On the periphery of the running world there is a revolution taking place. It is groundbreaking in many respects, but its roots go far back in time. I’m talking about barefoot running, and it is becoming increasingly popular and equally contentious.
More and more runners are shedding their shoes in favour of a more organic approach to running. Running without shoes has numerous implications, including changing the physical aspects of how a person runs. Todd Wiebe, a local barefoot runner, has noticed major changes in his running style after starting to go barefoot. “My feet now land underneath my body rather than in front so that I lose less momentum. When I run at the gym, where I have to wear shoes, it feels awkward and uncomfortable,” Wiebe explains. For him, running without shoes is far more efficient.
Recent research at Harvard University compared the physical experience of running with shoes to running without. They found that running in shoes forced people’s feet to strike the ground heel-first, which impacts leg and hip joints in a jarring way. Conversely, running without shoes prompted people to land on the ball of their foot, not their heel. This latter running technique had far less negative physical impact, and worked different muscle groups. Wiebe illustrates this distinction with his own experience: “When you land with a heel-first approach you physically stop your rhythm and must push off at every step. When running barefoot you land softer and lose less momentum.”
These physical benefits, combined with the fact that you are saving money by not buying running shoes, are clear advantages to running barefoot. There are, however, drawbacks, one of which is negotiating hazardous terrain. Wiebe recalls his first run without shoes: “I took my first barefoot run along Corydon, and after 1.5 miles my soles were in a fair bit of pain — and I just barely dodged some broken glass.” Not only are barefoot runners more prone to cutting their feet when running outdoors, but cold winters also minimize the appeal of going without shoes. But just like any new physical activity, people should ease themselves into barefoot running. The more you run outside in bare feet, the more likely calluses will form on your feet, making your soles tougher and less likely to get cut or sore.
Barefoot running is not only inadvertently calling the running shoe market into question, but society’s taboos against going barefoot are also confronted. “Our society is stigmatized against going barefoot in public. It certainly draws a lot of attention because companies have told us that when you run you take your shoes. They are called ‘runners’ so that shoes become synonymous with running, and you would not normally think that running is even possible without shoes,” observes Wiebe.
In response to the barefoot running trend, there are numerous shoes — yes, shoes — emerging on the market that are specifically designed for barefoot running. They are very minimalist in structure and attempt to mimic the natural design of feet. Are they advantageous for barefoot runners, or are the big shoe companies just looking for another way to cash in? One thing is sure, Wiebe is sold on barefoot running: “Something about paying over $100 to do something as natural as running doesn’t add up.” Wiebe plans to run the Manitoba Marathon barefoot this year in the hopes of de-stigmatizing barefoot running and inspiring others to try it as well.