Running Naturally: A Barefoot Primer

“Running inspires an atavistic appreciation of wilderness and our place in it–an appreciation we’d never find when sitting still.” –Daniel Duane, Author

The spectacle of Olympic gold medalists like Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, and Sanya Richards-Ross gliding across the finish line in London makes for pretty compelling evidence that humans beings are—as the 2009 New York Times bestseller put it—born to run.

Increasingly, there is a growing number of runners, trainers, athletes, and enthusiasts who not only insist that we’re all meant to be running, but that we should be doing it barefoot as well. If you live in a fitness-inclined city or town, you’ve probably seen the types by now—sinewy legs in short shorts with those curious, web-toed shoes on their feet, otherwise known as Vibram Five Fingers.

Author Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run—which uncovered the secrets of the uber-running Tarahumara tribe in northwest Mexico—first popularized the shoes, and a torrent of magazine and newspaper articles have followed since. While Vibram was the first shoe company to advertise their kicks as being specifically for “barefoot running,” numerous shoe companies have gotten in on the trend. All make the claim that “minimalist” shoes promote our bodies’ natural running form better than overly structured and cushioned shoes and thereby cause less injuries and promote overall wellness.

So what’s the deal—is this just an example of marketing hype spawning the latest extreme fitness trend? Or is there something about barefoot running that is inherently good for our bodies and ourselves? Beyond the undeniable joy that comes from reconnecting to planet earth via your feet, running sans shoes is rooted in something real.

EcoSalon gives you a primer on how to get started.

The Physiology: 

Remember when you were a kid and sprinting around the backyard, soccer field or beach without shoes felt as natural as anything? One of the main arguments of barefoot running enthusiasts is that modern athletic footwear—the kind with cushioning and heel pads meant to “minimize impact”—force our bodies to run in a way that’s not in line with that natural and effortless childhood stride.

Because of extensive padding, modern running shoes allow us to run heel-to-toe, with our backs hunched over, which our bodies aren’t meant to do. Watch the stride of someone like Farah, Ennis or Richards-Ross and you’ll see the Ferrari version of how our bodies were designed to run: the mid-to-upper part of our foot striking the floor first in swift, light strides, with a straight back stacked right atop our hips.

To test the validity of this, go outside onto the pavement barefoot and start running. You’ll notice that on a hard surface, you’re naturally inclined to strike on the ball of your foot, because that’s where all the natural padding and tissue resides. The more you do this, the more padding you get. Funny how that works.

But is it practical?

Barefoot running may be a bit of a misnomer. The idea is less about the type of footwear—or lack of footwear—and more about what you’re actually doing with your feet and body as a whole. See a person in the park wearing a fancy pair of Vibram running shoes but still running heel-to-toe? They’re missing the point entirely, and their joints will likely remind them of that fact tomorrow.

Minimalist shoes will edge you towards altering your running form because they don’t provide that unnecessary heel cushioning. However, one of the beauties of barefoot running—and what separates it from other fads—is that it doesn’t really require any special equipment at all. With that said, a transition period is still necessary (more on that below). You’re not going to be able to run a 10k sans shoes without feeling some serious effects for a while, so it’s best to start out gradually.

Then there’s the obvious question: what about sharp rocks, broken glass, roots, and gravel. The obvious answer? That’s what your eyes are for. You don’t have to take off jogging on city streets without shoes right away, but even if you did, there are a lot less hazards than you might expect when you make a point to look out for them. In addition, housing our feet in shoes 24/7 means they’re not as tough and weathered as they perhaps should be. Give yourself a few months of running barefoot on grass or in the park, and you’ll be the proud new owner of some seriously cushioning callouses.

How to start and where to go

If you want to give barefoot running a try, but are a little worried people might think you’re crazy, start out on your regular run with shoes. Head to somewhere like a park, soccer field, a dirt or all-weather running track, the beach, or other soft surface and run for a mile or so. Do it in the middle or at the end of your run and try to notice the way your body is forced to run a little differently with nothing under foot. The next time you run, do it for a little longer, and so on.

The idea is that if you practice this enough, you’ll start running this way whether you’re wearing shoes or not. Many seasoned runners (your author included) who have been plagued with a lifetime of injuries find that once their form has altered permanently, their rate of injury from long-distance running goes way down. There’s no promise that you’ll be the next Jessica Ennis, but there’s no saying you won’t be, either.

Image: mathanba, flavouredechoes, 666ismoney

Rosie Spinks

Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist from California with a degree in Environmental Studies. Her work has been published in publications including Sierra magazine, GOOD magazine, the Ecologist, and the Guardian Environment Network. A passion for travel, running barefoot outdoors, and reconnecting people to what is good dominates most of her thoughts. You can follow her writing on Twitter and Tumblr.