06/07/2012 03:44 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Run Barefooted! Yes, You Can Do This at Home

The May/June Los Angeles Sports & Fitness cover caption reads, "You May Die: Face to Face With the Death Race." It's an "unkind two-day test of extreme physical and psychological stamina" where 90 percent of participants drop out. A different article inside describes how certain mental puzzle pieces fit together to provide a foundation from which to manage the grueling, 50-hour SEALFIT workout -- a military-style hell week open to civilians. On the back cover a running shoe ad aligns itself with an American marathoner's 2:09:08 personal best and his uncompromising pronouncement, "Run to win!" Of course we know that such accomplishments demand grand ambition and tenacity and attract the physically-gifted, adventurous -- if not foolhardy -- outlier. The surface message reads: Don't try this at home. Or does it?

Instead of being a hardcore guide for extremists, this ad-supported mag reaches an audience of athletes living only slightly right of the bell curve apex. It's subjects are everyday folk, too. While finishing the Death Race is extraordinary, the people profiled are ordinary enough -- perhaps even one of your neighbors. The mental toughness article was penned by a 46-year-old computer learning software executive. He could be the natty gent standing next to you in line at the market. And while the shoe ad features a pro runner who gets paid for his efforts, those other half million United States marathoners who run for free exhibit no less determination and drive. I'd like to add that at my first Ironman triathlon an 82-year-old named Norton Davey completed the race in a time that, while not official was, based on age, faster than the race winner's. Another, Bill Bell, at 78, won his category and qualified for the world championships in Kona, Hawaii. Neither, by the way, began training until retirement age! And there are those who choose to run barefooted consciously or subconsciously in an effort to gain, or more accurately re-gain, the primal grace that has been wrung out of their feet by a lifetime of wearing shoes. I mention barefoot for several reasons.

One of the magazine's other columnist's "personal position regarding barefoot running" would suggest that civilized Americans are ill suited to running au naturel. He says in his blurb, "Boost Your Running with Barefoot":

"I believe we are at a grave disadvantage physically and environmentally to brave such an idea. Unless you have been uprooted from Africa or some other region of the world that reduced you to a barefoot lifestyle, you are not prepared to put your tender feet, bones, ligaments and tendons under such stress. Yes, in some cases there are always the exceptions: someone who has found a way, who was hard-headed enough to make it work through perilous episodes and injury, and who was finally able to strengthen his or her feet enough to handle the world we live in, sans shoes. I know a few of these people. Overall, I do not recommend this course of action.

I do, however, completely embrace and recommend that in the right settings, to run and play barefoot, on sand or grassy fields, is quite possibly the best thing you can do for your feet."


  • Reduces us to a barefoot lifestyle? Right, like moving from Los Angeles to Cheyenne, Wyo. would "reduce" us to breathing cleaner air?
  • Tender feet, bones, tendons and ligaments not prepared for such stress? All the more reason to progressively condition bare naked feet with exactly those stresses and strains lest they weaken further! I'm reminded of something the late podiatrist William Rossi said in his article, "Children's Footwear: Launching Site for Adult Foot Ills":

    "In any shoe-wearing society, by age eight or nine, the toes of most children have lost up to 50 percent of their natural prehensile and functional capacity. They are no longer strong, finger-like, ground-grasping organs but weak appenditures at the end of the foot. And by early adulthood the toes will reveal visible symptoms such as incipient hallux valgus, crooked or hammer toes, cramped toes, nail disorders, etc."

    I'm encouraged by a groundswell of barefooted enthusiasm that is currently demonstrating how function, strength, and health can be gradually reinstated by fully exposing our feet to the outside world.

  • What's more, running is cultural. For instance, Jamaicans are sprinters. Kenyans are distance runners. And Americans are injured runners.

So the writer, who operates an exercise testing and coaching business, points out (rightly) that the physical culture we accept with little question puts us at a disadvantage, but he errs in asserting that we must remain within our disadvantage -- his so-called "right settings." By so doing he misses the benefit of running on hard surfaces. Of course, running on sand or in soft grass provides for greater foot mobility and neural and musculo-skeletal activation, but it still allows for the injurious impact transient of a heel strike landing to persist.

A heel strike in running -- normally caused by modern running shoes -- is quickly eliminated by running barefooted over hard surfaces because it hurts to do so. "Pain," as physician Paul Brand said, "is not the enemy, but the loyal scout announcing the enemy." The enemy here is poor running form masked by the anesthetic of cushioning of running shoes, soft sand, or grass. Ultimately, as runners, we're best served by seeking out less protection from and more connection with the ground and our senses. Feeling is believing!

Now, back to that disadvantage. The writer assumes that patience, persistence, and purpose are somehow misplaced ideals, and that only a select few are fit to accomplish such a feat as running barefooted. This, in a magazine otherwise documenting outsized physical preparation and performance. This, in a country that celebrates the underdog and hard won victories. This, is a world where early humans braved unimaginable hardship to develop, over eons, the resilient bodies we so easily abuse and take for granted today! Our real disadvantage is believing that we're inherently disadvantaged.

Every day, people just like you and me defy the odds, prove denigrating authorities wrong, and do the impossible by harnessing those qualities listed above -- patience, persistence, and purpose -- because their health, fitness, and interests are worth their efforts. And barefoot is a healthful proposition, even if decried by some. Naturally, for everything there is a price, and in fitness you're either forging ahead and improving or allowing yourself to deteriorate -- equilibrium, like a slack tide is fleeting. The price is commitment. So, if you choose to shrug off the skeptics' jeers and run barefooted anywhere you want to, remember as you enjoy your journey to practice patience, because full adaptation can take a while. Your body will eventually thank you in very tangible ways. That's right: You can do this at home!

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