadic, but whenever I do it, it’ll be barefoot. Oh, and I refuse to even consider shoes like the “Nike Free 5.0,” or worse, the “Vibram Five Fingers.” These shoes are made to feel like you are actually barefoot, all for the low cost of $70. You’re kidding right. When you can run barefoot for free, you instead will pay $70 for a token rubber sole on your feet that is otherwise intended to simulate barefoot running? It’s not like you can kind of wear a condom, you either do or you don’t. Same thing with barefoot running. You do it, or you wear shoes.

I am maybe, just a tad bit, starting to worry about myself. First I formalize my indifference for showering (I went from Wednesday 10pm to Monday 6pm this past week without showering. That’s almost 5 DAYS PEOPLE), and now I’m talking about barefoot running. To clear the slate: yes, I enjoy swimming naked, who the hell doesn’t, but I don’t plan on becoming a nude-beach attendee, and while I’m not a huge shaver, I’m not gonna grow a Jesus beard either. I’m flirting with full-fledged hippiedom, but I’m not there yet. Don’t worry, I’m monitoring the situation closely.

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Responses

  1. You are an inspiration to us all.

  2. Quite inspirational. Well, read it and loved it. A nice, poetic, soulful post.
    It’s kind of like the argument for surfing barefoot. I wear booties all the time. IT’S COLD OUT THERE, and I don’t wax enough, so I need all the antiflail measures I can get :D. Anyway…
    Personally, I don’t want to run, nor do I fancy it 🙂 I don’t even want to invite any remote chance of knee / foot / ankle injury, so if I WERE to run, then I’d probably just run on the beach barefoot, and for the exact same reasons you pointed out.
    Rock and Run on man, and see you out there.

  3. Mark,
    I think you may have overlooked the benefits of foot reflexology during your runs. From my readings (and personal experience), nerves from body systems flow through the feet. I would draw a similarity to acupuncture, or acupressure, where the stimulation of these nerves has a related effect on other body parts. So enjoying your posts.

  4. I’m surprised you were so quick to dismiss the Vibram FiveFingers. Yes, I agree, they’re awfully expensive, but having the rubber sole isn’t simply a “token” marketing statement. It’s to protect the feet from things like rocks. And glass. And anything that might puncture the skin of someone (like me) who’s spent their whole life running with shoes on.

    I’m not sure how clean the streets/sand/trails are out in Cali, but I’ve had more than my fair share of glass or rock-in-the-foot experiences to think twice about running completely barefoot.

    If the ground is in fact that clean, I may have to migrate from Boston sooner than I thought 🙂

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience. Ramping up slowly is definitely the way to go. I began running with VFFs and barefoot recently (after back surgery) and have shared a 12 Step Program to Run Shodless that I’m following. You might find it helpful.
    http://bit.ly/3xNfPV

    Best of luck! Clynton

  6. Many of the hippies here at Hampshire don’t ever wear shoes. Even in the winter when it’s 14 degrees outside and the ground is covered in ice and snow. They just carry around flip flops to wear into the dining hall (only building on campus where shoes are required). New experiment for you :D?

  7. Hey Mark, I just got my pair of Vibram’s yesterday and I’m loving them! Loved the line about the ‘foot-coffins’

  8. so hippies would not wear shoes for anything? what about to walk or to drive?

  9. I recently moved from the coast in Port Elizabeth South Africa to Perth and whilst living in Port Elizabeth I never ran with shoes. The terrain was diverse with grass, some tar, small stones, shells, sand but mostly dirt trails. The route was +-10km with a few alternative routes.
    I lived so close to nature that I could not resist running without shoes. The more I could experience the elements on my skin the better. Running bare foot was part of the exhilarating experience. It took my feet about two weeks to adapt to the terrain but soon I had a pair of tough feet. First few runs always hurt but you just have to push through.
    Running bare feet increased my speed over easy terrain but when running over rocky terrain it took concentration to avoid a bad foot landing. If you land on a rock with the soft part of your foot it could bruise or break the skin. Recovery from such injuries took about one week. Having injured feet forced me to run in shoes during the recovery period but once recovered it was back to bare feet. In pursue of better relationships I took my kids with me on the run and usually took a swim in the ocean at the turning point. This was almost a daily routine for me and often had my children with me on the run.
    When on business trips in major cities I tried to find routes that would accommodate my style of running and many times ended up on interesting nature trails. Running for long distances on tar road was very taxing especially of a sun baked tar road. A few times I ended up with blisters under my feet when running long distances on hot tar roads.
    Both bare feet and shoes running have its place but I much more prefer running bare feet if the terrain permits. It brings me closer to the creator of the nature elements and the experience end up being spiritual.


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