For most of us, it’s tough enough to lace up the shoes, get out there and go jogging. Now consider this: Forget the shoes. Your running gear does not include footwear. You are, podiatrically speaking, going au naturel. The very idea of this may evoke, within your wise self, something like: “That’s crazy. Go running without shoes?”
And the answer to that is, “Yes.” In fact, an extremely enthusiastic yes, if you ask the devotees of barefoot — or “minimalist” — running.
Barefoot running is just what it sounds like: hitting the track or pounding the pavement without shoes. Minimalist running is almost the same thing, but your feet do get some protection via specifically designed shoes, Aquasox, moccasins or any other minimal footwear.
Those who endorse the practice will tell you it’s perfectly normal, that it’s the way our ancestors did it until the 1970s or so when a little company called Nike came along.
But are running shoes really crucial? Is barefoot running just a fad? Which way is better: shod or unshod?
For answers to these questions and more, let’s start with the perspective of the medical community. Here’s the American Podiatric Medical Association position on minimalist running: “Research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice.”
While that may be true, real-life laboratories — the runners themselves — suggest that the proof is in the doing.
“I run 70 to 80 miles a week barefoot, and I love it,” says Tom Pileggi of Spokane, who has been a lifelong competitive and casual runner. “I used to have knee problems, and I had so many experts telling me what to do — which shoes to buy, which orthotics to get. Then I just decided to go cold turkey and try barefoot. Once I started, I noticed right away my knee pain disappeared instantly. I’ll never go back.”
The difference for Pileggi, and anyone else who does it, is not so much the lack of a typical running shoe as it is the way the stride is changed without those conventional shoes.
Running barefoot, or with a minimalist shoe, causes the runner to hit the ground with the ball or front part of the foot. This is the opposite of the heel-first impact that occurs when wearing traditional shoes, which happens primarily because of the shoe’s elevated heel.
When the heel hits first, it sends an enormous amount of stress through the foot and up into the body. Striking with the ball or front part of the foot may help decrease the load on the knees and hips.
This easier-on-the-body aspect of barefoot running may at least partially account for the near-superhuman feats routinely accomplished by a small tribe of Indians in Mexico — the Tarahumara people, who were featured in the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. In the book, the Tarahumara were portrayed as an otherworldly group of runners who can run hundreds of miles very quickly while wearing just sandals or simply going barefoot. One Tarahumara man ran 435 miles in just over 48 hours.
“Barefoot running certainly has increased in popularity over recent years, probably in response to McDougall’s book,” says foot and ankle specialist Craig Barrow, M.D., of the Orthopaedic Specialty Clinic of Spokane. “However, running barefoot has been a training technique for athletes for a long time.”
Indeed, Chris Zeller, the cross-country running coach at Eastern Washington University, includes some barefoot running in his team’s training program. His goal is to eventually incorporate even more minimalist and barefoot training in the future.
“My main concern is that people are able to train and remain healthy. It’s a process to make the switch, and we’re working in a four- to five-year window,” says Zeller, adding that 99 percent of his team’s current training is traditional, with shoes. “For someone thinking about diving into the minimalist movement, I would caution them to do it gradually. Going from a shoe with lots of support to none at all could cause a number of problems. Just like upping your weekly mileage — take a measured approach to it.”
That measured approach is a common theme for those who practice barefoot or minimalist running. “I never try to sell running barefoot to anyone,” says Pileggi. “If they are enjoying their running in regular shoes and are not getting injured, then keep doing the same thing.”
The American Podiatric Association recognizes the increase in the popularity of barefoot running. However, the association’s position is clear: “The risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection — which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds — and increased stress on the lower extremities. Currently, inconclusive scientific research has been conducted regarding the benefits and/or risks of barefoot running.”
Spokane’s Dr. Barrow definitely thinks there is a place for barefoot and minimalist running.
“I think if a runner wants to add barefoot running to their training program, they can do it safely and effectively,” says Barrow. “But they would need to start slowly and gradually increase the time they spend barefoot. I recommend comfortable shoes for athletics or exercise that allow participation without pain — it’s that simple. You don’t need to spend a fortune. Buy what fits and works for you.”
If you do want to try it, the best way, according to practitioners and the medical community, is to go very slowly. Baby steps, as it were.
Common sense is also a key. If it’s snowy outside, you should at least wear a minimalist shoe — and don’t run if the cold or rough conditions make you uncomfortable.
It is perhaps ironic that minimalist footwear is, in fact, much like the “racing flats” donned back in the day by competitive runners. As the sport of running gained steam among the masses in the ’70s and ’80s, shoe companies began marketing bigger, thicker-soled shoes.
Now those same companies are straining to get new back-to-the-flats gear on the market.
Curt Kinghorn, owner of Spokane’s Runner’s Soul athletic shoe and apparel store, has seen a big increase in the different types of minimalist shoes on the market.
“They’re a little more low-profile, more back-to-nature,” says Kinghorn. “The newer types of minimalist shoes are not quite as beefy as traditional shoes, and I think that’s where it should settle.
“I think minimalist shoes should be part of your footwear, but it shouldn’t be in total, all of your running,” adds Kinghorn, who remains unconvinced. “The majority of people need the protection a running shoe provides.”