Some thoughts on Barefoot Running

Note: Originally written long ago, for another blog. Put here, largely unedited, for posterity’s sake. 

Since barefoot running  is something that seems to be of major interest to lots of people in the running community, and is something I have thought a fair bit about myself, that I would write another post on the issue. In this post I’ll outline what I think are the major arguments in favor of barefoot running, my issues with those arguments, and then my own plan to in the near future incorporate some barefoot running into my running.

The Argument for Barefoot Running

From messages boards, podcasts, and magazines and the newly released Born to Run it seems to me that the argument for barefoot running is this – the human body was developed to run long distances. It does not need highly padded motion control shoes in order to do so. Further, instead of helping us avoid injury, these highly padded shoes actually increase our rate of injury by preventing runners from running in their natural gait with their natural foot strike. Humans should strike the ground with their forefoot, says the barefoot community (and many leading scientific researchers) but high heeled running shoes inhibit this, causing injuries. Therefore, running either barefoot or in a super minimalist shoe like a vibram will allow a runner to return to their natural gait and foot strike, prevent injury and allow one to run healthier, faster and longer.

My problems

I think that’s a pretty fair assessment of barefoot running, and I think that it is largely true. Science seems to show that forefoot striking is better than heel striking, and our bodies do seem to be developed for running. But, I’ve got some issues with the barefoot running for everyone, all the time, creed of the barefoot movement.

Barefoot running does not seem to take into account enough two major things that make running for most runners today different from the running our ancient ancestors may have done: (1) concrete and (2) being huge.

Concrete. Most runners I know, including myself, do most of our miles on the road, and the road is much less forgiving than the dirt and grass of the Serengeti. The concrete of sidewalks and the asphalt of roads is not going to absorb the force of running to the degree dirt is and therefore the force the runner drives into the ground is going to be sent back into the runners foot.

Barefoot runners will tell you that if you run without shoes, you hit the ground with less force. This is true, but it doesn’t answer the problem – the issue is not whether running in shoes creates more force than running barefoot, the issue is whether running barefoot on concrete creates a situation in which more force is drive back up the leg than running barefoot on dirt or grass, and I think obviously, running barefoot on concrete does create more force. This needs to be considered. If you’re going to run on the roads, and that is what most runners are going to do, I have to believe some cushioning is needed to mitigate the force produced.

Being Huge. The other day I was running in Prospect Park and passed a larger woman jogging on the asphalt road. It was awfully cold out and it was nice to see someone else out there putting in the miles, but as I passed her, I noticed that on her feet she had a pair of vibrams, and this got me thinking. I mean no disrespect to larger runners, I myself am big for a runner (six feet ,188 pounds this morning), but the bigger the runner, the more force they create when they hit the ground, and the more force you create the bigger the beating your body is taking.

What I plan to do.

Our Serengeti ancestors may have run barefoot, but they were not doing it on concrete and they were not two hundred pounds. The Tarahumara Indians, who are the latest in western athletic fetishism, also do not run on concrete and are not two hundred pounds. The world in which I, and most other runners run, is very different from the canyons of Mexico and I don’t think we should pretend otherwise.

Still, barefoot running has helped many runners I respect, and I think some of the science behind it is sound. I hope in the coming months to move to a slightly lighter shoe (I currently run in a shoe which is seen as the devil by the barefoot community – the Asics Gel Kayano) for my regular runs and I hope to include some very short (less than a mile) barefoot runs in at the park near my home. My goal for the small amount of barefoot running I plan to do is not to toughen up my feet, or to ease into doing mega mileage barefoot, but rather to bring my stride and foot strike better in line with what would be “natural” for me if I was not wearing shoes.

I think for most runners, who are not super light, and who are running most of their miles on trails, this is a sensible strategy, but I’d love to hear from others who have experiments with barefoot running or who do it almost exclusively. Come on bare footers, I know you’re out there, let us know what you think in the comments.

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