What is Barefoot Running?
Well it is exactly as it says on the tin: the act of running without any shoes or any foot protection whatsoever. Six million years ago, we descended/evolved from the tress to walk and run on the Earth’s ground. Over thousands of years, we gradually improved and eventually got really good at running barefoot, as we knew of nothing else.
As human beings, before the invention and advent of modern footwear, this was how we walked and run the Earth – barefoot.
A Bit of History
Throughout time, humans have been running barefoot or with very thin protective moccasins or sandals. This is still happening in many tribes in South America and Central America, like in Mexico and also many African countries, such as Kenya.
According to legend, the person famous for making the marathon what it is today, Pheidippides, ran from Athens to Sparta in less than 36 hours. There was a battle in Marathon, and after it ended, he ran to Athens to inform them that they were victorious against the Persians.
There have been many successes in the international sporting arena over the years, from men and women running without shoes:
- In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Abde Bikila from Ethiopia won the marathon barefoot in a world record time of 2:15:17. The story says that Adidas, the official shoe supplier of the event, did not have the right size shoe for him and he had to training in shoes that were too small for him, and so painful to wear. He had trained barefoot in the past, so he decided to ditch the footwear and run the main event with nothing on his feet. He went on to win another gold medal in 1964 in Tokyo, and broke another world record with a time of 2:12:11, more than 4 minutes faster than the silver medal winner. He did wear Puma shoes for this race admittedly.
- Bruce Tulloh from the UK ran most of his races between 1955 and 1967 barefoot, and won a series of European titles and conquered European records. He is famous for saying that most people don’t want to run barefoot for fear of looking unconventional.
- The most famous barefoot running athlete from my era, and lifetime, has to be the South African lady Zola Budd. In the 1980s she would train for, and run, all of her races barefoot. In 1985 & 1986 she won the IAAF Cross Country Championships. Watch a snippet of one of her races here. In January 1984, she set a track 5,000 metres record of 15:01:83 beating Mary Decker’s previous time by 6 seconds, and she was just 16 years of age. She is unfortunately best known for her collision with Mary Decker in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics 3,000 metres final. It is nice to know that recently they have both set the record straight and there was no animosity between them, it was all created by the media.
Why is Barefoot Running Becoming More Popular?
Nick Roeber has been running barefoot since 2003, and run over 27,000 km in various long distance events barefoot. He uses barefoot running as a means to help homeless people, addicts and alcoholics in society.
In April 2012, Rae Heim ran over 4,500 km Boston USA to Manhattan Beach, California USA to raise money for children in need.
I think the most influential person in recent times to talk about, and educate people on the joys of barefoot running is Christopher McDougall. In 2009 he wrote and published a book called Born To Run, which promoted the art of barefoot running versus running with shoes. Have a look at his TED Talk. After this time barefoot running had a surge in popularity within the running community, to the point where there was an uplift of 100% in runners joining the Barefoot Runners Society in 1 year from Nov 2009. There was also a substantial increase of barefoot runners that participated in the New York marathon of 2010.
One thing is certain, this “movement” of barefoot running is here to stay, and will only increase in popularity overt the next decade and beyond.
Health Benefits & Scientific Evidence
First of all, I have to say there is a very mixed view in the running community and in scientific circles on whether running without shoes is better for you. There is no clear evidence to support one camp over the other.
There has been a lot of interest by both medics and scientists since the later part of 20th Century to try and discover the benefits and possible harm in barefoot running. It was in the 1970s that the Western World started their “love affair” with modern, cushioned, supported and stable running shoes. The marketing towards this was in full flow.
Scientists, first of all had to find out what the differences between barefoot and shoe running were. The main difference they discovered was the way the runner lands their foot when it hits the ground for every stride.
Shoe runners would mainly strike the ground with their heel (back of the foot) and barefoot runners with the ball (front of the foot) or the middle of the foot. The shoe runners mainly strike with their heel due to all the support and stability technologies that are crammed into the shoe. The stride is quite long too. This “fools” the runner and foot into thinking that any imperfections and inefficiencies in their running technique are being corrected and so there is no longer a need to think about how best to run. This provides almost a false sense of security to the runner.
Barefoot runners on the other hand strike the ground with the front or middle of the foot and it is a more subtle, springy step which is also shorter, meaning the rate is also higher. Barefoot runners instinctively prepare their foot muscles better before striking the ground. This causes the brain to expect the impact and make adjustments to muscles which shortens the step, increases rate, and in turn reduces the stress from the high repetition shocks. Some say that this running technique causes very little to no impact collision, and avoids the heavy impact that is 2 to 3 times the body-weight of the runner. (Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University)
In 2001 Michael Warburton, an Australian Physiotherapist, said that the extra weight when wearing shoes is equivalent to putting on a pound or two on your torso. According to his research, every 100 grams of weight from shoes decreases your running efficiency by 1%. So an average pair of shoes wearing say 250 grams would decrease your efficiency by a whopping 5%. When you put that into context with a distance runner that runs a marathon barefoot in say 3 hours 30 minutes, when he puts on some shoes he would finish the race in 3 hours 40 minutes and 30 seconds. That is adding an additional 10 and half minutes to his race!
When we buy a pair of running shoes, we buy them to protect our feet from harmful everyday objects. We also expect them to have cushioning and or motion control features to prevent us from getting injured.
The problem, Warburton says, is that this is giving runners a false sense of security and making them and their brains when they run, “lazy”. Let me explain what he believes. When you run barefoot, all of your senses are alive and fully on “red alert”. The body has proprioceptive abilities. This means that the body communicates with itself and gives it feedback through all the different pathways. When you run barefoot, the body engages everything: The muscles, the bones, the tendons, the whole leg, the feet and their soles, the brain, the hearing and the vision. This engages a high degree of protection from the pressures caused by running.
When you run in shoes, this doesn’t happen so much. A lot of the inputs from the proprioceptive abilities are not present. Warburton calls this “the perceptual illusion” of running shoes. With shoes your reaction times are decreased and your body kind of switches off and becomes “lazy”.
One of the most popular beliefs and thoughts of pro barefoot running supporters, is that you will experience very few, or no running related injuries. This is especially true for repetitive strain injury types, ankle sprains and pain the heel and under the foot, when running with shoes.
On the other hand, there is a real danger of injuries caused when barefoot running. This is actually much more so when transitioning from shoe running to barefoot running. This is mainly caused by runners trying to make too many changes, too quickly to their running form. The main reason for this, is because different muscles in the legs and feet are used. The main injuries experienced here are stress fractures, Achilles tendinitis (pain in the tendon of the achilles due to repetition of movement). This transition to barefoot running has to be attempted gradually, and ideally with the help of a minimalist shoe.
This is the practice of wearing very light or thin shoes while running. They are developed to help with the transition from shoe running to barefoot running, but also to offer the benefits of barefoot running, but with better protection against the elements and harmful objects.
These are like the modern equivalent of the moccasins or sandals worn by people thousands of years ago, before the modern shoe revolution of the 1980s.
It is interesting to think back, when I was a kid in school in England, we were all given black plimsolls which were very comfortable to wear. They were made with thin fabric and very thin rubber soles. They were very basic in construction, but we were all running around playing sports and doing our physical education exercises happy as Larry.
Most shoe manufacturers are now making different versions of the minimalist shoe, but the one I always think about, and is a “pioneer” in this field, is the Italian founded company Vibram with their FiveFingers model. It is built with slots for each finger of the foot and with no cushioning.
Other manufacturers have created differing degrees of minimalist shoes, with low heel drops and very limited amount of cushioning, and with very thin mid-soles.
Not Wearing Shoes Can Be Good for You
Barefoot running certainly seems to offer some good performance and health benefits with the promotion of a more “natural” running form and looks as though it causes less injuries in some cases.
The most important thing to take into consideration if you take up barefoot running is to take it slow and to do it gradually. Start with a lower heel drop than your usual and gradually work your way down to zero heel drop. Don’t run to far too quickly and listen to your body.
If you are serious about barefoot running I recommend these three books: – Born To Run or Here by Chistopher McDougall, The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Barefoot Running or Here by Craig Richards & Thomas Hollowell and Barefoot Running: How to Run Light & Free by Getting in Touch With The Earth or Here by Michael Sandler with Jessica Lee.
In general, there is the belief that we as humans spend too much time wearing footwear full stop. We were not born with shoes on or feet and the more time we walk around barefoot the better it is for our overall health. We should all take all the opportunities presented to us to kick off our shoes as often as possible. Be it taking your shoes off after coming home from work or school, or making that trip to the beach, we can all benefit from this.