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

Thu, 25 Oct 2012 05:08:17 -0400

On Your Feet

RUNNING COMMENTARY 960

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the March 2010 issue.)

Marathon & Beyond editor Rich Benyo doesn’t ask much of me – usually only the shortest column in each issue. No more than once a year does he send a reader’s question to answer. This joins several other opinions in another column that runs next to mine.

I contributed an answer to this query from reader Jim Webster: “I recently read Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run. His chapter on running with a minimum of footwear seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest among runners. Even to the point of overwhelming the rest of the book, which I thought was really well written. What is your opinion on the benefits or drawbacks of barefoot running... or running with a minimum of protection to the foot? I’d hate to run barefoot and step on a sharp object.”

My reply: Born to Run is the best running book I’ve read in many a year. Footwear (or lack of) was a relatively small part of its bigger theme, the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, but the one that the general media sniffed out as potentially sensational or controversial.

In fact, only one of the runners named here ran barefoot – and he was a modern-day American, not a “primitive” Mexican, and his feet were badly chewed up in the climactic race. The Tarahumara ran in handcrafted sandals, not bare feet. They inspired author McDougall to run mainly in Vibram Five-Fingers slippers, not nothing at all.

Yes, barefoot is the way we were born to run. It’s unfortunate that so few or us can do this now and so seldom try. I often ran and sometimes raced barefoot as a kid, and with good results. But this was only on well-manicured grass, sandy beaches and smooth track surfaces. My feet were happy there, and maybe healthier from this natural exercise. They suffered no serious nicks or bruises.

It has been decades since I ran any farther than across a room without shoes. Yet I still believe that staying closer to the earth is good for a runner. That can happen several ways:

1. By kicking off the shoes at home and exercising the full foot, which otherwise would be encased in a “cast” that lets some muscles, tendons and ligaments go lax.

2. By doing a little barefoot running, or at least walking, on grass (including artificial turf) to cool down after a run in shoes.

3. By wearing the least supportive shoe model (that is, lightest) that you can get by with, not the most (in weight and “protection”) you can carry.

The closest I’ve come in recent years to recapturing the barefoot feeling of my long-ago youth was a few months spent running in the Nike Free – which many runners would reject as too flimsy even for racing. I did all of my running in this model, and loved how quiet the runs were (none of the slapping sound common to heavier models).

Alas, the Free would only take me so far. I found its limit – or rather, mine – at a half-marathon. It resulted in a knee injury, which quickly resolved once I retreated to a more traditional shoe. That one, a Nike Lunar model, was the least I could now use.

UPDATE: I hesitate to name, or choose, a “favorite shoe.” What’s right for me might not work for someone else. Plus, as soon as you pick a favorite model, it’s likely to disappear from the marketplace or to change for the worse in an “upgrade.”


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting with the September issue.]
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