Kick off your pricey sports shoes and rediscover the joys of running barefoot

Some runners are tossing aside their cushioned, springy, supportive running shoes in favour of running barefoot. Others are opting for minimalist shoes that amount to thin-soled gloves for the feet. Barefoot running has been around awhile, but the best-selling book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, is largely credited with prompting a new barefoot boom.

The book paints a rich profile of the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people in Mexico known for their ability to run long distances in thin sandals without getting injured. The book not only explores the history and culture of the Tarahumara but also examines the physiology and evolution of running. But it is McDougall’s conclusions about running shoes that have helped generate renewed interest in barefoot running and a backlash against traditional running shoes. He makes the case that modern running shoes warp our natural stride, encourage bad form and lead to injuries.

The first step

Curious, and admittedly dubious, I decided to invite McDougall for a run to see what all the fuss is about.

Sitting outside New York’s Central Park, McDougall had a different idea: Lose the shoes and hit the pavement. “The hard, man-made surfaces are like cream,” he reassured me. “It’s Nature you’ve got to watch out for, because Nature’s got acorns and rocks and things.”

I agreed to give it a try. But what about broken glass and other sharp objects? “I’ve got this special equipment I like to use — eyeballs.”

We started slowly, running back and forth on some side paths off Central Park’s main loop. My running form changed immediately. I was landing gently on the middle and balls of my feet rather than striking with my heel. I was more upright than before. My stride was shorter. I didn’t make any changes consciously; they just seemed to happen on their own.

“When I wear shoes I get really sloppy, my form is all over the place. When I’m in my bare feet, I’m instantly reminded how to get upright and how to have a quick, light landing,” said McDougall.

Now it was time for a real run. McDougall wore a small backpack that held his Vibram Five Fingers, thin rubber shoes with toe pockets. I held on to my running shoes, one in each hand, figuring I would put them on after running barefoot for a few minutes. We set out.

The comments started right away. A man off on the side of the road yelled out, in the thickest New York accent you can imagine, “Wheah ya shoes? Ya fuggatcha shoes!” McDougall seemed to take note of every runner’s form, clearly wishing everyone else was barefoot.

After a mile or so we peeled off the loop and caught the men’s pro race. As the leaders blazed by us, McDougall admired their form. “Look at how lightly they land,” he said, “even at that speed.”

We returned to the loop and ran north. I kept my shoes off for the moment because my feet still weren’t hurting. When we talked about the barefoot running boom his book has spawned, he seemed embarrassed, saying he is unjustifiably reaping the rewards of the sweat of long-time barefoot runners before him.

We continued north, past the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other runners stared at us and our bare feet, as if to say, “Are you guys nuts?” McDougall engaged many of them, even offering a few runners $20 if they would go barefoot with us. We passed huge piles of wood collected near the side of the road, wreckage from the storm that ripped through the park in mid-August. As we rounded the Great Hill and ran down the west side of the park, it dawned on me that I had been lost in our conversation for some time, and that after nearly six miles I was still running barefoot. But we were getting closer to completing a loop and I wasn’t in any pain, so there was no way I was putting my shoes back on now.

Websites on barefoot running recommend starting slowly to acclimate your feet, and they are right. Although I wasn’t feeling any pain during the run, my feet were indeed hurting a bit the next day on the top and outside. But it felt more like the soreness of underused muscles rather than an injury. The soles of my feet were fine too.

Fun run!

My facial muscles felt a bit tired, but that was from smiling most of the way. I’m not sure if it was the liberating feeling of running barefoot, or chatting with an author whose book I had just devoured, or if I was just enjoying other runners’ reactions to two guys running barefoot in Central Park, but this was fun, just as running should be.

Near the end of our run, a runner sidled up alongside us. “You guys enjoying your barefoot run?” he asked. Sure are, we responded. “Well listen, there’s this book you have to check out,” he said. “It’s called Born to Run.”

NYT News Service

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