Running barefoot in the park: should you or should you not go...

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Milind Soman was already seven years into his running journey — “I had already run a few full marathons and had also completed a 1500-km run from Delhi to Mumbai in shoes” — when barefoot running happened, a trifle serendipitously. The former model and running evangelist, the co-founder of Pinkathon, India’s biggest women’s run, was on a 20-km-long run in 2011, when a blister forced him to take off his shoes.

“I ran the last kilometre in my socks, and was surprised that my feet felt refreshed and energised,” says Soman, who decided to further explore this way of running. He found that there were, “minute changes in my form, balance and posture that made my running movement feel more effortless. I even found that it encouraged me to run from the core.”

It wasn’t easy sailing, “wearing shoes all my life had made my ankles and feet weak,” he says. But he continued, slowly increasing his distance with the new running form that had emerged when he dispensed with the shoes.

“It took around a year and a half for my muscles to develop according to the changes and to gradually increase my running distance to a half marathon,” says Soman, who in 2016 went on to run the 500-km distance between Ahmedabad and Mumbai without shoes. “Today, I feel I am still getting stronger every day and my running and recovery are becoming more efficient,” he says.

Less is more

Soman is part of a growing community of runners who believe that running barefoot strengthens your feet and is a more natural movement than the one you get when you wear highly-cushioned, motion-controlled shoes. Christopher McDougall, in his hugely popular book, Born to Run, for instance, observes that the Tarahumara Indians, who ran long distances wearing only thin huaraches or sandals, stayed injury-free, unlike modern-day runners in their expensive, cushioned shoes. “If running shoes don’t make you go faster and don’t stop you from getting hurt, then what, exactly, are you paying for?” he asks in the book.

Running barefoot in the park: should you or should you not go...

From Pheidippides, who is believed to have run from Athens to Sparta in less than 36 hours, to Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia who dispensed with his badly-fitting footwear and ran a marathon at the 1960 Summer Olympics, and Shivnath Singh who ran only with tape on his feet, there are plenty of people who have aced their race without shoes.

The mind-body connect

Bengaluru-based Thomas Bobby Philip, the first Indian to successfully complete Boston barefoot, began experimenting with running barefoot in 2012. “It was a happy accident. I simply came out and decided to walk and then jog barefoot. I liked the feel of it,” says Philip, who made the transition completely by 2013. His pace and form improved considerably, he says: running without shoes minimised the dreaded heel-strike. “The sole of the feet have a million nerve endings: communication to the brain is blocked when you run with shoes. It is like eating food with gloves,” he says.

Soman agrees. “My main takeaway from running is to learn how my body and mind function individually and to achieve a strong synchronicity between the two. I personally feel that the feet in contact with the ground is the best way to avoid musculoskeletal injury, as the body is able to make minute and sustainable corrections in movement and balance.”

Safety not shoes

Radhika Yelkur, a Bengaluru-based runner, admits that, like many other runners, she has read Born to Run and is, “interested in understanding how it can improve overall aches and pains.”

Being part of a running group that often does drills without shoes and socks, she has some experience of running in bare feet. But, she isn’t planning on making a transition in the near future. “I am a pampered, urban human. The thought of stepping on broken glass is a deterrent,” she laughs.

A 2016 study by Allison Altman and Irene Davis that compared the injury rates in shod versus barefoot running, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, indicated that, “although the injury rate was similar between the two groups..., the type of foot injuries differed between the two groups... For instance, barefoot runners were more likely to experience plantar surface injuries and abrasive injuries to the sole of the foot, while plantar fasciitis, patellofemoral pain and ITBS were seen more among shod runners.

“It’s likely that some foot types do better with barefoot running and others do better with shod running,” adds the study.

Born to run... smartly

One size does not fit all — your stride is as unique to you as a fingerprint — and you need to take that into consideration, says Dr Rajat Chauhan, a specialist in sports and musculoskeletal medicine. “Barefoot running can feel liberating in every sense, but if you try to do too much too soon, you will have an injury you wouldn’t have otherwise,” continues Dr Chauhan. He recommends short-duration barefoot walking and running on grass as a good cross-training for runners. “These drills can prevent injuries,” he says.

Additionally, regular running practices — strength training, stretching and yoga — all apply to barefoot too. The argument that running is a natural motion practised by humans for centuries doesn’t necessarily hold good because, “things have changed in 10,000 years.” The soles of the feet, which indeed have the second most number of nerve endings in the body, have been dumbed down by years of wearing socks and shoes. We also eat different food and perform different activities from then.

At the end of the day, good form and body-awareness are key to running, barefoot and otherwise, he says. And “maybe we need cushioning and layering till we learn how to move better. If you don’t know how to run, don’t run barefoot.”

If you are thinking of transitioning...

“If you are changing from shoe to no shoe, you need to bring down distance,” says Bengaluru-based Sports Scientist and Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, Dr Gladson Johnson. One should start slowly, running on surfaces like lawn, trails or mud, before attempting to run on harder surfaces like asphalt. He, personally, does not advocate minimalist shoes, “in my opinion, they are also shoes and provide a layer of protection,” he says, which can negate the benefits of running without footwear.

A barefoot runner himself — he never ran wearing shoes — he believes that the practice has helped him maintain good form, trained his body to absorb impact better and strengthened his joints. But running barefoot doesn’t inevitably translate into injury-free running. “You have to work on your strength and flexibility, maybe even more than when you run with shoes, as there are nothing now to absorb the shock,” he says. The calves, for instance, our natural shock-absorbers, need to be stronger than otherwise, if running barefoot.

And yes, if you have a medical condition like diabetes, in which a small injury can lead to life-threatening consequences, avoid it completely. “Being able to run is more important than running barefoot,” he says.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 11:11:00 PM |

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