Sole Searching ÛÓ Minimalist Running
by John Barbour, from a previous issue of New England Runner
“Take off your shoes child, and
throw ’em away, come back and get ’em another day.”
ÛÓcheesy 1966 pop hit
“Barefoot, barefoot, you’ll never go
wrong going barefoot; it’s time we put our two feet on the ground.”
Anyone who reads this column regularly
(both of you) knows that we’re not exactly trendy over here. That can work
against us, we know, but we try not to think about it too much. No 3:00 a.m. awakenings
with “Note to selfÛÓnext article, Û¢Red Bull: Nature’s Nectar or False Promise?’”
So we swore that we wouldn’t touch this subject. Way too trendy. Wait a couple of months until it’s off the running
Then, a few days ago, along a straight,
flat, sun-drenched residential street with concrete sidewalks, there appeared
an individual apparently out for a run. At least it looked that way. He was
moving forward with a running-like gait, and he wore shorts, a T-shirt and an
excruciating expression on his face. Nothing else. Which is to say, no shoes.
The visceral urge was to stop the car, call
out, “Public health alert! Somebody put
some shoes on that man!” and wait for the paramedics (para-pedics?) to
arrive. But the flesh was too weak and the sight too disturbing. Soon the car was a block away and
the mind many more.
Still, this guy was in some serious
discomfort, and his face told a clear and eloquent tale. I would bet the farm
he had read Û¢The Book.’ You could almost imagine the internal monologue as he
heaved himself down the hot sidewalk.
Must . . . keep . . . going . . .
Bare . . . feet . . . good . . . Book .
. . said . . . so . . .
Everyone . . . on . . . bandwagon . . . Ouch . . . Ouch . . . Ouch.
“The Book,” of course, is Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-seller, Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes,
and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (#24 on the Publishers Weekly
hardback non-fiction list for the year).
It tells the story of the author’s encounter with the remote Tarahumara
Indians of Mexico’s rugged Copper Canyon, and his observation of how the
Tarahumara run without shoes roughly from the day they can stand up, for hours
on end over harsh terrain, and how they live long lives and never get injured.
That’s the gist of it. You’ve probably read it anyway.
This is all good. So is the moral of
McDougall’s story, which is (and we paraphrase) that every human body is
designed for running and that barefoot is ideally the way we should be doing
it; running shoes have just messed up what nature long ago perfected.
You’ll hear no arguments from here on that.
There is, in fact, an excellent case to be made for barefoot running, and we’ll
get to that in a minute. It’s just that, well, McDougall built a wonderful
campfire, providing warmth and light, until the winds of publicity caught it
and turned the nicely confined campfire into a wild, out-of-control inferno.
Suddenly runners everywhere seemed to think
that barefoot was the way to go, without respect to age, experience, or any
other nuisance variables. The defining event was the production of, irony of
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ironies, running shoes designed to approximate the effects of barefoot running,
some even having separate little toes and everything.
And who, after reading about the
Tarahumara, wouldn’t want to try it?
Call me crazy, but I like to think that runners as a whole have above
average intelligence and can take inspiration from a story without feeling the
need to adopt a practice wholesale. One of the first things that got me excited
about running was seeing the 1960 Olympic film and the incredible, um, footage
of Abebe Bikila winning the marathon in the dark, over Rome’s cobblestone
streets, barefoot. It is one of the
great moments in all of sport, and it inspired me all rightÛÓto get my first
pair of running shoes.
Images of a shoeless Bikila, of Zola Budd
in the early 1980s, or British sprinters running down the beach to the Vangelis
theme in the film, “Chariots of Fire,” imbue themselves in common cultural
memory. They’re important; we need them. We just don’t all have to imitate
them. Besides, we’ve been down
this road before.
Exhibit A: the old UCLA study suggesting that
the world marathon best for women would soon surpass the men’s based on a simple
record progression graph. It didn’t account that women’s marathoning was a
recent development; it just plotted that women went from over 3:00 in 1970 to
2:21 by 1990, while in the same span the men’s record only went from 2:09 to
2:06ÛÓanother prime example of “science” conflating a nugget of truth into a
Exhibit B is even better. Years ago when
Brooks Johnson was Stanford’s coach he was a famous barefoot advocate, and
didn’t have to undertake an anthropological adventure to reach the conclusion. He
made the exact same case, that running shoes had become overly built and were
preventing the foot and ankle lever from doing their jobs as nature intended. But
Johnson never advocated abandoning all shoes and, without the dramatic backdrop
of the Tarahumara, barefoot runners and quasi-barefoot running shoes didn’t
show up on every street corner.
Barefoot is great in principleÛ¢and in
moderation. Consider it one of many tools in the runner’s training kit. If you
go au naturel, use sense. The heavier
your frame or the more over 40 you are, the lighter your approach should be.
Start with an easy jog at the end of a run
or workout on a forgiving surface, ideally grass (make sure it’s free from
broken glass, et al) such as a golf course or soccer fieldÛÓeven newer
grass-like artificial playing surfaces aren’t too bad.
For years I’ve practiced and advocated
barefoot acceleration strides on grass as part of post-speed work cool-downs. Sand,
whether soft or harder-packed as at the ocean’s edge, can be effective (think
of Herb Elliott and John Landy on the Australian dunes in the ’50s) if joints and tendons are supple. (If you’re 50, do 20 miles a week and
run for an hour on the beach point blank, you’re asking for Achilles trouble.)
Chris McDougall tells a beautiful story,
but Coach Johnson was closer to the mark for most of us. Done right, unshod
running puts your stride in touch with the earth, develops power, and feels great. But please, stay off the
hot sidewalks. Next time I might have to call 911.
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