Barefoot running is a controversial topic. I first tried it last summer and I plan to get into it more seriously now that the weather is warming up.
The running shoe industry is a multi-billion dollar jackpot that has grown exponentially ever since Bill Bowerman invented the first running shoe. Because they are relatively new inventions, it is not yet clear whether running shoes have been able to live up to their grand claims of preventing injury and helping us run better. Barefoot runners are adamant that running shoes not only fail to live up to their claims, but that they actually cause us harm.
I love my Asics but when I run barefoot, it just feels better. I still strongly encourage people to invest in proper footwear because unfortunately I live in a country where it is impossible to run barefoot outdoors throughout the year. However, my minimal experience with barefoot running so far has been amazing.
When I run barefoot, my form changes. I am not tempted to land improperly with a heel strike. Instead, I land mid-foot and use my toes to push off. I can tell by the distribution of the dirt on my feet post-run (I forgot to take a picture but I will next time) that my arch never touches the ground and my heel never holds my full weight. My stride is shorter but quicker. Coincidentally, this is supposedly how Kenyans train to run.
While barefoot, different muscles are activated as my body automatically works harder to protect my knees and ankles. After my very first barefoot run, my calves were sore in places where I didn’t even know I had muscle. I believe that it is the development and activation of these muscles that have helped keep me injury-free for so long.
The foot itself has 20 muscles that work in unison to expand and contract every time we take a step, and one quarter of the bones in the entire human body are found in our feet (26 of them). Our foot contains 33 joints and it is malleable. It will take the shape of our footwear over time, often to our own detriment. Most people have never actually seen a natural foot.
I came across the following pictures on Tim Ferriss’ blog. They’re from a 1905 study published in the American Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery:
This is a natural foot. Note the straight line that passes through the middle of the heel, straight through a natural arch, and through to the middle of the big toe. There’s a highly efficient running foot for you.
By comparison, our own feet are shaped by our footwear. Enter pain and discomfort and long term foot problems.
After seeing these pictures I literally took a ruler to my bare feet and ran that same line from my heel to my big toe. The line on my foot is still straight, which makes me happy. I’ve always gone barefoot as often as possible, but I never had a real reason to other than it just plain feels good. I don’t do heels at all.
The truth is that humans have been running long distances in bare feet for centuries, and continue to do so in many parts of the world. Anthropologist believe that our ancestors depended on long distance running in order to survive and hunt using a technique called persistence hunting. Today, not many people would consider humans a match against any animal in a race, but if you’re talking about longer distances, humans actually have the advantage.
Running on two feet is more efficient over time than running on four legs. Our hairless, sweating bodies allow us to last longer than an animal who must stop to cool down. We have hands that can carry water to replenish us whereas animals are again forced to stop.
A deer and a decently fit man, Lieberman discovered, trot at almost an identical pace, but in order to accelerate, a deer goes anaerobic, while the man remains in an oxygenated jogging zone. The same is true for horses, antelopes, and a slew of other four-legged creatures. Since animals can run anaerobically only in short bursts before they must slow down to recover, a human in pursuit may have the final advantage. And because quadrupeds can’t pant while they run, they also quickly overheat. To run down dinner, Lieberman realized, might simply have been a matter of spurring the poor beast into a sprint enough times to make it collapse from hyperthermia.
Persistence hunting is essentially running an animal to death. You have to see it to believe it. In this youtube video summary (7 mins) of a David Attenborough documentary, you can watch a man outrun a kodu antelope in an 8 hour race, ultimately killing it at close range.
I have always strongly supporting listening to your body and trusting your instincts regardless of the latest health claims and trends. My instincts have never failed me yet, and running barefoot for me feels right. Plus it makes me happy in a Jane of the jungleish sort of way.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t proceed with caution. We are coming from a culture that has put us in shoes since before we could even walk. Old habits die hard and our feet are sure to feel the change.
In future, I plan to proceed slowly but persistently towards barefoot running. Then in a few years I’m going to get myself to Africa and find some decent hunting grounds. I’ll make myself some kind of loincloth and tie my hair back in a high ponytail with a stray tree root. Then with flushed cheeks and iron calves, I’m going to chase me down my very first antelope.