Barefoot running is easy on your body, and it does great things for you. But it’s really hard on your feet! But with the right shoes, you can have the best of both worlds.
Originally published 2009
I used to run a lot. I was never competitive (even when I ran track, believe me!). I didn’t even care how far I ran. I just ran for time. I’d run 20 or 30 minutes during the week, and an hour or an hour and a half over the weekends. It was a way to get outdoors, explore, and enjoy nature. It was relaxing, and it was fun.
Then I had some ill-advised knee surgeries (see Healing the Knees), after which I was out of running for more than a decade and a half. When I came back, I came back limping. Eventually I got a semi-decent stride, but it was still pretty hard on me. I was always balancing running against knee pain. If I didn’t get enough exercise, I’d gain weight. If I got to much, my knees hurt. It was hard to get the balance right.
I found many enjoyable alternative activities — golf and cycling among them — but nothing ever worked quite as well, or felt quite as good, as the running I used to enjoy.
Then I moved to Kansas and met ultra-distance runner Nick Lang, who suggested that I might want to try barefoot running. Although not a barefoot runner himself, he told me that Kansas City was home to some folks who ran barefoot all the time. (See the Resources for links.)
That was enough to get me started. I did some homework, and started running barefoot. I found out what was good about it, and what was bad about it. In the end, I came up with the perfect solution. This article will let you get the benefits of barefoot running without having to learn painful lessons the hard way. You’ll discover that with the right shoes, you can run in a way that’s good for body, and spare your feet in the process–“sparefoot” running!
Why Barefoot Running is So Good for You
For one thing, it’s easy on the joints. Your muscles take the strain, instead of the ankles, knees, and hips that absorb so much shock when you run in shoes. Instead of pounding them with every step, your gait naturally changes to produce soft landings that gently cushion your footfalls
- landing on mid foot, your body is more upright, so the leg muscle acts like more of a shock absorber
- no temptation to run too fast!
I found that even if the knee was mildly uncomfortable during the run, it was much less sore in the days following than it would have been, had I been wearing shoes. And with the leg muscle working harder to absorb the shock than it had been in the past, it quickly strengthened, allowing me to run more and more comfortably.
In addition, barefoot running is very good for your abs. Even after a slow 20-minute run, I notice a tightening feeling in my abdominals that tells me they working to keep my hips under me. When I was running in shoes, I could run for 2 or 3 hours and never notice a feeling like that. So I’m convinced that barefoot running is as good for your midsection as it is for your joints.
(See the Resources for more information.)
The Problem with Barefoot Running
The biggest problem is that our feet aren’t toughened up from going barefoot all our lives — especially, the arch. Most of us have reasonably tough skin on our heels and the soles of our feet, but our arches are nothing but soft, super tender skin. Even the best paths, meanwhile, have roots, pebbles, sticks, stones can all jab into that tender area under the foot.
Then there is the simple fact that we live in an over-populated civilization that has it’s share of uncaring bozos who leave broken glass, cans, and generally icky things lying about. You, being the noble soul you are, undoubtedly pick up at least one relative-clean item when you’re going towards a trash can. But when you’re running, you can notice such things just a little too late.
So you wind up looking for nice lawns to run on. If you’re lucky, you live near a /very/ large park where you can actually run for 20 or 30 minutes without feeling like you’re on a track. But even then, you’ll probably discover the hard way that the sharp ends of freshly-mown grass are like little knives that cut into your arch with every step you take.
Finally, in desperation, you take to the sidewalk. That turns out to be not too bad, as long as it’s clean. But if you have “hammer toes” like me (where the tip of the toe turns down to the ground), you wind up bruising them ever so slightly every time you push off. After a few hundred yards, that gets to be quite painful, as well.
So now you’ve found a perfect style of running that’s easy on your ankles, knees, and hips. But it hurts your feet like crazy! And while running shoes were easy on your feet, they were hard on everything else. Fortunately, there is a way to get the best of both worlds.
The Perfect Solution: “Sparefoot” Running
After searching, I found quite a few recommendations for sort-of-barefoot running shoes on the web. Some of them seemed dubious. Some seemed like they might work. But then I remembered a “shoe” I had encountered at various times when windsurfing, scuba diving, and kayaking.
It might be called a “river shoe”, “river rafting shoe”, “windsurfing shoe”, or “scuba shoe”, but basically it’s a neoprene upper with a reasonably think rubber bottom — and no other cushioning at all. They turned out to be the most comfortable running shoe I’ve ever worn.
- The foot wants to spread when landing, as your body weight is transferred to it. Unlike regular running shoes, the neopreme gives, allowing the foot to spread out naturally. So there’s no sense of constraint or imprisonment of the foot.
- When your foot lifts off the ground, the neoprene contracts. It hugs your food and feels snug, so you don’t feel as though you’re flailing around in flip-flops.
- There is no cushioning when you land, so you’re forced to run with a pace and stride that, paradoxically enough, is even more comfortable.
- At the same time, the bottom of your foot is protected from rocks, roots, branches, and the sharp ends of mown grass.
An additional bonus: You don’t care if there is mud or water on the trails! You’re wearing a river shoe! It was made for mud and water!
I’ve been wearing socks with the shoes, thinking that the neoprene would rub about and chaff a bit. Haven’t tried running without them, as yet. I suspect it would be more comfortable in the mud, but less comfortable everywhere else…but I don’t have any hard data, as yet.
(See the Resources for shoes you can buy.)
Sparefoot running has made it possible for me to get out for a run 2 or 3 times a week. It minimizes stress on my knee, works my abs, allows my feet to “breathe”, and leaves them pain-free at the end of a run.
The lack of cushioning makes you run in a way that is truly comfortable for your whole body, with just enough protection for your feet that you don’t have to worry about the surface you’re running on.
In fact, the other day I found a lake with huge swathes of grass all around it (Lake Shawnee in Topeka, Kansas). Running around on the grass was like running on pillows! There were occasional mild shocks as a foot found a hole that was disguised by the even top left after mowing but, even so, that evening and the day after there was no pain at all in my cartilage-impaired knee — a very opinionated appendage which almost always has something to say after vigorous exercise.
Bottom line: My knee is happy, my abdominals feel the workout, and I’m happy as a clam to be able to get back to the kind of comfortable, easy running I used to enjoy so much — the kind that is more of a meditation than an exercise, leaving you with a warm, happy, endorphin-enhanced afterglow!
The foot gear you’re looking for goes by the name “river shoe”, “water shoe”, or “aqua socks”.
- NLS River shoe
Great beginning shoe. Solid rubber bottom from heel to toe protects tender arches, but with all the flexibility you need.
- Teva River shoe
An intermediate shoe. The next best thing to totally barefoot running. Thicker rubber under the soles and heels, with only a very thin layer of neoprene between them. Super flexible, so it’s like you’re not wearing shoes at all. A great way to begin toughening up your arch.
- CIOR Durable Sole Barefoot Water Skin Shoes Aqua Socks
I haven’t tried these, but they look good, so I threw in a link.
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