WINNIPEG (CUP) 8212; A very simple concept could make you healthier, and shoe companies should be thankful that it hasn’t become more popular.
Take your daily run or jog, but leave the shoes behind.
Running the way the human body was designed to run, barefoot running, is becoming more and more accepted and is now practised by runners of both the casual and competitive nature.
For those wondering why something as bizarre as barefoot running is gaining popularity, just ask barefoot runner and advocate, David Sypniewski.
“Running barefoot really helped me fall back in love with running,” Sypniewski said. “I was happy to start running again after a year of pain with shoes.”
Before becoming a barefoot runner in 2002, Sypniewski fell victim to numerous leg injuries, which hindered his ability to run long distances.
“I just started having one injury after another,” Sypniewski said. “I went to specialists, I had expensive orthotics made for me, I went for massages, I went for deep tissue therapy and nothing helped.”
He came across barefoot running on the Internet and it just made sense to him. He recalls the first time he tried running barefoot.
“I grabbed a pair of aqua socks from my bag of snorkeling gear just to be safe. I went to a local park and I just ran back and forth on the grass for probably about 25 minutes, and I was just amazed that the knee pain and the thigh pain that I had for a year of wearing shoes was just gone.”
While Sypniewski’s first attempt at running barefoot was on a soft grassy surface, he then progressed to hard pavement surfaces.
When first starting on pavement, runners should not overdo it. According to barefootrunner.com, an average runner’s first barefoot run should be between five and 10 minutes. Because of different posture and foot strike-points, different muscles are used and need to be developed; they will likely be sore at first.
The concept of barefoot running does go beyond people’s daily jogs, and the strategy has been employed in competition as well. Two of the most notable competitive barefoot runners are Abebe Bikila and Zola Budd-Pieterse.
Bikila trained and competed barefoot on his way to an Olympic gold medal as a marathoner in 1960. He also won gold in 1964 but didn’t run barefoot in that race.
Budd-Pieterse is another accomplished runner who trained and competed on bare feet. In 1985 she broke the women’s 5000-meter world record.
The natural feeling of running barefoot is appealing, but it’s the health aspect that really sells it. According to physiotherapist Michael Warburton in a Sportscience paper, barefoot running reduces the risk of ankle injuries and reduces energy exertion by four per cent. This extra energy allows barefoot runners to run longer distances than they would if they wore shoes. Shoes add excess weight making each stride slightly more tiring.
Though barefoot running does have its advocates, there are those who say it’s better to run with shoes.
Jim Norris, an athletic therapist based in Winnipeg, is an example of this.
“Running barefoot exposes your feet to injury,” Norris said. “If you are running outside, there are rocks and pebbles, glass and other hazards that can injure your feet. If your foot gets cut two miles from home, how do you get back?
“Rather than having people chuck their shoes, they should be educated in proper running technique which is safe and efficient,” he said.
The negative effects apply primarily to the soles of the feet. Scrapes, bruises and punctures can occur when the soles are not protected.
However, Sypniewski disagrees. “I’ve never had an injury or a gash or cut from running barefoot. I’ve only had blisters from overdoing it sometimes.”
Other negative effects include sensitivity to colder temperatures and, notably, dirty feet.
Karly Melnyk, a Winnipeg physical therapist, finds a balance between Sypniewski’s and Norris’s views.
The muscle and joints’ ability to sense movement, surfaces and terrains improves when running barefoot,” Melnyk said. “But some feet require that extra cushioning and absorption that a good quality running shoe can provide.”
Running barefoot has been forbidden in some running organizations and competitions. The Manitoba Runners’ Association, however, has no policy on barefoot running.
James Slade, past-president of the Manitoba Runners’ Association and occasional barefoot runner, said, “In some races you might not be allowed to participate if you’re barefoot, that’s up to each individual race director. If they decide to allow barefoot runners in their event then go for it.”
He then added jokingly, “Just don’t get stepped on.”