During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I saw a guy running, barefoot, on concrete. Beyond thinking, “What is this guy thinking?,” I wondered if he was up to date on his tetanus shots, the size of the calluses he must surely have on the bottom of his feet, and when he was going to get a stress fracture, if he didn’t have one already.
Once I was sure I wasn’t in the midst of a Portlandia episode, I remembered that I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on barefoot running.
Nowadays, most people perform “barefoot running” with shoes on. Sometimes they wear shoes that have “fingers” (Has anyone other than me wondered why don’t they call them Vibram 5 Toes?). Although these shoes are incredibly not sexy, I’m told they’re very comfortable and possibly a good form of birth control. I don’t understand how the manufacturers account for the different lengths of people’s phalanges (i.e. toes), but then again, I couldn’t get past the idea that they look like hobbit feet to try on a pair.
Hey Vibram - they're toes, not fingers.
But back to running. There are a lot of arguments out there for barefoot running. Being barefoot builds the strength in the intrinsic (small) muscles of your feet. It strengthens your body from your toes to your hips. It stands to reason that barefoot running is a natural thing and natural generally equals “good for you.”
Here’s the “but.” Although we were built to be barefoot, we weren’t built to run barefoot on concrete. Or asphalt, cement, or any other rock-hard manmade material covering the earth today. Plus, most people who set out on a barefoot running program have weak feet and ankles, coddled by padded tennis shoes for their entire running career. Many of them have crammed their feet into too tight shoes since they took their first step. The bones of their feet don’t move properly, and it would take significant rehab to build strength that could withstand barefoot running as it’s truly meant to be done – on grass or dirt – let alone running on concrete.
What are the doctors seeing? Stress fractures, pulled calf muscles, Achilles tendonitis…
Barefoot running experts encourage people to build up slowly (allowing the foot to strengthen) before running long distance. I’ll add to that – if you choose barefoot running, find a trail to run. “Natural” running has no place in our unnatural city environment.