Barefoot running

Barefoot running was a craze about 10 years ago or so, when the book Born to Run came out. It’s a great read, and it caused a lot of people to try to run barefoot. In some cases that’s good. When you’re barefoot, your lower leg muscles sense ground impact better and adjust to absorb impact. However, that’s with a forefoot or midfoot strike—if you heel strike while running barefoot, you’re sending a lot of shock up your leg, which is bad. And a lot of people who tried to run barefoot did so in ways like this that were appropriate only when wearing cushioned shoes. Plus, the older you are when you start running barefoot, the more years of wear and tear you have on your feet created in response to running in shoes, which may make the transition tough. And, of course, a lot of modern surfaces and hazards are pretty nasty for the feet.

I’ve dabbled with barefoot running over the years since, in part because I’m a great believer in working with physical structures that evolved over millions of years. The human body is incredibly complex, and it’s hubris to think that we understand enough about it to modify it successfully at a general level. (And believe me, once you’ve spent years with injuries like plantar fasciopathy, it gets easier to see how little we really know.) In practice, though, I’ve never really felt comfortable running more than about 3 miles barefoot.

My compromise has been to use minimal and low or zero drop shoes. The Vibram Five Fingers don’t protect my feet quite enough at the speeds I like to run, so I do most of my running in Saucony Kinvaras and various Altra models. I’m quite fond of racing flats, particularly on grass, and I like the minimalism of spikes for cross country, though the hard spike plate means I wear them only in really soft, muddy conditions.

Most recently, I’ve been doing a lot of barefoot walking with 1-minute jogs to come back from the plantar fasciopathy. That was working really well for a few months until about 3 weeks ago, when I started having pain in my other foot. It didn’t go away, so I finally saw a podiatrist yesterday, who promptly used a scalpel to remove some foreign body from my foot. So yeah, that’s one of the dowsides—you can step on something and then embed it deeply in your foot. Finger (and toes) crossed that the thing he took out was the sole cause of my pain—I’ll know in a day or so when the irritation of having it in there and of having him cut it out goes down.

All that said, there are many people in FLRC who have done much more with barefoot running than me. @shiggyrunner trains and races in Barton barefoot, and he’s done a lot more. @gvanloon has put a lot of ultramarathon miles in with extremely minimal shoes like the Five Fingers. @Oliver has worked his way up to fairly long distances and ran the Skunk 10K barefoot several years ago. And I think @Mr_Hector ran Boston barefoot some years ago.

I’d love to hear their thoughts on and experiences with barefoot running.

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I used to do tee-to-greens barefoot at the Newman golf course downtown early in the morning before any golfers are out, also some at Cornell. Excellent workout and really strengthens your feet. It forces the ankles and arch through a full range of motion. On the golf course there is little risk of foot injury due to stones, branches etc. Although one time at Newman the groundskeeper was mowing early in the morning, he called to me, I thought he was going to kick me out, but no, he just wanted to remind me that they had just sprayed herbicide or insecticide (signs were up) and that can be absorbed easily through the skin!! So watch out for that.

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For what it’s worth, I started barefoot running about 6 years ago, in part to lose my heel strike. I started by running the first season with a 6-mm drop shoe and then the next season went to barefoot, alternating between barefoot, 5 Fingers, and zero-drop shoes for road running.

I found trail running hazardous - was constantly banging a toe, so I always run trails shod. But I end every run with 1-2 K barefoot on the road and have had no problems. I find I like the feel on my feet, and barefoot has helped me make the transition to a softer, mid-foot landing.

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