It’s not uncommon to see new trends come and go in sports, and distance running is not alone. Thanks in large part to Chris McDougall’s sensational book “Born To Run” and the development of “barefoot running shoes” such as Vibram Five Fingers, the barefoot running craze has swept the nation and has gained a number of outspoken advocates along the way. Barefoot running experts and advocates will tell you that running barefoot is great for your body and allows you to run more naturally, and I agree to an extent. However, the idea that you can “lose the shoes” is simplistic and may invite more problems than it can solve.
“Barefoot Running Is More Natural”
Technically, this is true. You are born without shoes and your foot is physiologically designed to carry you. However, the majority of us have spent our lives with shoes on our feet when we run and walk, so your body has gained strength and developed a running form based on wearing shoes. This means that going barefoot will provide a significant alteration to your running form and, as any distance runner knows, altering your running form is both challenging and painful, and can expose you to a number of new injuries. Similar to a heel-striker converting to a forefoot landing, your body will go through a transition phase that could take years to complete, and it could cause breakdowns in your legs along the way.
If you are unwavering in your commitment to become a barefoot runner, then at least take the time to transition slowly so that your body can adapt. Start by running barefoot for a mile or two at a time and build up progressively.
Idol Worship and Running Fast
Yes, I know that Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic marathon without shoes…I also know that he won again four years later, ran over 3 minutes faster than he did in the 1960 Olympic Games, and set the world record while wearing shoes! Further, I know that he broke a bone in his foot while running barefoot before the 1968 Olympic Games and that left him unable to finish the race. Regardless of your opinions of Bikila or other famous barefoot runners (e.g. Zola Budd), the fact is their barefoot running was born out of necessity, not out of a trending fad.
If you are considering a transition to barefoot running, you need to understand that your approach to running may need to change as well. For example, if you are a high school or collegiate athlete who is focused on hitting a qualifying time or running a personal best, transitioning exclusively to barefoot running may not be the best idea. While you might add barefoot running in to your training in pieces, it would not be wise to attempt to run barefoot at the same level of interval training, tempo training, and racing that you have done in shoes.
The Unnatural World
Although barefoot running may be more natural and may be the way your body was designed to work, the fact is that the world is not natural. Mondo surfaces were not made with barefoot runners in mind, and neither were the spikes on your competitor’s feet. I watched with angst as a young woman competed without shoes in the open 800-meter prelims at the NAIA National Track and Field Championships this May against runners wearing six-to-eight spikes a piece, hoping and praying that they did not step on her foot or heel as she ran. Though she escaped the race unharmed, I imagine that barefoot advocates did not have that kind of environment in mind.
Asphalt, concrete, shards ofglass and metal cans…these things are not natural, and yet they can easily be found in just about every area of our country. Your foot, calloused from years of barefoot running or not, will lose the battle against broken glass every time, and as long as these things remain, the prevalence of footwear will continue.
I don’t want to sound like a skeptic, because I believe whole-heartedly in the benefits of barefoot running. With that said, I think it is asking too much of your feet to go from Nike Pegasus to au-natural overnight, and on surfaces that are not designed to be negotiated without shoes. Further, common sense would tell us that the alteration in your form produced by barefoot running must be accompanied by a significantly reduced running load, or you could easily end up with an overuse injury like plantar fasciitis or stress fractures. Start small, running just a few minutes at a time barefoot on soft surfaces like grass. I will occasionally have my athletes cool down barefoot on the turf after hard workouts, or do strides in the grass barefoot after runs, but I only allow them do so on manicured surfaces that I know are free of rocks, grass, etc. The idea that barefoot running is the cure-all for running-related injuries is nonsense, and the transition should be made slowly and carefully.