Shoes, Schmooze

By Anna Sachse

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Posted October 9, 2008 in Mind Body Spirit

Don’t you wish that getting exercise was as easy as skipping barefoot through a field of wildflowers? Well, actually, it is.

A recently revived trend in the running community, barefoot running is exactly what it sounds like—running without shoes on. Google it on the Internet and you’ll find a gazillion websites and online forums dedicated to the subject, populated by rabid fans whose born again enthusiasm belies the fact that they are talking about the easiest, cheapest form of exercise on earth: no equipment, and you can do it anywhere.

One such website is www.runningbarefoot.org, a mish-mash of advice and kooky, running-related spiritualisms by “Barefoot Ken Bob” Saxton, a computer technician with a long gray beard who has been called the “The Godfather of Barefoot Running.” A self-proclaimed eccentric, Ken Bob ran his first official race barefoot in 1997, a 10-mile trail race, but he has since run dozens of marathons and hundreds of shorter races. He gets written about a lot, probably because he’s really into promoting shoeless running and he looks like a homeless, crazy person.

However, despite Ken Bob’s semi-celebrity, he was certainly not the first. People in non-industrialized nations have run barefoot for a long, long time, and most still do. Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, the greatest Olympic marathoner of all time, won the first of his consecutive gold medals in Rome in 1960, sans shoes and in a world record time of 2:15:17. And Zola Budd, a South African, set a track world record in January 1984 when, just 16 and barefoot, she ran the 5,000 meters in South Africa in 15:01.83.

How is this possible, you may wonder, when Nike, New Balance, Asics and all the other members of the sports shoe cartel, have convinced us that we need $150 sneakers to both run faster and run injury free?

Well, according to a now-famous paper, published online in 2001 by Australian physical therapist Michael Warburton, entitled, “Barefoot Running” (www.sportsci.org), running shoes just aren’t that helpful. Sure, they may protect your toes from broken glass, but the problem is that all that cushioning, posts, bridges and duel-density midsoles is both limiting the natural motion of the foot as well as the foot’s ability to “read” the ground it’s landing on. As a consequence, says Warburton, initial research shows that running shoes appear to increase the risk of ankle sprains, either by decreasing awareness of foot position or by increasing the twisting torque on the ankle during a stumble. They also appear to increase the risk of plantar fasciitis and other chronic injuries of the lower limb by modifying the transfer of shock to muscles and supporting structures.

But don’t go tossing your Sauconys in the recycling just yet. Shoes-off isn’t often practical (Hello? The streets of downtown San Bernardino?), and more research needs to be done before any definitive claims can be made about its superiority to shoes-on. Your best bet is to try it if you feel like it and see how your body reacts. Here’s how to get started:

First, start with clear, flat, hard ground to avoid ankle sprains or hidden objects. Begin by walking barefoot then progress to jogging, gradually increasing the intensity and duration. After three to four weeks, the skin on your feet should get a little tougher and allow you to run faster for longer—30 minutes is a good goal. During your downtime, make your feet and ankles stronger by flexing your toes and walking on the balls of the feet. As you improve, you can progress to that field of wildflowers, as barefoot locomotion on uneven surfaces will also provide increased sensory feedback.

Just watch out for slugs and bees.


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