by Carl Strang
On a warm day in late September I noticed some footprints in the dust of the trail that skirts May’s Lake. There were mallard tracks.
I also saw plenty of human footprints, including a set left by someone who had gone barefoot.
This brought a smile, as it reminded me of an experiment I have begun on myself. For most of my life, running has been my primary exercise. I began to experience joint problems in my late 20’s that first ended my marathoning and, progressively, made my workout runs shorter and less regular. Finally, 5 or 6 years ago, I switched over to bicycling. I enjoy riding the bike, and the range it has given me has contributed data to my singing insects study. At heart I am a runner, however, and in winter my exercise regime has been dominated by boring indoor workouts on the bike trainer with a precious 3-mile run on the indoor track every third day.
One day this summer, on one of my many drives home from Indiana, I heard a radio interview that I hope will prove a turning point. One of the panel members was athletics author Christopher McDougall, who was arguing with born-again fervor for the benefits of running barefoot. The hour-long program intrigued me enough to find McDougall’s book, Born to Run, at the local library. It’s a very entertaining read about very interesting people that I think even non-runners would enjoy.
It turns out that there is an ongoing argument in the running community and associated sports medicine community about the pros and cons of barefoot running. I have found a lot of passionate absolutism on both sides of this debate. The center of the notion of barefoot running is not, in my view, going barefoot per se, but rather a different style of running. The conventional view, which suited me fine when I was young, is to run with long powerful strides, landing on the heel and pushing off with the ball of the foot or the toe. Running shoes have the role of cushioning the impact of footfalls and of keeping the feet in proper alignment with the ground and the direction of travel. Barefoot running proponents point out that landing on the heel sends a jarring shock through the body and has a braking effect in each stride. This makes sense, I think, and I suspect that this indeed was a major source of my trouble.
Barefoot running technique calls for shorter, quicker strides in a smoother, more flowing style. The critical point, and the source of the debate, is the feature of landing on the ball of the foot and not coming down hard on the heel at all. Barefoot running proponents say this takes advantage of the innate elasticity of the arch of the foot, the Achilles tendon, calf and other leg muscles to absorb the lighter landing and propel the next step without the braking effect of the heel landing. Barefoot running opponents say this puts undue, injury-causing stress on the Achilles tendon and arch of the foot. Extreme proponents say everyone should go barefoot. Extreme opponents say no one should. Hence my experiment-on-self.
This is a pair of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes. They are cursed by barefoot running opponents, but praised by proponents as the closest thing to true barefoot running one can have while still wearing a protective sole. I bought them in part because I plan to try running in them when I move to the indoor track, and in part because I just think they’re cool. They are like socks, with separate pockets for each toe, and a thin but tough sole.
I accept that barefoot running probably isn’t for everyone, but that it is the best way to go for some. I have reason to believe that I might fall into the latter category. Ever since my brief martial arts study and the classes I took at the Tom Brown school I have gone barefoot around the house and, often, out in the yard (my taking out the trash barefoot in snow has raised neighbors’ eyebrows). Even in shoes I have been placing my weight and my footfalls in the balls of my feet for decades, now. In a sense I have been preparing myself for a try at extending this to running.
Starting in September I have resumed running, using the barefoot technique and very gradually increasing distance and frequency of runs. I have been wearing my standard running shoes, but thanks to my long experience in placing my weight in the balls of my feet I think I am coming close enough to the barefoot technique for now. It is clear that, at least at the low 2-to-3-mile distances I have been running, my recovery time is much quicker than it was when I ran conventionally. It is in fact comparable to the overnight recovery from bicycling. At this point I am running 4 days per week for a total of 8-9 miles. By November 7, when the time change and concomitant darkness nudges me indoors, I plan to be running 2 out of 3 days with a weekly total of 14 miles. At that point I’ll try parts of the indoor runs in the new shoes. If all goes well I hope by winter’s end to be running 3 out of 4 days with 21 miles per week. This is pathetic by my old standards, but an enormous improvement over recent years. Bicycling at that point will be valued cross training. From there, if I succeed in reaching that point, we’ll see how it goes.