A couple of things started this for me. First there was the success that Naz Merchant had on the Summer Series X-C course while running barefoot. Then there was Ken Ellis’s article, “Running Surfaces”, in July’s Newsletter that got me thinking about running barefoot. I did some barefoot running in high school and college. It wasn’t much mileage, and I didn’t think it was any kind of special or secret workout. During high school it was usually after the bulk of a track workout on the infield as a cool-down. During college, it was occasional strides on a golf course. Then I dug out an old book I got for a high school graduation present in 1977, The Zen of Running. The book advocates running, “as undressed as possible” – shirtless and shoeless.
But since 1977 shoes and pavement have been the rule. Evolving from the Tiger and Nike flats we trained in during high school, came the Nike Cortes, Waffle Trainer, Etonic Street Fighter, Adidas Marathon Trainers, Brooks and their wedge, Saucony and their Jazz. Those shoes were still fairly simple, but soon Webs, Air, Stability, Torsion, Waves and even Chips followed. You are probably wearing one or more of those technologies – retired, of course, as running shoes and now relegated to casual duties – right now as you read this! But I am sitting here barefoot a few hours after running barefoot for 4 miles of a 5 mile run.
I sensibly built up my barefoot running minutes. At first I figured that one day per week would suffice. I started with a 12 minute session, the next week moved up to 20 minutes, the next 30. But this barefoot thing was getting addictive, so I did two sessions last week and two so far this week at about 40 minutes each. So I will tell you why it is addictive: it just feels better than running in shoes. This fact becomes most obvious when I put my shoes back on for the run home from the park where I am able to access the soft grass necessary for this barefoot stuff.
I would hope that you eventually try a few runs barefoot before it gets too cold to just experience this for yourself. Here is my advice on how to accomplish a barefoot workout. First of all, find a park or golf course or school field that has enough continuously grassy area. You really need to do this on grass. I have done some barefoot running at the beach, but you quickly learn why you use sandpaper, not grasspaper, to finish woodworking projects. Five or ten minutes running on the beach is may be fine for you, but a little too much invites blood blisters to visit your toes.
Second, you need to scope out the area while running in shoes to make sure there is no grass, rocks, sticks, thorns, broken glass or other potential foot-killers lurking about. The park where I run barefoot, Greenbrook Park in Plainfield, gives me about ¾ mile along a stream to an area where I can do ¾ mile laps, then back again to where I stash my shoes in the bushes near a picnic table. I have also done laps at Bicentennial Park in East Brunswick. I plan to do barefoot hill repeats in “The Bowl” at Holmdel Park next week.
Third, find a place to stash your shoes and socks, take them off, and go. Try to relax for the first few minutes. Go slow. Find parts of your body that may be tightening up because you are barefoot; for me, it is my chest and shoulders that get a little defensive. Your soles might feel uncomfortable at first, but in a few minutes they get acclimated.
Fourth: KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE GROUND! You have to watch where you are running to make sure your feet are landing on soft stuff. You are going to hit an occasional hidden stick or rock. You are probably going to yell ouch and curse. But your foot comes through it OK. At least mine have so far.
After a few barefoot runs, or maybe even sooner, the addiction will begin to kick in. You are going to feel lighter, feel faster barefoot. You will be tempted to do some quick running while your feet are many ounces lighter. You will notice that you don’t strike your heel so hard. You will be landing more midfoot and be up on your toes sooner. Your knee lift will be higher and your gait smoother. Your entire body will be energized because foot massage theory clearly connects nerves in your feet to all the organs in your body. You will enjoy the looks from other runners who wonder what the heck you are doing with your shoes off like that.
Eventually you will have to put those shoes back on to do the run home. Your feet will be kinda yucky, but not as dirty as you might imagine. Skin holds a lot less dirt than the treads of your running shoes. I always have more of dirt stuck to the sweat around my ankles and the tops of my feet. I use my socks to clean that off. That works, but I have thought that you could stash a wet washcloth, or a water bottle and hand towel in the bushes with your shoes. And once those shoes are back on, you are not going to like it. Your very alive feet, with nerve endings pleasantly tingling, will be forced to feel dead again. They are constricted, taken away from contact with mother earth.
Before embarking on this experiment, I did do some Internet research. Try a search yourself on “barefoot running”. There are entire web sites, Yahoo! and other discussion groups, and scientific studies on running barefoot. You may have even noticed that Nike has recently come out with an oxymoronic shoe that mimics running barefoot. What is the hoopla all about? The consensus is that when done correctly, running barefoot reduces the incidence of injury to the foot, ankle, knees and back. This is a confluence of several factors: The foot is strengthened, along with all its supporting muscles and tendons. Footstrike is altered to a more natural position as evolution has dictated – that is, to not give us raised heels. Sensitivity is increased so we can make better dynamic adjustments that avoid ankle turns and other balance-related injuries.
Spraining ankles is one of my recurring problems. I figured out that I needed shoes with about the same toebox height as heel height all by myself during this past winter. Roger at Sneaker Factory was able to fit me up perfectly, but I bought two pairs of shoes that the marketers did not target me for. They think I need a stability shoe. For so many years that is what I believed and bought. Turns out I need lighter, cushioned ones. All that stability stuff had weakened me over the last 30 or so years. As I aged, shoes got more supportive. I got older and weaker, and they took advantage of that. The shoe companies have forced dependency upon me.
So I have packed all my old over-built shoes for the next clothing donation bag along with my kids’ clothes they have grown out of - because I have grown out of the over-built shoe. I have sought out flatter shoes, racing flats, retro shoes. Yes, there is now a huge market in “retro” running shoes, mostly for fashion. But guess what – you can run in them just like we used to back in the ‘70’s & ‘80’s! Try zappos.com, where you can pick up adidas SL76’s, Marathon Trainers and Roms; Reebok Classics, Pony Californias, Tiger Moscows and X-Caliber GT’s.
A couple of last thoughts: It helps to support the barefoot running experiment with being barefoot as much as possible when not running. I had the advantage of a summer job that allowed me to be barefoot most of the day. For a couple of weeks my lower back had some pain as I readjusted to lower heels. But now I feel I am reaping the benefits, and am very happy with this phase of training. And I want to remind you that all this is my anecdotal experience. Don’t go out there and injure yourself, and then be sending me nasty emails. If you think it sounds cool, do it gradually, in a planned, informed way.