The barefoot movement is gathering pace, promising closer connection to the terrain and our evolutionary heritage. But is the key to better running really what you wear – or don’t wear – on your feet?
As we buy into the seductive promise of the ‘barefoot revolution’, the shoe manufacturers who sold – and still sell – cushioning and motion-control footwear are jumping fully on board.
This seemingly uneasy alliance has created a barefoot/minimalist industry worth £1.1 billion, but the question remains: does the secret to better running really lie inside a shoebox?
A barefoot gathering
Stepping on to a New York ferry, I breathe in the crisp, fresh autumn air. I’m heading out to the island where my race begins – but it’s not the race you’re thinking of. A far cry from the 45,000-strong field of the NYC Marathon, this event – the New York City Barefoot Run – is on a rather smaller scale. But the fact that it’s happening at all, attracting over 400 runners in its second year, is testament to the recent revolution in our sport; a revolution that has seen many – myself included – swap their cushioned or motion-control shoes for barely-there minimalist footwear – or indeed, shun shoes altogether.
I’m in good company. Among those boarding the ferry are Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of a landmark paper, published in the journal Nature, outlining the evidence that shows humans were ‘born to run’.
Talking of Born to Run (£8.99, Profile Books), the author, Chris McDougall, is also with me, chatting to Barefoot Ted, who stars in the book, and legendary barefoot running coach Lee Saxby, who McDougall credits for ridding him of injuries.
The key players
It’s a Who’s Who of the barefoot scene’s leading lights and, unsurprisingly, talk centres on barefoot running. How long it takes to adapt. How it’s enabled someone perennially injured to run pain-free. The best surface to run on. Whether or not Nike Free really qualifies as a minimal shoe. Which gyms are sniffy about letting you run barefoot on the treadmill. (“By next summer this argument will be over,” opines McDougall. “They’ll be falling over themselves to teach barefoot running, not banning it.”). There’s no ‘Why?’ or ‘Should I?’ being asked here today – it’s all ‘How?’ and ‘How long?’ and ‘How far?’
This is a refreshing change from the scepticism, bemusement or downright hostility that barefoot running often elicits. But Lieberman believes scepticism should be encouraged. “People are suspicious about what the shoe companies have been saying, but they need to be suspicious about what the barefooters and minimalist shoe manufacturers are saying, too,” he says. “There are a lot of opinions and very few facts about most things in running, and barefoot running is no exception. More research is needed.”
That may come as a surprise. It’s easy to assume, given all the media hullabaloo, that dozens of papers have been published proving that barefoot running is ‘better’ in every way – the answer to a whole litany of injury problems and even the key to improved performance. But whatever the growing number of barefoot aficionados and minimalist shoe manufacturers would have you believe, that isn’t the case.
“‘Is barefoot better?’ is the wrong question to ask,” says Lieberman. “The issue isn’t whether you run barefoot or not, but how you run – your form.”
Back to our roots
There’s a 20-minute walk to the start line when we land on Governors Island. Hundreds of soles pad silently along the asphalt road, gathering for the pre-event briefing under a huge banner brandishing the ‘I love NY’ logo – the heart replaced by a bare footprint.
The Statue of Liberty looms proudly across the glittering bay. “Welcome back,” says John Durant, event organiser and founder of Barefoot Runners NYC. “And I mean that, even if you weren’t here last year. Welcome back to natural human movement.”
The New York City Barefoot Run isn’t a race, as such. There are no timing chips, no clocks and not even a set distance, but my pre-race butterflies are still all aflutter. My husband Jeff, a competitive runner, is bemused by the ‘as many laps as you like’ format. I know it’s not just about winning, he says, but people like to know how they performed and make comparisons.
McDougall is more enthusiastic: “I think this will be the next wave,” he says, between signing well-thumbed copies of his book and doling out temporary tattoos. “Look around you, everyone’s smiling. Competition makes people anxious and encourages them to do too much.”
It’s true that there’s more emphasis on fun and freedom in barefoot running. As the race gets under way, I don’t see many people setting their Garmins or elbowing their way to the front. Barefoot Ted isn’t even going in the right direction, choosing instead to whisk people anticlockwise around the course in a foot-powered rickshaw. “It’s all about testing the limits of what’s pleasurable, not what’s possible,” he says.
I can see the appeal of getting in touch with nature and making running more playful, but both as a runner and a coach, what lured me in was the idea of running more efficiently and without injury.
In pursuit on an injury-free run
My barefoot journey began back in 2007 when researching an article on whether or not it was possible to change the way you run. I tinkered with my own form, switching from a heel strike to a forefoot strike and, as I did so, I started to find my usual shoes cumbersome and heavy. I began to wear lighter, more pared-down shoes.
My PBs over 10K, 10 miles and the half marathon all improved over the next couple of years (despite having already been running for 17 years) and my mileage soared. But then injury struck: plantar fasciitis.
In my efforts to get rid of it, I tried everything – stretches, exercises, orthotics, injections, stability shoes – but when none of it worked, I resolved to rebuild my form from the ground up. And that meant going barefoot. There’s nowhere to hide poor technique when your feet are bare, I figured.
It’s a theory backed by Lieberman’s research. In 2010, he published a study showing that habitually barefoot people run differently from those accustomed to wearing running shoes. For a start, they tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot rather than their heels (where 75 per cent of shod runners land).
Secondly, they land more softly, generating smaller initial impact forces than heel strikers wearing shoes, in spite of the absence of cushioning. They also have greater springiness (or ‘compliance’) and less stiffness in their stride.
“We evolved to run barefoot and did so exclusively until recently, in evolutionary terms,” Lieberman tells me and Jeff, as we make our first lap of the 2.1-mile course. “The lower collision forces and greater compliance are what allow habitually unshod people to run barefoot and for it to be safe and comfortable.”
He compliments Jeff on his form and trots ahead, the barefoot professor sporting a T-shirt that reads ‘Evolved to Run’.
But for most of us, who have spent a lifetime with our feet encased in shoes, the gentle, natural movement pattern Lieberman describes is likely to be somewhat rusty, to say the least.
“Simply taking off your shoes does not ensure good form,” he concedes. “You can run badly barefoot and well in shoes. Ultimately, how you run is more important than what’s on your feet.”
Cushioning hiding your form
The trouble is, in traditional built-up running shoes, that wad of cushioning between you and the ground makes it very difficult to know how you are running.
“Proprioception is the foundation of skill,” says Lee Saxby. “A cushioned running shoe damps down your awareness and takes away valuable feedback.”
This idea of being closer to and more ‘in touch’ with the ground is one of the biggest selling points of minimalist footwear. But not all minimalist shoes are created equal.
In fact, with many major brands jumping on the bandwagon (while continuing to make and promote their conventional running shoes), natural running proponents are now beginning to distinguish between the terms ‘barefoot’ and ‘minimalist’, as if defending their territory from the invading army of
new, lightweight shoes.
On the next page: Find out the difference between barefoot and minimalist shoes, the manufacturers' story and form vs shoes.