If you were to see John Richards running around Columbia, you’d think he looks just the way you’d expect a runner to – tall, lean and running with a grace that makes it all seem so easy – until you look down at his feet.
They’re bare. That’s right, completely bare.
John is part of a small but growing movement in the United States of barefoot runners, people who run for fun, fitness and sport with nothing whatsoever on their feet. The popularity of the practice was spurred on by the publication in 2009 of Born to Run, a book by Christopher McDougall, writer for Outside and Men’s Health magazines. In his book, McDougall tells of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, a tribe whose members have, for centuries, trained to run hundreds of miles without rest, all while wearing the thinnest of shoes. McDougall discovered through his observations that the reason they could run so far and for so long without injury had nothing to do with stretching, training or the right shoe; it had to do with technique. And the safest technique of all, he believes, is running barefoot.
Humans have been running since the dawn of man. They had to hunt their prey, often covering long distances, and frequently while running, without the expensive cushioning and arch support of modern shoes. Pheidippides ran that first marathon in the 6th century B.C. without the benefit of a shoe that prevented pronation or plantar fasciitis. Even Bill Bowerman, founder of Nike, spent 24 years as head coach of the Oregon men’s track team from 1948 to 1972 and didn’t come up with his first shoe until 1966. So running shoes are, relatively, almost a brand new invention.
At any given time, in any running group or track club in America, a handful of people are nursing injuries, ranging from the mildly annoying to the debilitating. McDougall writes that eight out of every 10 runners get hurt every year. Ask him the cause of that, and he’ll likely say it’s because typical running shoes cause runners to land in an unnatural position – heel first, then rolling through to the toes. That initial heel strike causes a shockwave of force to run up the legs and through the body, which can’t be good for the knees, hips and back. According to Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, the barefoot running guru, the best way to run is with the feet landing underneath the center of balance, knees bent, stride short and quick. This has the benefit of causing the runner to fall slightly, letting gravity pull the body forward. It’s hard to do that with a pair of ultra-cushioned, thick-heeled, motion-control shoes.
Many people who gravitate toward barefoot running do so for one of two reasons: they’ve been injured and are looking for anything that will keep them on the roads instead of on the sidelines, or they’re the type of people who just like to try things that are out-of-the-box. John, 41, says he is neither of those. Having just started running five and half years ago to get into shape, he was fortunate to not have suffered any injuries, and he says he’s not an against the grain type of guy. But three years ago he saw a post online about barefoot running, and he thought it might be fun to try. Plus, there would be the added benefit of not having to spend $150 every three months on a new pair of shoes.
At first, John would kick off his shoes after his regular runs and sprint around in his bare feet for 100 yards or so. He emphasizes the importance of not going straight out to run regular runs with no shoes. “Start very slow, going short distances, or even consider just walking,” he says. “It’s easy to do too much too fast, and that’s when injuries like stress fractures and calf injuries happen.” John also cautions against what might seem like a smart idea: starting out running on sand or grass. “Walking and running on sand or grass is not ideal because they’re too giving and allow for sloppy form. Grass, unless very short like a golfing green, also can hide rocks, sticks, screws or nails that no one, especially a beginning barefooter, wants to land on. I think it’s best for a beginner to start with a hard surface, like a paved road or sidewalk.”
Today, John spends as much time as he can barefoot, whether he’s running, at home or at work, and he does all of his runs without shoes, including the Governor’s Cup Half Marathon in November 2010. One might think, then, that his feet would be calloused and blistered. Not so, he says. “It’s the rubbing from your shoes that causes those.” John plans to run the Columbia Marathon in March 2012 unshod as well, which means he’ll be doing a lot of his runs in the cold of winter this year. He has a pair of huaraches, which have a very thin sandal-like base with a rope strap that keeps them on the feet. They won’t keep his feet warm; they’ll simply make the ground bearable to step on when it’s frozen solid. But John is unfazed. Asked why he keeps running barefoot, John says, “It’s freeing, like running was when I was a kid. And it’s so much fun to jump in mud puddles.”
Minimalist running shoes: (clockwise from left) Nike Free Run+, New Balance Minimus Trail, huaraches
Barefoot Running Shoes?
If you’ve ever seen someone wearing a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, you’ve either done a double take or snickered at how ridiculous they look. They’re similar to gloves, only they’re for your feet instead of your hands. Lots of people call them “barefoot running shoes” when, in fact, they are minimalist shoes. There’s really no such thing as a barefoot running shoe. In order to run barefoot, you run barefoot. Purists won’t run any other way.
But if you’re hesitant to make that initial jump from the heavy, cushioned, motion control shoes you’ve always run in – although barefoot running guru Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton and our own John Richards suggest nothing else – there are ways to ease into it.
You could try one of the barefoot running style shoes, like the Vibram FiveFingers, the New Balance Minimus or the Terra Plana Evo. These shoes feel like there’s nothing on your feet, and provide almost no cushioning, but still provide some protection from rocks, nails, glass and whatever else might be found on the road. Want more between you and the ground than that? The Nike Run Free, Saucony Kinvara and Brooks Green Silence offer more cushioning, but in a lighter weight and with a shorter heel height than a regular running shoe. Want to go even lighter and flatter? Try a racing flat, like Mizuno’s Wave Universe or Zoot’s Ultra Speed. Or you could try John’s huaraches, which are about as minimalist as you can get. Just don’t call them barefoot running shoes.
How to Start Barefoot Running
According to Barefoot Running Step by Step by Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, running barefoot isn’t as simple as running with no shoes on. There’s actually a technique involved. It does take some time to strengthen the ligaments and muscles in your lower legs and feet to the point that you can go long distances, so start slowly with short runs and gradually increase the distance. Here are some tips to help you run well, from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet:
• Keep your head and neck upright and your face forward
• Relax your shoulders
• Keep your arms relaxed, hanging and swinging vertically
• Keep the torso relaxed and upright
• Relax the hips
• Bend the knees
• Relax the calves
• Lift the feet early and often, but not too high
• Follow a 1-2-3 landing pattern: ball of foot-toes-heel or ball of foot-heels-toe (whichever is your natural tendency)
• Let your overall motion be led by your hips as you practically fall foward