Barefoot Believers: Running Without Shoes

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

Arms pumping, eyes scanning the ground ahead, Dean Laiti runs east on a sidewalk in St. Louis Park, Minn., his feet swishing like sandpaper on cement below. “Right over these tracks,” he shouts, making a quick turn to leap a railroad grade.

It’s a Tuesday evening in early June, and Laiti, a 48-year-old finance worker, has volunteered to teach me to run the way nature intended. That would mean barefoot — without shoes and striding, skin and toes to nothing but asphalt as we bound east toward the skyline of downtown Minneapolis beyond.

BarefootRunning(Dean Laiti\'sFoot)-W copy.jpg

Above: Laiti’s calloused feet are the result of thousands of miles run without shoes.

“Watch out for that gravel,” Laiti says, pointing to a bed of rocks beside the path. He runs feet gracing the ground, calloused pads contacting pavement in an almost soundless stride.

I tag behind, feet slapping, wincing as my toes tread on a medium I’ve heretofore reserved for rubber soles.

“You doing ok?” Laiti shouts, looking back.

Barefoot Heritage
Running barefoot was for many millennia the only way to get around, and the human foot — a biomechanical masterpiece of muscles, tendons and 26 bones — evolved to absorb weight and spring bodies in stride.

Historically, when shoes did come into play they were most often minimal, the likes of hide sandals and moccasins, made to insulate in the cold or protect skin from sharp objects beneath.

Then Nike came along.

“The phenomenon of cushioning in running shoes is a recent invention,” said Dr. Paul Langer, a podiatrist and marathon runner in Minneapolis. “We’re now seeing that all the innovations pushed for years by Nike, Adidas, et al., may not be better than a naturally functioning foot.”

Langer, who works at Minnesota Orthopaedic Specialists and is a clinical faculty member at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said misinformation in the 1980s started the myth that cushioning in shoes is always better. “It became more about marketing and less about biomechanics,” he said.

The result was shoes with gel pockets, air pumps, exaggerated arch support and even computer chips. But the innovation backfired with many runners, Langer said, adding weight to shoes and promoting an unnatural gait where the heel — not the forefoot — was made to absorb impact on each stride.

Langer saw injuries ranging from shin splints to tweaked knees, often the maladies originating at least in part from bad form and pavement pounding in shoes that disabled the natural flex of the foot.

Five-Toed Renaissance
Beginning in the last five years — due to new research and consumer demand — companies started selling shoes that give control back to the foot.

Nike’s Free shoe line, as one example, attempts to mimic the manner of a bare sole striking earth, eliminating arch support and reducing heel padding to provide a pliable sole that lets the foot flex.

On the extreme end, Vibram, an Italian company, released its FiveFingers “foot glove” in 2006 with articulated toes and a thin sole.

Vibram FiveFingers Running Shoes

Above: Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes are one extreme in “barefoot-style” footwear.

With or without shoes on, the technique of landing on your midfoot or forefoot instead of your heels is better on the body say running experts like Langer. “About 80 percent of runners land on their heels while wearing shoes,” he said. “But almost 100 percent of runners will land on their forefoot when going barefoot.”

For Ted McDonald of Seattle, Wash., the forefoot strike was a turning point in his running life. “It was close to a religious experience,” said McDonald, describing his first barefoot jog.

McDonald, 43, had struggled with back pain while running prior to taking his shoes off. But the barefoot style suited him so well that he went on to run several marathons sans shoes and created a website to blog on the topic, barefootted.com.

“The first day I went barefoot was the greatest run of my life,” McDonald said.

Test Run
On my run with Laiti “greatness” did not enter the vocabulary. It started out fine enough, with Laiti running and me following on a bike to get a glimpse of his technique. Then, after abandoning my shoes, I put pink soles to the paved path and followed as Laiti floated away.

A legend of sorts in local running circles, Laiti is known simply as “the barefoot guy,” according to Heidi Keller Miler of the Minnesota Distance Running Association. “He runs workouts, races, marathons — everything barefoot.”

Indeed, it was nearly 30 years ago when Laiti left his shoes behind for a run. “I do it because I can,” said the 115-pound runner. “It psyches people out.”

BarefootRunning(Dean Laiti-1)-W.jpg

Above: Laiti in action, running on asphalt during a three-mile training run.

He has trained several nights a week for decades, barefoot on pavement, grass and trails, from April to October most years. Obstacles including searing hot pavement in the summer, goose poop each fall, and glass on race courses have not slowed Laiti down. “I only complain when they re-tar a trail,” he said.

My leap into the barefooting game with Laiti — a 1.5-mile run on pavement and gravel — was perhaps an ambitious first go. We cranked quickly up to pace, running past a power-walking couple who squinted at our naked toes, my feet flapping on the path.

“Feeling anything?” Laiti asked.

I was. With each step my toes and forefeet pricked on grit and gravel. The asphalt was forgiving, smooth-feeling, actually, though bumps, cracks and any aberrations caused tension.

But the gait was easy and efficient, a short, quick stepping on the forefoot with little movement of the ankle and no employment of the heel. Laiti and I started to talk and I temporarily forgot about the situation underfoot.

Always in training mode, this October will mark Laiti’s 27th Twin Cities Marathon — all but a portion of one year’s race done without shoes. He runs shoulders back, confident, feet chalky and calloused from years on the run.

During my initiation run, Laiti and I went three-quarters of a mile before I noticed the blood. A pinky toe, worn through from pavement, dangled sad and injured, a flap of skin signaling my defeat. Pads behind my toes were turning red.

BarefootRunning(Author\'sFeet2)-W.jpg

Above: The author’s battered foot after a 1.5-mile barefoot run.

On the phone the following day, I told Dr. Langer about my mishap. He said most podiatrists would not recommend what I had done, listing skin injuries, stress factors and heel spurs as potential results. “I tell people to start gradually if they want to go barefoot and run on grass, never asphalt or cement,” he said.

Sitting in my office, bandaged feet propped up on a chair, I vowed next time to take the doctor’s advice.

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

Posted by Mark Griffith - 09/04/2008 01:43 PM

Fascinating. I’ll have to see if I can work up enough courage to try this out on a trail near my house.

mbg
——
http://www.flickr.com/photos/niffgurd

Posted by Brock Foreman - 09/04/2008 01:48 PM

I’ve found running barefoot about once a week or so keeps your feet invincible.

Posted by Harvey S. Cohen - 09/04/2008 07:45 PM

I’m a convert from super-padded Nike walking shoes, with many years of heel problems.
I’ve been wearing only “barefoot” shoes for about three months. I golf 2-3 times a week in my Vibram FiveFingers KSO’s (walking, of course). Contact with the grass is very sensual. The rest of the time I wear my FiveFingers Sprint’s or Flows, or my Viva Barefoots. Even a day on city pavement is better this way.

Posted by Graham Thompson - 09/05/2008 09:39 PM

I thought you might be interested in an article I wrote on this subject for Outdoor I (www.outdoori.com). I also have a science paper that highlights that feet are not well designed: “…we must admit that the modern foot of civilized man, as a perfect mechanical structure, is somewhat of an exception.”

There are a many scientific papers that highlight how poor the human foot is and indeed the fact that mens and womens feet and even left and right feet on most people are different shapes highlights that no foot is identical and therefore there cannot be a perfect pair of feet on anyone!

My own article makes a short overview of the information I could find on this subject. The point I wanted to make was that I think the outdoor industry needs to be very careful about promoting barefoot running or indeed the use on none supportive footwear and running without footwear at all may not be the an advised form of locomotion for many people.

Of course there will be exceptions to this overview and there will be those that can run happily barefoot and experience no adverse side effects. However to suggest that everyone should run barefoot and that the foot is perfectly designed (either through evolution or other method) does not appear to be supported by the current available scientific evidence.

Regards
Graham Thompson
Technical Editor
Trail Magazine

Posted by Claire Thompson - 09/08/2008 03:40 PM

Here’s some food for thought. If barefoot running is the ‘natural’ intended way to run then we would be running on soft trails and grass, not pavement! When cavemen ran around it was certainly not on surfaces like asphalt. The fact that our bodies must now adapt to these tougher surfaces has ramifications on the entire body from feet to knees to hips and back. We can’t expect that we can be the same as people who lived in an entirely different environment.

Posted by Barefoot Ted McDonald - 09/10/2008 12:28 PM

I am seeing a trend where folks who did NOT go barefoot as kids are having a lot more trouble transitioning to barefoot anything. I have a feeling that if you don’t USE it, you LOOSE it, and many grew up ALWAYS wearing shoes. A shame really.

I believe that if the foot is allowed to develop from infancy, it will become very strong and capable of doing many things that those of us who have always worn shoes see as nearly impossible.

The study that Graham writes about, I wonder whose feet they were looking at…those who had always worn shoes i.e., those with feet that had already atrophied and weakened?

And Claire mentions the environment of our ancestors being free of asphalt…well, nature has PLENTY of hard, tough and dangerous surfaces…surfaces that led to the development of footwear!

I am not against footwear…however, I do think that we need to avoid following the claims of junk science and mass marketing. After all, there does not seem to be a lot of great SCIENTIFIC research showing that heavy, overly padded othotic boot shoes help anyone. As a matter of fact, I have read about research that shows that those wearing footwear that cuts off the foot’s FEEL of the impact actually set the runner up to allow MORE impact forces to enter the body.

Think of shoes as pain killers…sure it feels better at first, but running without all the proprioceptive tools that you have been born with does not automatically make you safer…does it?

Finally, if you are going to try this, by all means start slow and build slowly…it may be the best fitness decision you make.

Best Regards, Barefoot Ted

Posted by Barefoot Rick Roeber - 09/20/2008 10:06 PM

Personally, I am of more toward Graham Thompson’s opinion that not everyone is blessed with the ability to run barefoot as I and a few others do. I don’t believe anyone can attest to having ran as many miles as I have barefoot in the past 5 years (over 12,000 miles), yet I understand that my ability to run dozens of marathons and to run daily barefoot is a special gift that I don’t believe everyone can do. (Currently, I hold the world’s record for the longest barefoot running streak [see http://barefootrunner.org].) I have a classic C shaped foot that allows excellent shock absorption. While I believe that everyone can benefit from some barefoot running, I believe that there are some of us that are just a little closer to that proverbial gene pool of our ancestors that allows for intense, long-distance barefoot running on a daily basis.

Posted by Andy - 09/25/2008 12:36 PM

I was recently contact by Tue Jepsen who runs a website dedicated this and related subjects. The website www.tjepster.com covers the subject of running barefoot or as close to it as possible. I’d like to see how our Darn Tough Vermont socks hold up to shoeless running…any takers?

Posted by Fergus Power - 05/13/2009 08:36 AM

Re Claire’s comment about “soft trails and grass”. That’s a rather idealised take on the earth’s surfaces. Having lived in Africa for years I can assure you that dry-season baked earth feels just as hard underfoot as tarmac or concrete, and trails are only soft when some kind person has swept them clean of stones, twigs, snails, then sanded off the edges and flattened out the bumps. (If anyone knows where to find such a trail please let me know.)

Posted by j - 03/25/2010 12:00 AM

Claire: I’ve been going barefoot (mostly just walking, I’m not a runner) for over a year, and concrete is actually pretty easy. Most of it is really smooth from people walking on it, and since your step is cushioned a lot from the extra ankle action, it’s just not very jarring, even when you run. I get way more beat up on hikes.
Google “desolation wilderness”.

Posted by Michael Curtis - 05/09/2010 12:20 AM

Nike free shoes have ended my jogging for the next week.

Personally I am sure it fine for some …. but it sucked for me.

Posted by Jim-Bob - 07/06/2010 09:31 AM

I’fe just gotten back into running after a 6-year lapse (due to knee surgery). I’ve been running in FiveFingers KSOs, and am astounded at the difference! My calf muscles have stopped screaming (after two weeks) and now only mutter frequently. Astoundingly, with a forefoot landing, instead of a heel landing, I’m feeling absolutely no pain in my knee! At some point I’m gonna try ‘real’ barefoot running, but for now, I love my FiveFingers!

Posted by Alex - 08/26/2010 08:00 AM

Interestingly, a lot of barefoot runners will tell you that you HAVE TO start on hard surfaces. That gets your body to adjust much faster to running barefoot, and everything starts to work properly. Running on soft grass of sand just makes you lazy.

The trick is just to take it slow: baby steps. As I’m sure the author found out :)

Posted by Alecia - 12/04/2010 02:56 PM

Growing up in the country, I rarely wore shoes in the summertime. I ran through fields and climbed trees all in my bare feet and never felt a thing. I should get my feet back to that level again.

Posted by Tamara - 08/11/2011 01:06 PM

I just started running in the last 6 months. I got totally hooked and then I needed knee surgery. After a couple months, I was finally able to start running again, slowly. I got up to 3 miles again and my knee started to speak up again. So I took off the shoes and started barefoot running since I had read about it. ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT. I had to start over again to work the new muscles in my leggs and now Im up to 3 miles again finally. I feel no pain in my knees or anywhere else for that matter, and it feel easier than before. I do not like hitting the rocks now and then so I broke down and bought some of the new Vibram Bikila LS shoes and love them. I still feel my natural foot running, without the rocks along the way to ruin it for me. I have always been a person who loves to spend my time barefoot in the summer time, so this has definately been a wonderful experience to run barefoot also. I would recommend everyone to try it at least once. Just dont over do it, you have to gradually work yourself into it or you could still hurt yourself, with or without shoes. Litterally, start at a half mile and thats it. Slowly add a tenth of a mile a week, to prevent injury and build your muscles, as you should with any excersize. Life is amazing, take advantage of it and live in the moment.

Posted by zoya - 04/03/2012 04:48 AM

Oh god! that must be hurting a lot while running, the pics shows it too. I don’t think that its good if something is hurting you so much. Biomechanical shoes

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