Sole of a runner

Fall of 2008 marked the end of my career as a long distance runner. Following several years of dedicated effort, I had built my mental and physical endurance up to the point where I managed 20 mile training runs and the prospect of completing a marathon was firmly in my sights. My body, however, had another plan. What started as a nagging weirdness in my right knee had developed into a throbbing, clicking ball of pain. When walking began to hurt, I was forced to reevaluate the risk-to-benefit ratio or running. Needless to say, “risk” won and I saw no other way but to let the air out of my ego and hang up my shoes.

In the year following my retirement, I only managed sporadic runs; each serving only to rouse the sleeping dragon who lives under my patella. Although maintaining my activity levels with sports like boxing, biking, and swimming, my heart still missed running’s serenity and my legs longed for the stride. So, when I heard about “barefoot running”, and the benefits its adherents espoused, I decided to go back to the basics…way back.

The argument is this. Human beings have been running, walking, jumping, etc, for approximately 1 million years. Of that time, our feet have spent only an infinitesimal fraction shod. Marvels of biological engineering, our feet have numerous bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles that all serve to efficiently absorb impact and transfer movement up the kinetic chain. By wearing shoes that bind (i.e. “support”) the foot, we have succeeded in detraining those structures (i.e. “making them lazy”). Thus, by removing the offending articles, we can reinvigorate the foot’s natural function, thereby sparring the knees, hips, and low back from undue stress and strain.

Aside from the intellectual argument, I have to admit that the idea of shunning shoes gave me a thrill. In our society, wearing shoes is a given. Save for a handful of stubborn hippies and Wal-Mart shoppers, everybody wears shoes. This notion was so thoroughly ingrained in my psyche that running in the raw seemed downright rebellious. And it was in this spirit that I took my first tender-footed steps into the world of barefoot running.

From years of coddling, my feet had become soft and pliable. Notably absent were the thick calluses and rigid arches of a seasoned barefoot runner. So, I determined that a good place to start was with the treadmills at my employer’s gym. When I arrived, I was greeted by a couple of co-workers who were in the middle of a weightlifting workout. I calmly walked over to the treadmills and removed my sandals. Setting the treadmill for 15 minutes at a leisurely 5mph pace, I began my run.

Within a few strides, I became aware that barefoot running would require a little getting used to. Without the large padded heels of a running shoe, I had to adjust so that my foot struck the ground more towards the middle portion of my foot. This required leaning forward a little bit more at the hips while maintaining the alignment of my head, neck, and spine. Feeling a little bit awkward and self-conscious already, I noticed that one of my co-workers was watching me run. Before I could explain what I was doing, my other co-worker chimed in with “Don’t worry, he’s just Fred Flintstone.” “Actually, I’ve read an article, well articles that say that running barefoot is better,” I shouted, “and the other day I saw a video…” I trailed off realizing that they had returned to their workout and my retort had fallen on deaf, I-podded ears.

For my next outing, I resolved to do it right. Bare-foot running was just as much about getting into nature as it was about getting out of shoes, so I eschewed the treadmill and headed off to a local park. This particular park featured large grassy fields, numerous trees, and ample space that seemed ideal for sans-shoe running. I pulled into the parking lot and just sat in my car for a few moments. Usually, this was where I would lace up my sneakers and contemplate my run, but now I found myself lacking that familiar ritual. Feeling a twinge of excitement laced with anxiety, I opened the door stepped out.

Before setting off on my run I went through a series of preparatory warm-ups. The sensation of spongy grass underneath my feet was intoxicating and I almost felt guilty. I say almost because the sensation quickly gave way to a smug sense of superiority when I noticed a few passersby, their feet conspicuously saddled with the burden of so much shoe. Warm-up complete, I set off on my run. With my stop watch set for 20 minutes, I was free to jog about the park exploring my new-found freedom. Each step brought with it a cascade of information: the density of the grass, the subtle undulations of terrain, or the presence of an acorn. My senses entered into a state of hyper-vigilance as I scanned for potential hazards and navigated accordingly.

Becoming more comfortable with the situation, I opened up my stride and sped up. My mind also grew more comfortable, lending me attentional space for contemplation. “The bare foot runs with the earth, not over it.” I thought. “The bare foot suffers when it ignores its surroundings” I mused as innumerable objects dug painfully into my supple sole.

The shrill “beep, beep, beep-beep-beep” of my stopwatch informed my decision to head back to the car. I slowed to a walk and stopped to stretch. Back at my car, I made a cursory attempt to wipe away the thin film of dirt and dust covering my feet. My knee actually felt pretty good and the only visible damage that my feet had sustained was a small blister on the tip of my middle-toe.

Heading to work, I couldn’t help but think that with barefoot running I had stumbled onto something good. Regardless of whether or not I re-entered the world of the long-distance runner, I had found something both enriching and enlivening. My sore arches a reminder that I was now, in a small way, breaking down the barriers between myself and the world.

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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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  1. Greetings from Gainesville..Great article T-Fed. How is the barefoot running going? still at it? Hope O-Town is treating you well