Baring My Sole: the Growing Trend of Barefoot Running
By Suzanne Pfefferle
When Bruce Springsteen belted his famous anthem, “Born to Run,” I don’t think The Boss envisioned a group of adults sprinting down the streets sans shoes. Yet that’s the current running movement racing across America, and if glimpses of barefoot joggers in Audubon or City Park are any indication, it has arrived in the Big Easy!
Once a relatively obscure idea, barefoot running is gaining momentum, and now, even podiatrists are claiming that it comes with numerous benefits. Some examples of famous barefooters include Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, who won the first of his six consecutive gold medals sans shoes in 1960. Charlie “Doc” Robbins, winner of two USA National Marathon Championships, was known to run Thanksgiving Day Road Races in Connecticut without wearing any kicks. And then there was the great Forrrest Gump… kidding.
A barefoot runner for about seven years, distance athletics coach, Todd Byers (pictured) has completed “92 marathons, out of 274 total, without shoes.” This image captures him after the Phoenix Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.
“I may look knackered, but I was happy! It seems that after a marathon, I am one of the happiest people because I do not have any blisters!”
Fellow long distance runner, “Barefoot Rick” Roeber has completed nearly 17,000 miles without sneakers since 2003. Rick is pictured at the Olathe Marathon0 his 52nd barefoot marathon.
Curious about the mechanics and possible advantages associated with barefoot running, I set to do some sole searching of my own.
According to advocates of shoeless running, people descended from trees to walk and run millions of years ago, which is what our bodies are supposedly programmed to understand. Supporting this evolutionary theory, Dr. William Coleman, a podiatrist at Oschner, notes that “humans evolved walking over uneven surfaces,” and have been doing so for millions of year, adding that “the foot is designed to curve around lumpy ground.” Though this is common in other parts of the world, it would be quite and adjustment for someone who is accustomed to wearing shoes.
Surprisingly, many of the ailments that Dr. Coleman treats are actually caused by inappropriate footwear. Besides wearing the wrong shape or size shoe, “repeatedly hitting the same part of the foot,” creates stress over time, as opposed to running barefoot, “which allows the force to affect different areas of your feet and legs.”
So is stripped down to the bare necessities actually better for you? Dr. Coleman believes that much of this depends on the person, acknowledging that this would have to be determined by observing a larger sample group. However, besides better muscular development in the legs and feet, he believes that running without shoes can lead to “great benefits.”
To get a local perspective of the trend, I contacted local runner Amy Lee, who has been running barefoot for about a year. Her story began when she invested in expensive running shoes, only to find herself in physical therapy for knee problems and painful shin splints After she completed a marathon in October 2009, she began searching for a way to prevent further injuries.
“It started with simple research on how to improve my running form to correct some heel striking and it led me down a path to barefoot running,” Lee says. Nearly a year later, Lee exclaims that she’s already discovered the rewards of running without shoes. “I’ve seen a huge improvement in my running forma and I no longer suffer from shin splints, knee pain, or heel bruising. It’s been amazing.” Now Lee is running up to six miles without wearing shoes- and continues to add distance- in preparation for a half marathon.
Intrigued by Amy’s experience, I was ready to find out on my own, what barefoot running is all about. Honestly, when I first realized that there would be research involved for barefoot running, my mind immediately conjured images of a recent run through the French Quarter (not an ideal rout for barefoot running!) with a friend. Fortunately I stumbled upon some encouraging news. Nike designs a special shoe designed for those who are not quite ready to bare it all. Phew!
I stopped by Southern Runner on Magazine Street where I was greeted by an expert staff. While answering my many questions, they seemed to be well aware of barefoot running, claiming that they had received several inquiries about this special type of footwear, which is called the Nike Free Run. The flexible shoe is designed to strengthen the legs and feet by simulating the barefoot fit and feel. The Nike Free Run encourages toes to flex and grip naturally, while engaging the muscles normally not involved by traditional footwear.
Admittedly, after trying on said shoe, I was certain that I had found my sole mate! The Free Run is so lightweight and loose, that it allows my feet to breath and provides a full range of wiggle room for my toes. The sneaks also lack the stiff sole of traditional running shoes. Besides the comfortable fit, the Free Runs have a hip, retro appearance and they are available in a kaleidoscope of colors. After I left the Southern Runner, I was ready to stride in style.
I decided that it was time to put my Free Runs to the test on the following day. As expected, running without the cushioning of my good ol’ Asics felt incredibly bizarre. Besides feeling the impact each time my foot struck the ground, every twig, rock and crack on the ground suddenly became obvious. But by the time I reached my destination, I can easily say I enjoyed my run.
After about a month of running in City Park and on the treadmill in the funky-hued shoes, I was hooked. I quickly became accustomed to the thin sole and feel of “barefoot” running. I eve began to notice less pain in my knees, despite my tendonitis, and a faster pace. And, after wearing my Free Runs during a recent race, I began to train for the same Jazz Half Marathon that jump-started Amy Lee’s barefoot running experience.
While some athletes contend that Free Runs are the best substitute for barefoot running, others bare their soles completely, or wear a shoe that only offers protection from the outdoor elements. Lee, for example, wears the Vibram FiveFingers, which are basically gloves for your feet. “I’m not opposed to running completely barefoot,” she admits, but she usually prefers protection from the elements. “The shoes are a little odd looking,” she notes, but “they are a wonderful conversation piece.”
But if runners do indeed decide to eschew all forms of footwear, be sure to take precautions to avoid injury. The staff at the Southern Runner recommends that athletes make gradual changes in their running regimen to allow a smooth transition.
Lee seconds this advice. “You’ll want to start very slowly with just half a mile or one mile jogs. In the beginning, I alternated between my regular sneakers and my Vibrams. It takes some getting used to, and you’ll have some new and different soreness to contend with. If you’re going completely barefoot, you’ll also need to slowly build the calluses on your feet. “
Dr. Coleman notes that athletes should start by running on a soft surface, such as a golf course, while of course paying close attention to where you place your feet.
Taking heed of this advice, I made my first shoeless jog along the grassy border of Bayou St. John. Incredibly liberating and surprisingly comfortable, it’s easy to understand why barefoot running continues to recruit fans. The feel of grass between my toes, and nothing to weigh down my feet, was refreshing. And although I still haven’t kicked my, well, kicks to the curb, I’m still contemplating the idea of doing so!
But whatever route you choose, remember to have an open mind and just nejoy the experience. Barefoot running may lead to happy feet and a better stride, the many conversation that will abound from curious onlookers, and even emotional benefits.
“My favorite part, by far, are the incredible looks people give me as I jog past,” says Lee. But if that doesn’t inspire you to lose the shoes, then this remark will surely have you loosening your laces. “Barefoot running makes me feel like a kid again!”