Q: Now that the skies have cleared up a bit here in Seattle, I’m starting in on my newest exercise regimen: jogging. I’ve secured a comfy pair of New Balance shoes, a set of silver clip-on headphones, a thrice-a-week jogging buddy and, most importantly, a great place to sweat things out: a beautiful 2.8-mile paved pathway around a local urban lake.

Since I’ve dedicated spent of my illustrious fitness career in a gym, I haven’t spent much time outdoors around other runners. The first hard-to-miss thing that I’ve noticed? Many of them don’t like to wear shoes. I honestly didn’t realize that shoeless running (ouch!) was such a big thing. Although I won’t be hanging up my new sneaks to gallop around sans shoes anytime soon, I am curious about the benefits — and the obvious drawbacks — of barefoot running. What’s up with it?

 

Edie, Seattle

 

Hey Edie,

I can only imagine that hitting a jogging trail for the first time with a bunch of barefoot runners zipping past you — cue “Chariots of Fire” theme — would be a disorienting experience. Personally, in my mind, going for a run without shoes is like showing up at a swim meet without a Speedo, a yoga studio without a mat, a tennis match without a racket. For many runners, a good pair of shoes is running and there’s no way around it. But then there’s the growing movement of shoe-eschewing athletes — many inspired by Olympic marathoner Abebe Bikila — who believe that unshod running is better for your feet, better for the health of your entire body, and an overall better form of exercise. And as I’m sure the members of this advanced (yet really old school) breed of runners will tell you, having crazy padded werewolf feet helps.

Jokes aside, the main drawback of — and what keeps many folks away from — barefoot running, of course, is landing on things. Cuts, bruises, puncture wounds, lacerations, infections, blisters, foreign objects lodged into heels, toes dipped in dog poop, you name it … barefoot runners really put themselves at risk of experiencing all sorts of nastiness. I don’t even like walking around certain parts of New York City in flip-flopsso the idea of propelling myself down a city sidewalk or street sans shoes is pretty much nightmare material. For this reason, many barefoot runners and joggers run during the day and initially stick to grassy areas and dedicated running tracks, but, as you’ve witnessed, some also will hit public paths. I’d like to think that the more advanced barefoot runners with their crazy Flintonstonain calluses have developed poop/glass/hypodermic needle/rock/nail/twig/unidentified poky object radar. While they may be without shoes, they certainly aren’t without a special third eye reserved for detecting hazardous objects.

So why risk exposing your feet to this general unpleasantness along with potential injuries and ailments like plantar fasciitis, calf strain, achilles tendinitis? Why join the ranks of the barefoot running injury epidemic? Barefoot runners believe that because when you run without shoes you run differently — landing in the middle or the front of the foot instead of the heel — and, in turn, reduce risk of chronic injuries, namely repetitive stress injuries, associated with heel-striking in padded shoes. Barefoot running is also thought to develop and strengthen all of the tiny muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot that aren’t used while wearing comfy padded sneakers. Essentially, those who practice this best-to-ease-into-it-very-slowly form of exercise believe it to be a more natural and less injurious way to run and that knee-ruining sneakers just make things worse. Plus, running without shoes is liberating, fun and not to mention less expensive (and better for the environment) since you’re not buying a new pair of fancy running shoes every few months.

And speaking of running shoes, let’s not forget the semi-barefoot movement for those who don’t want to go “all the way” and instead don minimalist, low-tech running shoes — including funny-looking “toe shoes” like Vibram Fivefingers, which provide the benefits of unshod running while offering some level of protection against the elements.

Of course, the barefoot running movement is not without its fair share of mud-slinging, riled-up controversy — the debate around it is truly heated — and is generally considered to be a not-quite-mainstream (anti-barefooters would probably use the terms “irresponsible,” “fanatical” or “extreme”) practice that’s received a huge boost from Christopher McDougall’s bestselling 2009 book, “Born to Run,” a tome considered to be the “barefoot bible.” While there have been a few studies on the benefits of unshod running, in-depth research isn’t strong enough at this point for the movement to get a true stamp of approval from running and medical professionals.

Since I’m not a runner or a podiatrist myself, I’m reluctant to take sides here and get in the middle of a fitness-centric shouting match over whether running barefoot prevents injuries. What I suggest you do, Edie, is read up on barefoot running yourself. And given the outspoken nature of the movement, there are a ton of resources out there including the Barefoot Runners Society, barefootrunner.com, The Running Barefoot and Barefoot Running University. Or, what you can do is simply catch an unshod runner taking a breather at your local jogging spot and pick his brain. Ask how long that person has been running shoeless and what benefits (or setbacks) he has noticed since ditching the sneaks. Don’t be scared — he probably won’t try to convert you or take your shoes away. Just don’t stare at his feet. It’s not polite.

Happy running.

— Matt

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