Barefoot running is in.
Back in the day — it would have been December of 1979 — when I first decided it was time to get up off the couch and make an effort to get rid of my 38-inch waist, just plain jogging was in, and running shoes were mandatory equipment. You would have as soon got out on the road without your Nikes, as you would without your pants.
There was never a question about whether to wear shoes; the only question was what kind best suited your own particular biomechanics. Running shoes, expensive running shoes, provided both necessary support and surefire protection from injury.
Besides, what lunatic was going to run barefoot over rocks and through the mud, over glass and ice and snow and all of the assorted detritus that graced the highways and byways most of us budding runners found ourselves frequenting?
Turns out, if Jason Robillard and a growing list of true believers are right, the real lunatics were those of us who had been brainwashed by shoe company propaganda. The time has come to get those feet out in the air. Runners need to be re-educated.
What Jim Fixx did for running, someone needs to do for barefoot running and Robillard is the man for the job, hopefully without Fixx’s ironic conclusion. His book, The Barefoot Running Book: The Art and Science of Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe Running, explains the benefits of barefoot running and outlines a program for those of us looking to give it a try.
Beginning with the assumption that most, if not all running injuries result from athletic shoes, he cites studies that demonstrate that the rate of running injuries was lower before the advent of modern running shoes, that the more expensive the shoe, the more likely the injury, and that current research on shod verses barefoot running injury rates, while ongoing, seems to support running barefoot.
The design of the traditional running shoe, with its elevated heel and excess cushioning, fosters an unnatural stride that is bound to lead to the laundry list of foot and leg injuries that runners have been heir to.
Barefoot running done right is the answer, and while Robillard allows that there are other guides to doing it right, he offers his own advice as one good way to first get started and then get serious. The biggest problem for experienced runners shedding their shoes is “too much too soon.” Runners used to high-mileage workouts need to cut down. They can’t simply take off their shoes and run the same workouts they’ve been used to. Of course telling a running fanatic to cut down on his mileage is like telling a lion to lay off meat; good luck with that.
Start slowly. Build gradually. Take rest days. Get your feet used to different terrains. His advice, when it comes right down to it, is pretty much the advice most traditional running manuals give — just without shoes. He does explain away many of what would seem to be the obvious problems inherent in barefoot running — glass, rocks, ice, heated pavement, and so on.
Despite what conventional wisdom might suggest, none of these things, it seems, pose significant peril. It is merely a matter of keeping one’s eyes on the road and getting one’s feet used to what might be strewn there. Take it slow and be careful and you too can run everything from a 5K to an ultra-marathon, just like Robillard and the gaggle of barefoot enthusiasts whose encomiums he inserts throughout the book.
While what he has to say is interesting, the real question is whether it is true. Most of the evidence he cites is anecdotal, based on his own experience and that of other enthusiasts. It is not exactly scientifically rigorous. However, much of what runners have been traditionally told about running shoes has been based on what seems to be the same kind of evidence. Give barefoot running 20 or so years and a large sample of practitioners, and then perhaps we’ll have a better handle on whether it is indeed everything that Robillard and his ilk think it is.
The book includes training schedules for running races, cross training exercises complete with pictures, an annotated list of barefoot running enthusiasts, and a list of resources available for further help. There is also a lengthy section describing Robillard’s experience at the Hallucination 100 Mile Run, which he seems to have completed using minimalist shoes rather than barefoot, but 100 miles is 100 miles, so perhaps it is mean-spirited to quibble.