Barefoot Running

I began my running career early, alternatively tagging along to and getting carried along to family running events.  I have fond memories of being the target of flying tortillas at many Bay to Breakers.  On my Dad’s shoulder before the start of the run I became known as “the Kid” and the running was entirely secondary to the preceding tortilla warfare.  My memories of the half and full marathons to which I was “encouraged” to attend are less fond.  Generally, my Dad ran the full, my mother and sister ran the half, and at 10 years old I keep up as best as I could.

My strength on the high school cross-country team was as a hill climber.  I was not at the top of the team, though I did run varsity though junior and senior years.  My best 3 mile race was at an average 5.30 minute/mile.  I disappointed my coaches and my parents when I walked off the team midway through the Fall of my senior year.  I left because I was bored with the limits of running.  I had had just about enough of “run faster.”

That ending was the beginning of a very exciting and eclectic movement education.  I studied fencing, rock-climbing, a couple of martial forms, a variety of dance forms, and numerous circus apparatus.  I have since performed in dance and in circus.

Years later, I’ve been drawn back to running.  Leaps on a ballet dance floor leave me anxious to get out and take up even more space leaping on mountain trails.  My answer to the ubiquitous smoking breaks outside every dance studio I’ve experienced is to go for a run.  The difference is how I think about running.  I still like moving fast and I’m still an endorphin junkie but I don’t run for the sake of running anymore.

I purchased my first pair of Vibram 5-finger 12 months ago after reading this article from the New York Times magazine.  I have always been an advocate of barefootedness.  Early in high school I studied abroad in Costa Rica and walked and ran barefoot after discovering that my performance running shoes offered no traction in the mud.

I had no trouble adapting to my new Vibram Five-Fingers probably because I’ve always enjoyed using my toes.  A traditional Anat Baniel Method/Feldenkrais Method exercise consists of gently interlacing toes with the fingers of the opposite hand.  (Go really slowly, don’t insert fingers in a way that causes pain!)  The mobility of my feet were dramatically altered as a result of an hour spend doing variations on this theme.  An interesting fact: young children often have the dexterity to interlace the toes of their feet just as we interlace our fingers.  It is something I aspire to.

The Vibrams were great for walking down San Francisco streets.  This was just before the shoes hit mainstream shops and I got into all sorts of interesting conversations with people who wondered what in the world I had on my feet.  The downside I’ve discovered to Vibram Five-Fingers is the same that I encounter with running shoes.  I still can’t feel the floor.  Especially during winter months when trails are wet and muddy there just isn’t enough sensation, my toes can’t dig it.  I still tend to take my Vibrams off halfway though a run and continue barefoot.

I’ve recently learned of a new shoe-less product that may enter the market.  Nike has come up with what they are calling “Foot stickers,” rubber/plastic patches that fit on parts of the bottom of the foot and act as second skin.  I haven’t (yet) managed to find a pair to try but I like the idea in principle.  There are a couple of varieties depending on activity: yoga, dance, cardio.  More samples and the article here.

I haven’t seen many shoe-less alternatives available.  A simple, though pessimistic, explanation: running shoe manufactures have a market cornered and don’t want to let it go.  There is more money in telling customers that a new shoe will solve the problem than in telling them to take off those shoes and walk/run barefoot.

My own shift away from regular shoes has resulted in an increase in my awareness of my feet throughout my daily life.  By increasing the demand on my nervous system during a run I feel as if I’m actually increasing the use of my feet throughout my life.

I attended Anat Baniel’s Move Into Life workshop in July 2009.  Michael Merzenich, PhD and noted neuroscientist was in attendance and gave a short talk.

To summarize Merzenich says that walking around barefoot increases demand on the brain, which in turn improves performance.  I have mulled his discussion over since July of 2009 and taken my running to a new, logical level in recent months.  I’ve found running barefoot on a university track to be painful and it isn’t always possible to find trails.  The city streets of San Francisco pose a threat to the barefoot runner.  I resort to running barefoot on a treadmill.  Now that I’ve thought of it, this seems completely logical.  Running shoes we built to keep our feet safe.  The gait-path of a treadmill doesn’t pose significant threat of rock or used needle; in other words we would be hard pressed to find a safer environment on which to run.  Thus far I haven’t been ordered off a treadmill as a result of my barefoot running. I do get strange looks.

Another new discovery resulting from my own barefoot exploration is related directions in research.  It turns out that Harvard has a lab dedicated to the topic of barefoot running.  (

This skeletal biology lab asks “how and why humans can and did run comfortably without modern shoes”.  They compare native peoples from various parts of the world who have never worn shoes with long-time barefoot runners and gym-going shoe-wearing runners.  The most informative piece of this website for me was that of children running in African whose feet seem to slap the ground.  The muscular tonus of their feet is pretty minimal and they seem very light and easy on their feet as they run.

Try an experiment: Choose your dominant hand. Bend your arm at the elbow, leaving the elbow on the ground.  Relax your wrist so your hand hangs limp.  Raise your hand and forearm like this six inches or a foot off the ground and let it fall.  Don’t throw it at the ground, just let it fall.  Do this several times.  After: do you notice a difference between your dominant hand, the one you let fall, and your non-dominant hand?  I’ve been trying to run using my feet like this.  Literally letting my feet falls towards the ground as I run.  It takes some practice but if the Harvard Skeletal lab is to be delivered, running barefoot requires on average 7% less energy than running in shoes, and is significantly less likely to cause long-term damage to the runner.

Something to consider…