An increasing amount of runners are leaving their athletic shoes behind as the barefoot running movement gains momentum.
On a chilly morning in early May, runners litter the trails of the waterfront path in downtown Corvallis. Ted McDonald enters the path and with every step he takes, his feet silently and gently touch the pavement. Ted’s bare feet draw attention on a path with runners wearing athletic shoes. There is no wonder why he is known as Barefoot Ted.
The idea of barefoot running came into Ted’s life eight years ago when he planned to run a marathon for his 40th birthday. As he was training in preparation for the marathon, Barefoot Ted experienced pain while wearing cushioned running shoes. He wondered if less cushioning with a minimal shoe sole was the solution to his pain. Shortly after this experience, he tried barefoot running.
“It was instantly obvious that I found the beginning of a solution,” Barefoot Ted says of his first time experience. Now, Barefoot Ted is one of the many supporters of the barefoot running movement. He travels across America teaching seminars and conferences on how to run barefoot and avoid injuries to people who have similar painful experiences while running in athletic shoes.
The barefoot running movement encompasses not just running without shoes, but also thin-soled shoes that provide protection while allowing the foot to hit the ground in its naturally intended form with less force. While barefoot running may appear to be an emerging trend, barefoot runners like Barefoot Ted show that it’s a lifestyle choice. Barefoot running is about listening to what your body is telling you without interferences from athletic shoes.
Experienced barefoot runners who have been running without shoes for at least a few years usually have the title “Barefoot” before their first name.
All barefoot runners have to earn their “Barefoot” title.
“’Barefoot’” was given to us by others who saw us run…” says Barefoot Todd, who has completed 86 marathons barefoot.
Some barefoot runners have a lot of experience running without shoes, like Barefoot Ken, who has been running barefoot for the past 20 years and who later introduced Barefoot Todd to it in 2001.
But thanks to the 2009 book, Born to Run, a new generation of barefoot runners is emerging. The book Born to Run introduced many longtime runners, including Bruce Austin, to barefoot running. “We don’t need the ultra modern protective running shoes,” Austin says.
Written by Christopher McDougall, Born to Run discusses a tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara who are able to run barefoot for hundreds of miles without breaks. The book also explains why humans do not need the support from cushioned shoes in order to run. Born to Run has stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List every week since its release.
However, Barefoot Todd is concerned about the influence Born to Run could have on its readers, who may think barefoot running is effortless and immediately go out and try it without learning the technique.
In order to run barefoot effectively, one must first get used to the feeling of walking barefoot on a hard surface. The foot has been conditioned from years of wearing shoes and may need time to adjust to being barefoot. The foot must have a softer impact with the ground that finds its natural landing spot related to the body’s center of gravity. “A lot of times people tried it and it didn’t work,” says Barefoot Todd. “It just takes a little bit of reconditioning in order to get used to running without shoes.” Despite his concerns, Barefoot Todd appreciates what the book has done for barefoot running. “Born to Run has opened people’s minds to the thought of running without shoes,” he says.
The book has shaped the barefoot running movement by attracting people to the activity. Even though Born to Run informs the audience about the benefits that come with barefoot running, Barefoot Ted, one of the book’s characters, has been saying this for years.
Barefoot Ted and other supporters of running barefoot, including Barefoot Ken and Barefoot Todd, argue that the human foot is naturally conditioned for running. Modern running shoes provide unnatural padding and change the impact running has on an individual’s body.
The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation journal published a study in December 2009 that compared running barefoot to running in athletic shoes. Researchers observed a group of healthy men and women running barefoot and again in standard running shoes.Their observations showed that running shoes increase the stress on three hip and knee extremity joints. The study recommended that footwear should try to be as similar to being barefoot as possible in order to reduce injury.
In January 2010 the British science journal Nature published findings from Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman’s study that showed experienced barefoot runners’ forefoot or mid-foot hit the pavement first, but when runners wear athletic shoes with cushions they land on their heel first, which can cause stress to the heel, knee or leg.
Lieberman’s analysis provides a strong case for barefoot running; however, the study was partially funded by Vibram, a company that developed and sells a barefoot running shoe called Five Fingers. The study also says that “Barefoot runners can run easily on the hardest surfaces in the world without discomfort from landing.”
“It’s so sad” Barefoot Ted says of the people who run in athletic shoes. “There are people just pounding the friggin’ hell out of themselves.”
Despite research in support of barefoot running and a growing fan base, there are outspoken critics of the movement. The web site Barefoot Running is Bad, whose motto is “Exposing barefoot runners for the nutters that they are,” compares barefoot runners to being “As bad as the loony left of politics and the radical religious fanatics.” The web site, which says that it is not linked to the shoe athletic industry, offers rants against the trend’s research. “Can someone point me to one piece of evidence that shows high impacts actually cause any injury?” the webmaster wrote in a posting on the web site.
But this doesn’t discourage people from coming to Barefoot Ted for barefoot running advice. Barefoot Ted says he has been approached by celebrities, including singer Kimya Dawson’s husband, musician Angelo Spencer.
Some barefoot runners are nervous about the idea of having zero protection on their feet and are turning to shoes specially designed to be as close to the barefoot experience as possible.The leading barefoot running shoe on the market is Vibram’s Five Fingers, but it’s not the only shoe aimed at barefoot runners.
In early May 2010, shoe company Soft Star Shoes started selling a barefoot running moccasin. “Our customers were running in our shoes,” says co-owner of Soft Star Shoes, Larkin Holavarri
“We thought maybe we could find a better shoe for them.” The first week that the company’s barefoot running shoe, called RunAmoc, was on the market, Soft Star Shoes sold 105 pairs, which is extremely high sale for the small business.
Nike got involved in the barefoot running shoe movement with Nike Free, which according to Nike, “Provides just enough support while still allowing the foot to move in a natural, dynamic and barefoot-like manner.”
Barefoot Ted also sells a shoe kit that comes with all the material to assemble a barefoot running sandal, which he explains is “for a really minimalist person.”
But the experienced barefoot runners including Barefoot Ted, Barefoot Todd and Barefoot Ken avoid wearing shoes as much as possible. “If we take the time from the beginning to listen to, and respond by changing the way we are running, to eliminate the cause of the problems rather than just trying to muffle the messages, our feet will meet us part way,” Barefoot Ken says.
As barefoot running continues to grow as a business and trend, some experienced runners are concerned that the movement is losing its original message- barefoot running is about reconnecting with the body, listening and responding to the feedback your body gives you while running. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening to the unprotected bare soles,” said Barefoot Ken.