Runners all over the world are bucking the traditional cushioning and orthotics of athletic shoes in favor of taking it all off – their feet, that is. Inspired in part by Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run,” which chronicles the Tarahumara Indians’ ability to run long distances (injury-free) this way, the barefoot trend is gaining in popularity yet remains widely-debated.
Medical minds are divided and the jury’s still out in the running community, but thanks to the endorsement of a few top athletes who swear by going bare, many weekend warriors are wondering whether or not they should join in on the ‘bare boom.’ But while the allure of improved running form, fewer impact injuries and better balance makes trying barefoot running seem like a no-brainer, there are a few potential dangers to consider, such as hygiene issues, overuse injuries and protection from sharp objects and extreme climates.
As with any new athletic endeavor, the best approach is always to keep an open mind, take it slow and see what works for you. Every runner’s body mechanics are as unique as individual fingerprints, which means there’s no telling how your body will react and which combination of benefits and/or drawbacks you’ll experience. So if you decide to go bare, keep these five tips in mind:
- Consider your environment: Where and when you run barefoot is very important, so be sure to protect feet properly in extremes and take precautions that correspond to the area in which you’re running – whether it’s urban, suburban or rural. Running on a variety of surfaces is also advisable; training on hard, rough surfaces toughens feet and teaches you to run lightly to minimize impact, while soft surfaces are a welcome respite during the transition. Get creative and widen your repertoire of surfaces, including beaches (hard and soft sand), sports fields, running tracks, parks (pavement and grass), trails and sidewalks.
- Ease in with a minimalist shoe: If you’re not ready to completely lose your shoes (like me), try minimalist footwear that gives the feeling of a bare foot with the benefit of some light support and protection. Fila recently introduced a model for men, women and kids called Skeletoes, which retails for around $50-60 and is more of a lifestyle shoe that will help you ease into the trend. Reminiscent of water shoes with a comfy, neoprene-like upper, plus an “EZ-Slide” to give the smallest two toes one pocket for ease of entry, they are a great alternative to heavily-cushioned sneakers.
- Allow for a transition period of strengthening and conditioning: As tough as all runners like to think they are, everyone making the shift to barefoot will need to be patient as the body adjusts to this new activity. Not only will new muscles and ligaments come into play (you’ll find this out in the form of soreness the day after a run), but feet also need time to toughen up. Avoid doing too much too soon, instead adding short bursts of barefoot during or at the end of your current routine, which will decrease the chances of short-term injury.
- Gradually increase time and distance, while adjusting form: Barefoot doesn’t translate into “injury-free,” so it’s important to take things slow and build a solid foundation on which you re-work your running style. Switch from barefoot intervals during workouts to entire runs with your feet in the buff, working up to as many days running ‘footloose and sneaker-free’ as you are comfortable. Remember to limit painful heel strike and, again, to run on a variety of surfaces because hard promotes form, while soft allows for recovery.
- Above all, use common sense: Barefoot running is not for everyone, so listen to your body and stop if you’re noticing more drawbacks than benefits. Avoid barefoot running if you have had serious injuries such bone fractures, bone disorders such as arthritis or conditions such as diabetes, which may limit the ability to feel foot pain. Older runners should also use caution due to possible issues resulting from the receding fat pads of the balls of the feet. And, finally, don’t forget to consult your physician before starting any new exercise regimen.
For more information on “Born to Run,” visit Amazon.com. For details on Fila’s Skeletoes shoes, visit Fila.com or purchase them locally at JCPenney at the Eastridge Shopping Center in San Jose.