Barefoot running has gained mainstream attention due in part to “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. I’ve been aware of the popularity of barefoot running and have listened to conversations from fellow runners about how “alive” their feet feel after a quick mile in the snow, but remained skeptical.
I regularly run on asphalt and trail; the idea of running on either surface without protection is enough to make my eyes water. Run barefoot on asphalt or open trail littered with rocks and all kinds of pricklies? No thanks. My sneakers allow me to run on the unnatural surfaces that exist in the modern world. I’m not about to step out of my foot protection and risk stepping on broken glass, dog poo, or worse. I am obviously a skeptic about the trend; thus, when ALTA Physical Therapy in Boulder hosted a moderated panel discussion on barefoot running a few weeks ago, I figured I may as well go and hear what the experts have to say.
The place was packed and the panelists were a veritable “who’s who” in the field of running. The moderator was Barry Siff, local businessman and former owner of 5430 Sports. Ray Keller, a documentarian, filmed the discussion. Panelists were: Danny Upshire (Active Imprints), Alan Culpepper (American distance runner with national titles and owner of Solepepper Sports), Melody Fairchild (greatest female high school runner in U.S. history), Bobby McGee (Endurance Coach), Aaron Anderson (PTI Orthotics Lab), and Charlie Merrill (ALTA Physical Therapy). They have all been in the business of running and examining body mechanics for decades, and their combined experience gives them over 200 years of knowledge and perspective of how people run, how surfaces change the mechanics of foot and spinal alignment, how shoe technology has evolved since the 1970’s to bring running to the masses, and how the advent of shoes has created a culture of overcompensation.
The discussion began with Danny Upshire and Bobby McGee talking about a few advantages of “minimalist running”:
- Humans evolved as barefoot runners. When a foot is encased in a shoe the body and foot change alignment. Without shoes (or with minimal protection), the body and foot remain in a neutral position.
- There is high sensory imprint on the forefoot because each step is taken lightly and then quickly lifted. In contrast, when a person wears a shoe there a lot of pressure is exerted on different areas of the foot that are not designed to withstand such force.
- An “unshod” or “minimalist” foot will receive better proprioceptor response with each footfall. This can increase the body’s natural ability to align itself and protect itself from injury.
Aaron Anderson spoke next and emphasized a point that was made several times throughout the evening. Certain foot types are NOT going to work with barefoot running. Some people need correction and stability in their shoes in order to be able to run in the first place, and those people should NOT attempt minimal running. Way back when, tribes were populated with warriors, hunters and gatherers. People were assigned their place in the tribe based on their natural abilities. Some people had a natural ability to run for hours without tiring; other people did better digging roots and collecting berries. Not everyone has the ability to run sub-4 minute miles like Alan Culpepper, and not all of us should take off our shoes and run through the meadow with our bare feet blazing.
Alan Culpepper talked about the huge risk of injury when folks suddenly decide to go Native and start barefoot running. He made his point metaphorically with a little anecdote about his wife, Shayne. She’s an Olympic qualifier and national champion. When she was pregnant with the first of their three kids, she developed medical conditions that stopped her from running at all. After the baby was born she couldn’t just pick up where she had left off; she had to start from square one. Even though she had been a rock-star runner in college and had a stellar post-collegiate running career, on day one she began by walking a mile. She had to re-build her capacity and endurance from scratch, as though she had never run a day in her life. Alan uses this as a metaphor for barefoot running. When someone decides they want to do it, they need to start out really, really slow, and let their body acclimate to the activity. In virtually all cases, this should several years.
Melody Fairchild talked about the mindset of barefoot running, and how it takes a ton of self-discipline and self-moderation to achieve the potential rewards of walking or running minimally. In our American culture we are taught to race to the top, to push ourselves hard, to not listen to the nuances of our body, to push past pain. Seasoned runners cannot and should not throw away their shoes and expect to run as fast or as far as they can in their bare feet. They need to take it super-slow and allow the foot and body to re-learn a natural alignment, and how all the pieces work together. Alan Culpepper mentioned that if minimalist running is in the cards for you, try it for one or two days a week, as a piece of a workout. Walk around in your Vibram 5 Fingers before you try to run in them. Get used to the feel of the ground beneath your feet and feel how your muscles are sore after walking or gently jogging.
All of the panelists agreed that before a person should ever even attempt barefoot running, they should see a person trained in body mechanics to determine if they should even attempt it. A physical therapist or running specialist will be able to tell so much about your body, feet, tendons, pronation, etc, and can be a coach or mentor on your way to realigning your body from the foot, up.
Melody Fairchild discussed how barefoot running is a mindset and that we’re not raised with it in this culture. You can get the advantages of barefoot running with barefoot walking; it takes self-discipline and self-moderation, two things that are pretty anti-American. She’s proposing that we slow down, stop looking to technology (shoe or otherwise) to fix our problems, get back to the basics of moving unimpeded, and see what happens.
During the discussion someone pointed out that one of the reasons Kenyans are natural runners is because children learn proper biomechanics from the minute their feet touch the earth. In local villages children do not wear shoes; they run barefoot in the red dirt that turns into sticky mud when the rain falls. Children run miles and miles to and from school every day; their bodies are naturally aligned because their feet and spine receive constant proprioceptor feedback. Dirt roads are softer than asphalt or cement sidewalk and more forgiving on developing bones. There are few instances of villagers experiencing the multitude of foot, sacrum and back issues that plague Americans because proper body alignment is naturally gained when people stand, walk and run on the ground instead of in shoes that block natural sensation from reaching their body.
Extrapolating the concept of this argument, it would seem that there would be fewer instances of mis-aligned spines and foot injuries in cultures that have more natural surfaces on which to walk and run. In the early years of civilization people wore shoes for warmth and protection. Native Americans wore moccasins that offered warmth in the winter but still allowed the foot to strike the ground in a natural way. Early American immigrants wore shoes and boots that were utilitarian and hard, holding the foot and ankle in a vice-like grip that didn’t allow any contact with the natural world. And it is from these roots that modern footwear takes its cue.
One of the panelists displayed a cross-section of a running shoe and talked about the changes in shoe technology over the last 40 years. He pointed out the slightly elevated heel of the shoe and said that a slight heel in a running shoe actually makes the foot strike that area when running, which is exactly opposite of where the foot should strike naturally. Landing on the heel of the foot and rolling forward puts three times your body weight on a very fragile area, a place on the foot that is not designed to withstand that pressure. Imagine standing in your bare feet and jumping high into the air and purposefully landing on your heel. You’ll never do that again because you’ll have just fractured your heel. You’ll naturally try to land on the ball of your foot, which is where you should be striking each time you land. A shoe can change that landing point to such a degree that you aren’t even aware of where you’re landing, which influences the impact of body alignment on the rest of the body structures.
If we’re to understand the cultural significance of footwear and body alignment on our own bodies, we need to look at how babies and children learn about the world around them. Infants learn through touch, and this sense of touch is not limited to what the hands can grasp. Babies put things in their mouths, toddle barefoot in the grass, and dip their naked toes in the water while marveling at the sensation. They learn how to jump because they can feel the earth under their feet and experience the proprioceptor sensation of skin, bones, muscles and tendons all working together to achieve balance.
Americans used to put sweet little booties on their babies to keep their tootsie warm in inclement weather. Now, over-zealous parents buy expensive replicas of their own shoes to put on delicate feet that are barely walking, thus taking away important sensory information. Our environment has changed from natural to manufactured so quickly that children no longer experience sensations through their feet. Even in the house, children often wear soled shoes. Protection (and fashion) has overridden body development, and that is what barefoot running is trying to address. In a much broader sense, however, this is a cultural phenomenon that is applicable not only to running, but how we allow children to develop and experience the natural world while their malleable bodies are still growing and changing.
Barefoot running is more than just running without shoes; it challenges a cultural perception that shoes are safe and should always be worn. As well, barefoot running forces people to pay close attention to their body, attend to pain, run slowly and carefully, and embrace moderation and self-discipline. We are a culture of excess, and barefoot running is an antithesis to a culture of over-consumption and lack of personal restraint. The fact that there are still cultures on this planet that run barefoot and have an almost non-existent percentage of foot, ankle and spinal maladies because of the proprioceptor response to aligned running, is telling. Barefoot running (or minimal running) can be a way of slowing down and allowing the feet and body to learn how to align in a natural way. If you’re still interested in trying barefoot running, take the time to talk to someone about your particular stride, body imbalances, and the rest of the stuff that goes along with body issues, and get feedback on if barefoot running is right for you.