“I have really bad knees,” says Rebecca Ouding
“I have an old knee injury that gets aggravated,” says Bud Uyeda.
“I ran a marathon 20 years ago, and after that my arches collapsed,” says Dave Hafera.
Not what you typically hear from people enjoying a fun run on a sunny summer Sunday. But there they were in Maryland’s Meadowbrook Park at the Naked Foot 5K last weekend, happily joining 450 others despite injuries that usually spell the end of running careers.
Their secret? After years of frustration trying to cure these ailments, all have switched to running barefoot or in the minimalist shoes that mimic running shoeless.
“I would not be running if I were not running barefoot,” says Uyeda, who, to be totally honest, had to sit out this event because of a minor car accident Friday.
Nearly three years after it was reignited by the remarkable book “Born to Run,” barefoot running is less a fad than a realistic alternative to traditional running shoes for people who have struggled with lower-leg injuries. Minimalist shoes are not for everyone, probably not even for most of us, but the anecdotal evidence of their place in the world of running is hard to deny.
Minimalist shoes now account for 12 percent of running shoe sales (though it’s just 4 percent without Nike’s Free line), according to one report, and the practice is mainstream enough that Naked Foot runs are being held in 10 cities this summer. Sunday’s event, the third, produced the biggest turnout so far, said organizer Scott Jones, whose Web site invites participants to run barefoot, in minimalist footwear or shod. When he asked for a show of hands, about a quarter of the runners were going barefoot.
“The goal is to get a lot of [people] out and having fun running again,” says Jones, who staged a 1K run for children before the main event. “Kids run barefoot when they’re 2 and 3 years old and they don’t think about it. They have fun. We want to reinvigorate that feeling in adults.”
I wrote about barefoot running in October 2009, when author Christopher McDougall introduced us to the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, who run 100-mile races in sandals made from old tires, and to the free-spirited ultramarathoner Micah True, who died on a run in New Mexico in March. McDougall’s bestseller is now being made into a movie.
As I said then, barefoot running is not for me. I have no major leg injuries, except occasional plantar fasciitis, and I like my comfy running shoes, though I do wear orthotics with a gel liner. (Because my exercise column mission is to walk a mile in another man’s minimalist running shoes, however, I stripped off my Asics Sunday and ran a portion of the course with everyone else. It didn’t change my opinion.)
The theory behind barefoot running is that the soft raised heel of running shoes encourages you to land on the rear part of the foot, which wasn’t designed to take the kind forces running generates, leading to injuries for some people. By ridding yourself of that crutch, you are forced onto your mid- or forefoot, which can take that pounding, and you begin to run as people have for thousands of years.
Since my last column on the subject, Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman has published landmark research that supports running barefoot, interest groups and exercise organizations have weighed in, and a mild controversy continues. More companies have produced a wider variety of minimalist running shoes, but earlier this year, Vibram was sued over claims it has made about its pathbreaking FiveFingers shoe.
There was no conflict at Sunday’s Naked Foot event. “Without shoes, I definitely run faster and I run way longer than I would with shoes,” says Olga Rozman.
Pietr Barber has run hundreds of miles completely barefoot, donning minimalist shoes only in winter. He likes to run in the rain, without shoes to get wet and heavy. His running posture has improved dramatically.
The key is “learning to land softly,” he tells me. “The whole body has to be doing everything right to run barefoot.”
Dave Hafera, who couldn’t run for 20 years, says he slowly worked his way back up to Sunday’s 5K and wants to complete a barefoot marathon in 2013 at a faster pace than the 4:27 he ran two decades earlier.
“I’d like to be able to beat that,” he says. “But just to finish would be the ultimate goal.”