Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 8 Mar 2000 11:26:48 -0500

Foot Work

(from RC 293)

I'll always be a barefoot boy at heart, if not in practice or in age. As a kid I hardly ever wore shoes when school or church didn't demand it.

Later I ran barefoot. This practice started during the Cerutty craze of the late 1950s. Percy Cerutty coached Herb Elliott, the greatest miler of his and perhaps any era.

Cerutty preached a back-to-nature approach. What could be more natural than running barefoot?

Elliott wore shoes in races. Another runner, Bruce Tulloh from Britain, went the next step and raced barefoot.

This looked good to me. I ran this way in training on a grass track... raced a few times shoeless in high school and college cross-country... ran beach races in California unshod... even kicked off my irritating shoes and padded the last five miles of a marathon au naturel.

All of that happened 50,000 miles ago. My feet have weakened from mileage and abuse, and from decades in shoes and orthotics, until I can no longer run more than a few steps without protection.

The closest I now come to barefoot running is not letting socks come between me and the shoes. Truly naked feet are an ever-more-pleasant and ever-more-distant memory.

Rarely do I even hear now about anyone trying to run this way. The trend is the opposite -- toward more cushioning and more support from the shoes.

So I was surprised recently to read about Ian Dobson. He's an Oregonian like me, but I know him only as one of the best high school cross-country runners in the nation (third in the Footlocker Nationals).

The Harrier magazine featured Dobson last fall. I found him to be a boy after my own heart, a faster reminder of the me from almost 40 years ago.

Marc Bloom wrote, "Whenever he can, like doing strides on the track or field, Dobson runs barefoot." Ian said, "I try not to wear shoes. Barefoot, you strengthen your feet. I never have foot problems."

Dobson didn't convince me to kick off my shoes again for the soft parts of my runs. However, he did suggest why an alternative practice has value. If the best exercise for feet is barefoot running, the next best could be avoiding shoes whenever possible the rest of the day.

Maybe I must wear shoes outside the house. But I can kick them off at the door, and pad around the house barefoot or wearing only socks during the cool season.

The Japanese have the right idea. They leave their shoes at the doorstep for ritualistic reasons, but this practice gives them some of the strongest feet in the world.

On a visit to Japan two years ago I eagerly went along with the local custom of leaving the shoes loosely tied, for easy slipping off and on. An ankle injury had persisted since taking that year's longest run a month before.

The pain eased on the trip, then gave up and went away soon after my bare feet touched home ground. Or at least home floors.

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