To Ditch the Shoes or Not

When I was younger, I loved running barefoot on the beaches of Connecticut. As I got older and started competing would often train without shoes for the cross-country season. Those runs were the hardest, yet most enjoyable times of my life.

Extreme effort and immense pleasure seem to be strange companions. I can recall even as a youngster, sneaking onto private golf courses with friends. We would take our shoes off so to not disturb the grass but there was also this wild sensation of freedom that accompanied running at night without shoes on.

We are not innovators when it comes to running barefoot. There are several famous runners who came before us. Abebe Bikila, arguably the greatest Olympic marathon runner, was an Ethiopian athlete who in 1960 won the first of his many consecutive gold medals, setting a world record of 2:15:17 all without shoes on. John J. Kelley, an American, also finished that race in a respectable time, 19th overall in 2:24:58. He recollections of that torchlit race still reverberate:

“In he ancient Appian Way, we ran on these huge, rounded stones that did not give way to us. They were completely unyielding. I do not know how Bikila did it, I was so scared of slamming down on those stones too hard.”

Bruce Tulloh, of England, was also making and breaking his own records all over Europe from 1955 to 1967. He ran three miles on grass in 13:12 and six miles in 27:33 on cinders, all in bare feet. He went on live a fulfilling life but even at 68 he would still run barefoot and would say, “The only reason more people do not run without shoes is because they are afraid to be unconventional.”

That statement does not apply to Charlie “Doc” Robbbins or Zola Budd, who both were advocates of barefoot running. Robbins won two US National Marathon Championships in the 1940s and completed 50 Thanksgiving Day Road Races held in Manchester, Connecticut before he retired from competitive running about two years ago. Robbins in a testament to shoeless running, each Thanksgiving he would be barefoot except when the temperature dropped below 20 degrees, then he would resort to a pair of socks.

Zola Budd set a world track record in January 1984. At only 16 years old, she ran 5000 meters in South Africa in 15:01.83. Mary Decker held the previous record, but Budd beat her record in more than six seconds. Unfortunately, Budd is best known for her collision with Decker in the 3000 race at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, California.

The fascination with barfoot running seemed to temper, that is until 2001. Michael Warburton a physical therapist from Australia, and a marathoner, published this essay titled, “Barefoot Running”. He cites that the extra weight of shoes on the feet is much worse than an additional pound or two around your mid-section. The weight that is on your feet is subject to strides or acceleration and deceleration, which expend a lot of energy. Warburton suggests that research has demonstrated that 100 grams of additional weight on the feet will decrease your running economy by one percent. If you apply simple math, you will see that two, 10 ounce shoes will make a runner more than five percent less efficient. That may not seem like a lot, but when you consider Paul Tergat’s world record of 2:04:55, that makes him marathon record, 2:11 if he had on shoes. That is the difference between finishing first or tenth.

However, most do not think about running economy when purchasing a new pair of running shoes. Our first consideration is protection, from the elements and from harmful objects. We then look for cushioning and motion control so to prevent injury. However, there is no real scientific proof that shoes are a big evolution from the naked foot.

To learn what is going on inside the body of a runner, medical teams need to take measurements from, well, inside the body. This helps to determine stress fractures, Achilles strains, and so on. This research goes on in biometrics labs and some findings point to little change in shock absorption or motion control in the foot of a person wearing shoes or a bare-foot person.

So what does that mean? Of course all that padding and dual-density midsoles have to accomplishing something right? Yes, they are, but it is not the foot, it is the mind. It is called as Warburton puts in “perceptual illusion” of running shoes.

When you run barefoot, your body engages the complete body, from your brain, vision, muscles, bones, tendons, the supporting structures of your legs and feet, to the soles of your feet. When you are running barefoot, all of these parts of the body work together to give you a high degree of protection from the forces and varied pressures of running.

Conversely, when you run in shoes, socks, outsoles, midsoles and the like, you body loses some of that communication. When you wear shoes, your body switches off some and your reaction time decreases. Humans have been walking the earth for millions of years before the invention of shoes, which contributes to the high IQ of barefeet.

This is not to say to throw out all of your running shoes. Besides quite a few podiatrists do not ascribe to the notion of running without shoes if you are not a world class runner. It just would not make sense to get glass or twigs or any other foreign object stuck in their feet. Stephen Pribut, DPM insists that some soft surfaces can increase plantar fascia and problems with the Achilles.

However, many coaches, physical therapists, and even podiatrists suggest that modern man spends entirely too much time in shoes and this can weaken leg and foot structures. The cure? Walk around barefoot around the house, run errands barefoot in safe, secure places, or do foot strengthening exercises.

On the market there is an invention called barefoot running shoes, which combines the protective covering for the feet but gives runners the benefit of running barefoot. So what is the best barefoot running shoes? Talk to experts in order to determine which shoes would best suit your needs. Many running stores can analyze your running technique and assist you with selecting a shoe.