Lessons from Urban Barefoot Running: Part 1

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I spent most of a summer running barefoot in Cleveland. Okay, technically I ran barefoot in an inner-ring suburb about one to two miles from Cleveland proper, but, from the perspective of my feet, that is pretty much the same thing. I ran sidewalks, streets, trails, and faced hazards including acorns, broken glass, and a neighbor’s angry little dog. Undaunted, but occasionally blistered, I kept running and learned a few valuable lessons.

Barefoot running (probably) isn’t for everyone.

First of all, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to try this.

It’s easy to get on the Internet, and get inspired by a community of people passionate about any fringe activity that sounds crazy even to others in the same sport. (Ahem, ultramarathoners! I think you’ll know what I mean.)

If like me, you enjoy novelty and like to immerse yourself in something, natural running could be fun, but supportive community can end up being groupthink, and a fringe activity can end up seeming like the only right way to run. I don’t want to be that guy—at least not about this.

Barefoot running is not the only way to run. I’m not any kind of coach or medical professional, but I think there are plenty of reasons someone might need shoes including more serious orthopedic conditions.

That said…

You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish with gentle persistence.

As runners, we sometimes find ourselves hearing people’s excuses about why they can’t run. When I started barefoot running, this lesson was something I thought about many times. I knew I’d have to take it slow. I underestimated how slow (more on that later), but I knew I’d have to take it slow. I didn’t want to get discouraged, or to push myself too hard, and quit before finding out if barefoot running could help me achieve my goals.

Know what you want to get from barefoot running.

You have to know what you want before you start otherwise you won’t know if it’s working. Maybe it’s just some variety. Some barefoot runners seem to just love barefoot running for its own sake, and want to prove that they can do it under almost all circumstances. That’s cool, but it wasn’t me.

I had specific objectives in taking off my shoes. After years of frustration with minor ankle and knee injuries that threw off race training and sometimes caused me to get out of the running habit altogether, I changed my gait from heel-striking to a more mid-foot or forefoot strike. I did this before there were very many shoe options, and so I started in my conventional running shoes, and then later switched to minimal shoes.

The forefoot striking gait worked okay. I’ve never gone back, but I started to feel my stride wasn’t the best, and I wanted to overhaul it. Barefoot running seemed like a good way to get a handle on stride length and the way my feet were landing on, and interacting with the ground.

I knew what I wanted to get, and if it wasn’t delivering results, I was quite prepared to quit.

You don’t have to be all-or-nothing.

For the summer, in order to make sure my body really made the switch and absorbed the lessons of barefoot running, I mostly ran barefoot. The book I read (see below) said that kind of commitment would help. Still, I had a training partner, we ran together once a week, and I didn’t want my mileage to drop to the maximum I could safely do barefoot — a more accurate term for a beginning barefoot runner is probably “yardage.”

Some commitment will really help, but don’t succumb to an all-or-nothing mentality. Barefoot running might have a different place in your training toolbox. For some people it can be a lifestyle, but that doesn’t have to be you.

Get a good book.

I used The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard, along with some other resources online. Much of what he said agreed with what I knew from other runners if not from my own reading and experienced. It is full of practical strategies and advice from someone with experience and passion. Robbillard’s enthusiasm for barefoot running is infectious, and that can help as you reboot your running. Christopher McDougall’s “Are we born to run?” TED Talk was also helpful — in getting started and in answering people’s objections. That’s good because…

Even your fellow runners probably won’t approve.

I don’t think anyone that I talked to about this adventure really got it. You might need to be prepared to answer some objections. Don’t worry about it too much though. I’ve seen barefoot racers from 5Ks to mile 17 of a marathon, and there are pictures and stories of them going back much further. According to McDougall, the most successful running cultures have used minimal to no shoes for centuries, and have runners who run their whole, long, lives.

Your feet really do seem to be made to take the impact.

When you run barefoot, it only takes a couple of strides to start landing on your mid-foot or forefoot and to achieve the shorter stride required to do that. That gait helps you to land with knees slightly bent, and it allows your feet to participate in shock absorption.

Cushioning may not be your friend.

Long before I started running barefoot, I read the abstract of a journal article that happened to be copied onto the back of one of my sources for a college paper. It suggested that some injuries were actually caused by the cushioning of conventional running shoes, possibly because the cushioning prevents beneficial sensations of discomfort in your feet from telling you that you are doing too much before an injury strikes.

The authors suggested that manufacturers should build something into shoes to help runners feel when their body has had enough before an injury occurs. They suggested textured insoles, as I recall. I’ve never seen any sign that manufacturers took the article to heart. To me, barefoot running cuts out the middleman. Why not let the ground do the talking?

I don’t have the article anymore, but I think these are the same authors following it up. Of course there are also studies that disagree. I’m not qualified to evaluate the scientific literature in great much depth, and that isn’t my purpose here anyway.

In any case, no harm came to my feet as a result of shock.

Your stride and pace will change automatically.

When you take off your shoes, everything changes. The gait you’re used to in conventional running shoes will not work. Just a couple of landings on your heels will show you that.

If you’ve made it this far, and you want to give it a try, great! In my next post, I’ll describe some of the more practical lessons I learned. Meanwhile, consider the pros and con’s of barefoot running. Maybe you want to think about getting into some minimal shoes, toe shoes, or, if you really want to get your feet wet, barefoot sandals, which have some of the advantages, and can be a great way to start making the transition to barefoot running — at least they were for me.

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