Running with Sole
by Zach Ashby
I saw her out of the corner of my eye and knew she was going to stop, just like I sometimes know a car is about to cut me off on the interstate. The important difference in this case was that she was driving a golf cart as part of her job as maintenance personnel for our housing community, and I was running- barefoot.
Though it may draw condemning stares and unwanted solicitations of help from well-intentioned people everywhere, barefoot running has become one of the most talked about issues in exercise fitness since the publication of Christopher McDougal’s Born to Run (2009). Now, for those who follow almost any health magazine or blog, the previously unknown names of Barefoot Ted and el Caballo Blanco may sound familiar.
For those outside the running and exercise world, the trend must seem unhealthy at best and downright insane at worse. After all, why would someone living in twenty-first century America venture outside without the protection of even a modest pair of sneakers? There may, in fact, be some very good reasons.
Imagine for a moment the most beneficial form of exercise in terms of amount of calories used over time, add to that being able to use even more muscle groups, and the result is barefoot running. The argument stands that modern shoes inhibit certain muscle groups from being used in the feet and lower legs — similar to wearing a brace all the time. Going without shoes helps work these muscles, thus providing for greater strength, balance, and agility in one’s feet.
Practitioners of barefoot running claim further benefits over their shod counterparts (the term for those who wear running shoes). The human foot is full of nerve endings. The double-edged sword of high sensitivity causes pain for those virgin “barefooters” and provides an instant feedback and information superhighway to the brain that changes the way the body moves while exercising. The more efficient form that results helps to prevent, and in some cases heals injuries from sore knees to plantar fasciitis. If you dare to talk to barefoot runners long enough, you will hear the miracle stories of being able to run again after years of painful conditions and expensive medical bills.
As a result of research into barefoot running, today’s running shoe market has undergone a so-called paradigm shift in the last five years. Since the 1960s, the general idea has been to prevent injury and improve performance through more and more shoe. Hence the creation of the “stability” shoe and the artificial correction of such physiological characteristics as “over” pronation (the foot bends out on push off and “over” supination — the foot bends in). These natural positions, however, rarely need any correction. In fact, your body has probably already sufficiently adjusted to any “abnormalities” all on its own.
Currently, big-named companies like Nike and New Balance are developing lines of minimalist shoes. These light weight innovations offer much less corrective features than in the past. The first shoe to claim to allow the foot natural motion was the Nike Free in 2004. Other companies have followed and now there are many options on the market from large and small companies alike. The shoe to benefit most: Vibram Five Fingers line. These shoes are little more than a rubber sole that fit around the foot like a glove — almost literally, with a separate sleeve for each toe.
I recommend any interested individuals to treat barefoot running like weight training. Going to the gym and trying to bench press 200 lbs. your first night would more likely than not be a bad idea for most people. Only going to the gym on a regular basis would allow you to gain those burly biceps you have been craving since middle school. The same applies to barefoot running. If you regularly run five miles on any given day, trying this barefoot will result in supreme unhappiness.
Because your feet are so complex and composed of so many different kinds of tissue (nerves, skin, tendons, muscle, bone, etc.), you must allow time for them to adapt to anything new. This goes especially for the modern individual who enjoys trotting in supportive shoes, gallivanting with gel inserts, or strutting in high heels. The skin on the bottom of your feet needs time to thicken. Your nerves need to stop registering each step as pain. You muscles need time to grow and stretch. Running on grass can help, but it can also lessen the benefits of running without shoes since the soft grass can act very similar to soft shoes.
As with life, you should walk before you run. Walking can provide many of the benefits of running without the risk of increased stress. Walk barefoot a few minutes a day until you feel you can take a little bit more. Then run for 15 seconds and walk a minute, slowly increasing the time you run over the course of several weeks. With patience and consistency, you will find that your feet and calves are stronger, your running form better and more efficient, and the feeling of the ground beneath your feet more natural and relaxing. Even those used to running longer distances will find that their calves and feet (especially the arches) feel tired and sore. Excellent, you are doing it right. As long as the soreness does not turn into pain, keep at it.
You may not have the same experience I did my first time running barefoot. It does feel a little strange, as if you forgot to put on something really important before you left the house (like your pants). If you do, just smile back politely and tell the kind maintenance personnel “No, thank you. I did not lock myself out of the house. I am running around barefoot on purpose.” Sure, they will look a little confused, maybe shake their heads a little, but that is all part of the fun. Besides, you know that you are building a strong, healthy body.