Barefoot – or almost barefoot running- seems to be all the rage these days, nevertheless I’m still taken aback when I see runners trotting down the road in what looks like their socks. While I’ve yet to see anyone running completely barefoot on the road, that’s probably because many athletes do their barefoot running on a soft dirt or rubber track, a soccer field, or a beach.
Research does support the purported benefits of barefoot running and as such companies are jumping on the bandwagon of this running trend. Barefoot Science , for example, has developed special insoles that supposedly duplicate the benefits of barefoot running. They claim that wearing their barefoot science insoles inside a pair of running shoes simulates running barefoot and therefore strengthens the feet. Another company has come out with a type of “sock shoe” called “ Five Fingers ” that separates the toes and has a protective bottom to prevent splinters, abrasions and other road running hazards, but offers no additional cushioning or support.
Christopher McDougall in his book “Born To Run” traces the evolution of this barefoot running trend and proposes that it is in part a backlash to the over-inflated running shoe industry. McDougall even goes as far as to accuse Nike for the increase in running injuries with their invention of technical shoes. He argues that Nike’s increasingly cushioned and stability-oriented shoes have altered runners’ natural gait by encouraging them to run on their heels. While McDougal does not practice barefoot running himself, he does advocate a return to simpler, less technical (and therefore cheaper) running shoes.
Personally, as an avid runner for more than 30 years, I’ve always had more success with less technical shoes. In fact, after reading McDougall’s book, I put aside my $135 Mizuno Wave Creations with their revolutionary Infinity Wave™ cushioning and Sensorpoint™ suspension system and went back to my old, low-end Asic Landreths that I’d put out to pasture a couple of years ago. Much to my surprise, my nagging heel pain subsided despite the fact that my old shoes had seen many more than the 500 miles manufacturers claim is a running shoe’s maximum recommended lifespan.
During my quest for relief from my heel pain I also spent $50 on a pair of barefoot science insoles. Unlike most arch-supporting inserts, the barefoot science insoles come with a progressive arch-building system in the middle of the foot. Problem is, you cannot wear any other orthotic device with them. As someone who wears a simple rubber heel lift in my right shoe to correct a leg length discrepancy, I was only able to wear the insoles if I wore one in my right shoe and none in my left, which felt strange to say the least and perhaps caused me more harm than good.
Ironically, it was only when I returned to a pair of old shoes with regular ol’ insoles and my heel lift that I was able to run normally again. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it I always say when it comes to running.
While barefoot running may have its benefits, it isn’t for everyone. Some of us with leg-length discrepancies or fallen arches or those who have run for more than 20 years with high tech shoes may be in for a rude awakening and injuries if they suddenly shuck their shoes. Even the proponents of barefoot running recommend you start slowly and gradually build up your off-shoe running mileage. The Tarahumara Indians may run barefoot with great success, but they grow up running shoeless. For them, suddenly running in shoes may be as potentially harmful as those of us who’ve worn shoes for many years to run without them.