Barefoot Running

Barefoot Running

Barefoot Running

Three of my favorite people in history are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Aside from their history-changing decisions and deeds, they shared a common characteristic. Each of the three was willing to listen to different opinions and thoughts, perhaps unlike their own.

While holding absolute power and not exactly embracing the concept of freedom of speech, Augustus wasn’t afraid of others’ ideas. Purportedly he once claimed, “I was never hurt by the bark of a dog.” Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were constantly at odds over the path the young US should have taken. Yet Washington invited both into his Cabinet and he must have been thinking of them as well as his own political enemies when he said, “Let them have their say.” Lincoln, famously, wasn’t afraid of the differing ideas of his chief rivals. In fact, he included them in his Cabinet, what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin later called, a “team of rivals.”

We runners can benefit from the lessons offered by these three giants of history. It’s good for us to consider new, even seemingly far-out ideas that some people bring to our sport. Hearing new views, even those contrary to our current thoughts and practices, can give us fresh approaches to running. Even if we reject them, we are compelled to consider what we do, justifying or reinforcing how we run, train, and race.

Recently, I’ve come across an idea that challenges the conventional wisdom. At first, it’s easy to dismiss it. But maybe a closer look is warranted.

Barefoot running…. It’s certainly not a new concept, but has become more than a topic of conversation in recent months and years. Apparently, more and more runners, though still merely a few, are trying it and singing its praises.

I was reintroduced to barefoot running with the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It focuses on the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico and their ultra distance running, an invitational race, and barefoot running. I wrote a short review of Born to Run on these pages last month. Since, I’ve read several newspaper and magazine articles and blogs about it.

The concept behind barefoot running is that shoes, specifically modern highly-cushioned ones, are detrimental. These high-tech shoes, the theory goes, limit the natural elasticity of the feet and legs. Barefoot running leads to the development of a stride and foot strike that deliver less impact, less shock to the feet.

“Barefoot Ted” McDonald, an ultra runner from California, and author McDougall both are advocates of barefoot running. Each suffered through a continuous series of running injuries and pain. They almost resigned themselves to stop running, until they ditched their shoes. Another proponent is Vin Linanna, long-time Stanford University track coach who has also coached US Olympic athletes. He believes that his runners who train without shoes, at least part of the time, have fewer injuries and post faster times.

Barefoot runners tend to land on their forefeet or midfeet. Such running forces the body to develop proper running form, that of our prehistoric running ancestors. The fore- and midfoot landings are softer. The foot is allowed to spring back more easily. While running barefoot, the feet, legs, and whole body instinctively adjust, regardless of the type of surface, such as asphalt or even concrete. Today’s cushioned shoes lead runners to strike surfaces with their heels first, losing the natural elasticity and shock absorption of the feet and legs.

Most barefoot proponents suggest starting slowly to give the feet and legs time to adjust and strengthen. Because of the new stride, footstrike, and the body’s adjustment to them, barefooting will cause soreness for a while, especially in the calves and quads. But, that soon disappears.

Current studies are encouraging, but don’t come to any hard and fast conclusions about the benefits of barefoot running. For instance, there’s little evidence so far that running without shoes prevents injuries or that running with them causes more injuries. But perhaps a hint of what’s to come lies in the appearance of state of the art shoes that claim to simulate barefoot running. At least two brands, Vibram and Nike, now offer shoes that weigh as little as five ounces, with little or no cushioning. They do, however, provide some protection from rocks, glass, and the elements. And a couple other shoe companies are developing similar shoes, waiting to see how far the trend goes.

Some proponents, like Barefoot Ted, do all or at least most of their running without shoes. Most, though, still train in shoes more often than not, using a couple of days, a few miles a week of barefoot running to improve their strides, foot strikes, and overall form.

One Michigan runner who’s become “a recent convert to the ‘barefoot running trend’” is Stu Allen. Although the Flint-area runner has only been “experimenting with it for about a month, so far I’m quite please with the results.”

A severe heel striker, Allen has had a string of injuries, including stress fractures of his heels and Achilles tendon pain. He’s always run in well-cushioned shoes, with inserts for extra heel cushioning. Citing the injuries and down time, “I thought it’d be worth a try.”

Dustin Jenkins of Elite Feet in Lapeer showed Allen some drills, teaching him how to land, not on the heels, but “on the balls of my feet…under my body instead of out front.”

He runs twice a week on the treadmill wearing Vibram 5 Fingers shoes/sandals. “They really simulate barefoot running with a bit of protection.” Allen admits he’s only been at it a short time, but “I am running healthy. So far, so good.” He added, “I still plan to wear shoes, but I’m working on better landing techniques.”

Word is that the number of barefoot runners is increasing. I’ve never seen any, here in Michigan or in several other states. Abebe Bikila (who won the 1960 Olympic marathon while barefoot, but the same 1964 race while shod) and Zola Budd notwithstanding, Stu Allen is the only one I’ve really heard of who is running barefoot. That our ancient ancestors ran barefoot (or close to it), by necessity, tells us nothing about their injury rates. That many Kenyans spend their childhoods running without shoes on their way to world records and championships is one thing; most Americans don’t go without shoes as kids. And it seems that a properly fitted shoe does provide proper support and balance to the foot and leg.

And what about here in Michigan? Many of us run on asphalt, concrete, or gravel. Shoulders of the roads have glass, pieces of metal, and other hazards. Trails come with rocks, roots, and branches. November through March offer snow, ice, and cold temperatures.

Personally, in more than 35 years of running, I’ve had only two running-related injuries. Each sidelined me a few short weeks, if that. I’ve never been hit with a continuous stream of injuries like Allen, McDougall, or Barefoot Ted (likely because I’m not very fast!). One of my running buddies, Bob Drapal, swears by his shoes and, especially, his orthotics, According to him, they allowed him to start running again and last more than a couple of decades with only one serious injury.

That said, I did learn from my heroes of history. I am considering all of this, these different ideas of barefoot running. I haven’t made up my mind, but have discussed with others maybe one or two weekly spring and summer runs, perhaps on the local high schools’ field turf, if not their tracks. And I will look into the purchase of the new shoes that simulate barefoot running. Who knows? It just might be something for me.

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