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August 30, 2009

The Barefoot Revolution

Will barefoot running ever become mainstream?

That question has been bouncing around with increasing frequency over the past several months. Between Christoher McDougall's Born to Run book (and subsequent Jon Stewart interview), growing acknowledgement of the barefoot community from both major running magazines (Running Times is linked here, and Runner's World hosts a barefoot runners forum online), and focused attention from major shoe manufacturers, it seems as if more and more runners are at least considering giving barefoot running (or its close cousin “minimalist” running, the proper term for those who use Vibram’s Five Fingers or similar products) a try.

Numerous newspaper and magazine writers have also contributed to the barefoot groundswell, and with my latest Monterey Herald column, I count myself among them. The article was a fairly big challenge for me: how to distill all of the information and enthusiasm I’ve written on this webpage for the past several weeks down into a single 600-word column? The result follows below – and by way of fair warning, much of the language below will sound very familiar if you’ve been following along here for the past month or two.

I’m the first to admit that a mention in the Monterey Herald doesn’t constitute an enormous leap in the popular conscious; we’re such a small media market that it often seems like I’m writing simply for the benefit of the birds whose cages my column will be lining in the following few days. That’s why I was excited to see the New York Times get in the act, with this outstanding piece published on Saturday. (And in a related story … I scooped the New York Times!) When “The Paper of Record” gets involved, you’ve got a full-fledged national trend on your hands.

Personally, I don’t believe that barefoot running will ever become mainstream; it requires too much persistence and patience - commodities in short supply among most Americans, it seems - and has a lot of potential for harm if entered recklessly or carelessly. And the convenience and fashion factors of wearing shoes are virtually impossible to overcome. However, if barefoot practitioners can establish a permanent seat at the running community’s table, I think they’ll consider that a significant victory.

Whether you prefer to wear shoes or not, there should be room enough on the playground for all of us.

Running Life 8/27/09 “The Barefoot Revolution”

We’re on record several times claiming that running is the simplest sport in the world; all you need is a pair of shoes.

However, a steadily growing contingent of runners is determined to prove that notion incorrect. Not the part about the simplicity - the part about needing shoes.

Barefoot running is nothing new, of course – it dates back many millennia before the waffle sole launched Nike into the stratosphere. Some anthropologists believe our prehistoric ancestors were tremendous runners, hunting animals by chasing them to the point of exhaustion. (It makes sense if you do the math: hominids were on Earth 6 million years ago, but mankind’s first known weapons are only 500,000 years old. Unless all those cavemen were vegetarians, they must have had some means of catching and killing prey.)

Even in the modern era, barefoot runners have competed at world-class levels. Abebe Bikila won a gold medal and set a world record in the 1960 Olympic marathon. Zola Budd is notorious for her collision with Mary Decker at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but she also won back to back world cross-country championships in the 1980s. A handful of elite ultrarunners often run barefoot on mountain trails to complement their high mileage training routines.

You may think that this is terrible for your feet – but the truth could be exactly the opposite. There’s currently a philosophical war among shoe manufacturers: on one side, the folks who think that foot asymmetries and irregularities should be corrected by various means of support and motion control. The other side believes that less is more: just allow the foot to work naturally, and the other irregularities don’t matter. Not only that, but overcorrecting the foot’s natural motion actually leads to higher injury rates.

Think of it this way: if you were engineering the perfect weight bearing structure, you’d create an arch. For perfect shock absorption, you’d allow that arch to flex slightly upon impact. For dynamic energy transfer, you’d surround it with several interlocking components that move in multiple directions. For durability, you’d make the building blocks out of the hardest material you can create.

Well, guess what you’ve just designed? The human foot!

From a biomechanical standpoint, there’s no reason why you need to wear running shoes – so why doesn’t everyone just run barefoot? The primary drawbacks are comfort and speed.

Running barefoot is certainly uncomfortable right off the bat; our feet aren’t used to the lack of artificial cushioning, and our skin needs time to build resiliency to irritants like gravel, sticks, and pointy rocks. In order to accommodate these, the runner is forced to slow down much more than he’s normally accustomed to.

Most of us aren’t patient enough to put up with it – but the drumbeat of barefoot runners is growing ever louder; so much, in fact, that the running industry has taken notice.

The Vibram complany makes a brilliant product called Five Fingers, which is basically a glove for your foot with a thin rubber coating underneath: they allow you to run barefoot without worrying about injuring yourself on ground hazards. Other high-profile shoe companies, including Nike, ECCO, and Clark now have shoe models that allow the natural biomechanics of running barefoot.

One important caveat to all this: to become a barefoot runner, you have to progress extremely slowly to avoid injury. We’ve been experimenting with barefoot running for a few months now; if you’re interested in finding out how to start, feel free to contact us.


Jo Lynn 8/31/09, 10:09 AM  

I'm not engineering the perfect weight bearing structure, therefore, I need custom orthodics! I can barely walk barefoot. LOL

I also knew Saturday, if I went up I would probably have more trouble coming down. It's a very strenuous hike and very challenging the last few hundred feet. It doesn't make sense to have to work that hard toward the end when you are obviously going to be extremely tired when you get to that point.
I could have been coaxed, by the right person. Next time. ;)
good luck to you on the hike.

Anonymous,  9/1/09, 10:55 AM  


I appreciate your attempt, re: The Barefoot Revolution, to educate the running and walking consumer about natural motion and minimalism. To those well conditioned enough to run barefoot, I salute you. To those wanting to transition out of motion control, stability and extreme cushioned footwear to a more natural and minimalist way of running and walking, go experiment with new technology which has been introduced to highlight that "less could be more."

Feel free to check out www.thebiomproject.com or www.eccousa.com and see why BIOM is getting mention and attention from people like Donald.

Best Regards,

David Helter

GRETCHEN 9/2/09, 8:18 PM  

Hey, way to scoop the NYT, kid! :) (Even if they did cal you quirky.)

Anonymous,  9/15/09, 8:56 PM  

I do enjoy running barefoot, but its easy to step on things that can damage your foot. I saw these though:


do you guys thing it will eliminate the benefits of running barefoot if I use them?

Anonymous,  4/4/10, 1:44 PM  

Really enjoyed reading the article. Having used conventional trainers plus orthotics for a number of years now I suppose I am one of the mainstream of runners that are referred to.
However, following all the recent publicity, for the first time this year I am planning to experiment with minimalist and barefoot running. I run about 50 miles a week entirely on asphalt and concrete. Has anyone got any tips for making the transition?
PW, England

Donald 4/5/10, 2:34 PM  

Anon - the Runners World barefoot forum is probably the best resource for asking any and every question about starting barefoot running. There are tons of folks there who'd love to help.

Anonymous,  6/9/10, 6:36 AM  

I recently suffered a pretty nasty knee injury and will now probably have to go in for surgery on my knee. Which is unfortunate because I am only 20 and still have my whole life to do some thing interesting. Anyway I really enjoy running however lately I havent been able too. So I researched it instead and came across the concept of barefoot running. And would love to try it especially if it means I could get rid of this knee injury. I have started going for barefoot walks and was wondering if anyone had any tips that dont include buying something that costs alot of money? Anything that could help me get started?

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