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The Pitfalls of Running Barefoot Can Be Avoided

A cautionary tale about one runner’s experience without shoes.

In recent years, a revolution of sorts has slowly taken hold.  Inspired in large part by the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, in which a group of marathon runners travel to Mexico to take on a tribe of endurance athletes, people across the country have begun running barefoot.

They run barefoot not because the tribesmen or athletes in the book ran barefoot (most of them didn’t), but because one man did. His name was Barefoot Ted McDonald, and ran 50 miles through the most rugged terrain in the world sans footwear.

I tried to contact Barefoot Ted some time ago, but he very politely expressed his regrets that he had no desire to speak with me.  Nonetheless, I became quite inspired by his story and by another running guru, Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, so I decided to give it a try.

I set out on a sunny afternoon along my usual route of about 4 ½ miles.  I felt great while being careful to run on the balls of my feet so there would be less impact on my knees and more fatigue in my calves. The change in my running style activated muscles not typically engaged.  I felt inspired and invigorated by the change, but ended up tearing my feet to absolute ribbons.

After the run, I hobbled around for days in Neosporin-covered feet, barely able to walk. My pain inspired a mixture of sympathy from my wife, and also a great deal of laughter, as I acknowledged that, of all the stupid things I’ve done (and there have been many), running 4 ½ miles barefoot ranks somewhere near the top.

I spoke with Rodney Wells, who leads a group called Barefoot Runners of Northern Virginia and DC.

“Well, I’d say the first thing you did wrong was running 4 miles,” he said.  “That’s a little too ambitious.”

Wells recommends starting small.  “When I began running barefoot I started by doing a minute or so at the end of my runs.  I did that for a week, then moved to two and three minutes, slowly building up to where I could run distances.  You also can use minimalist shoes, like Vibram FiveFingers or Huaraches, and then slowly transition over.”

The benefits, as Wells described them, include a resistance to injury and super feet.  

“My feet are tougher, but they aren’t calloused.  When you run barefoot the ground serves as a pumice stone, which makes your feet very smooth.  My plantar fascia has gotten much tougher and more resilient as well.”

Having run for a long time, I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie runners tend to share.  Though running is essentially a solitary pursuit, wherein each runner is lost in his or her own world of effort and sometimes pain, we still share a nod and a grunted “Hello” when we pass one of our own.

Not when you’re barefoot, though.  Instead, there’s an awkward meeting of eyes, followed by a glance downward and an embarrassed look away, as if I’m shaming the other runners I see, or they think I’m an utter lunatic.

Stephanie Dupal-Demartin August 12, 2011 at 09:29 PM
Mike: Please join the Lake Ridge RidgeRunners; we promise not to look at anyone's feet! We have a few club members who wear their Five Fingers quite proudly. You can find our website easily by doing an Internet search. (To Patch editors: Not certain what Patch policies are regarding the inclusion of a web address in the comment section. We are a local non-profit community organization.)
Gi Jo September 07, 2011 at 07:56 PM
I was never a runner per se, but when I started running barefoot two years ago (transitioning with Vibram Sprints) I realised I was able to go distances never before ventured. After rupturing my Achilles tendon earlier this year, I find it hard to wear shoes, much less walk in them, but already I can jog and run (albeit a hobbled run) barefoot again. Now, I live everyday either barefoot or in flip-flops - work play life - everything. I also continue to benefit from stronger and better feeling soles. And yes, I too enjoy the looks of other health nuts who haven't discovered the primal way.

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