Just don't do it!
April 20, 2009 7:44 AM   Subscribe

"At Stanford University two sales representatives from Nike were watching the athletics team practise. Part of their job was to gather feedback from the company's sponsored runners about which shoes they preferred. Unfortunately, it was proving difficult that day as the runners all seemed to prefer... nothing" - from Christopher McDougall's forthcoming book "Born to Run" which looks at the story the growth of the $20 billion running shoe industry. Starting form Bill Bowerman's Cortez in 1972 onwards runners have seen a steady flow of innovations to improve performance and reduce injury rates. Only it would appear they may not work. By way of contrast the book includes coverage of the Mexican Tarahumara tribe who run ultramarathons with shoes made from car tyres on their feet.
posted by rongorongo (38 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I had a dream last night I was in an athletic shoe store. Except they had stopped selling shoes. And I was frustrated.

I think I'm a Metafilter lucid dreamer.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:57 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

NY Times had an article about this around 4 years ago. And previously.

When I was in highschool I had a chance to spend 7 days backpacking the copper canyon, as part to be able to Tarahumaran's interpretation of Semana Santa. While hiking in, we would be passed multiple times by the same runner, heading back and forth to Batopilas. Which was kind of annoying because what had taken us two days to cover with full packs on, he was doing twice a day with his tire sandals and a tea cup worn around his neck so he could drink from the river easier.
posted by mrzarquon at 8:04 AM on April 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

The Raramuri/Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre are incredible. A small tribe in the Sierra Madre mountains, descendants of Apaches and Aztecs, not only the worlds toughest runners, but world boxing champions and supermodels.

A People Apart, National Geographic
posted by stbalbach at 8:06 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Daily Mail article is blocked by our proxy at work for "Nudity", naked feet maybe?
posted by octothorpe at 8:07 AM on April 20, 2009

I started running barefoot several months ago. After a few days of sore calves and feet, I adjusted, and what a world of difference it makes. I'm built very poorly for running - my legs are short and not very straight - but when I stopped wearing shoes, my "slow easy" mile split time went from ~9:45 to ~8:45 overnight, without me even noticing. It took several runs that I finished much faster than I had expected for me to stop saying "oh, my watch must be malfunctioning" or "I must have misremembered the time" for me to actually believe it. I didn't even think it was possible - but I guess my stride is just that much more efficient when I don't wear shoes. Friends have observed that my legs look "pretty funny" when I run with shoes, but that they look "normal" when I run without.

I've been wearing the Vibram Five Finger "shoes" to run in, too. I run in Boston/Cambridge, and I'm not too fond of getting glass stuck in my heels, so these have been awesome. They also give a little protection from the cold so you can use them as soon as the temperature gets above 40 F.

I know this is a little ridiculous, but I've always been drawn to the image of a lone runner, flying across some beautiful landscape, testing whatever limit she's testing, with a minimum of gear - I always wanted to be somebody who ran with natural grace. Goodness knows I'm not a great runner, and I probably never will be, but deciding to run barefoot has definitely made a big difference in how I view running. I really like that it's just me and the earth. As far as I know, I still look faintly ridiculous, but I really like running now (as opposed to when I started, when I really WANTED to like running), and I'm getting better!

I know this is a bit over-the-top when it comes to a comment on a thread about running shoes, and I'm a little surprised myself, but what can I say - running barefoot is awesome :)
posted by Cygnet at 8:10 AM on April 20, 2009 [11 favorites]

Yes, but what are they telling the Irish marathon runners, hmm?
posted by zamboni at 8:10 AM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I know BareFoot Ted a little bit from being a bit in the same running community. I have to say that although I've been a bit skeptical of his claims, he and I both ran a race in Oklahoma that was run along concrete. The race beat my legs and feet up something awful, and I was wearing shoes with good padding. Ted ran most of it barefoot, and only at the end put on a pair of prototype Five Fingers. I was very impressed. The course was a long the gravelly shoulder of a concrete highway (old Route 66) through some very hilly territory. It was 100 miles.
posted by OmieWise at 8:17 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, I used to run long distance, and when training for cross country, I discovered I have chondromalacia patellae . It's due to my hips being slightly pointed outward. There's not much you can do for this condition except weight training, braces, sometimes surgery and the right kind of shoes. Unfortunately, I'm not the sort of runner who can run reliably or train on bare feet. I also can't run regularly without aggravating the condition, unless I do a lot of weight training, etc., and I just don't have time nor the desire. So, for me it's better to bike for that type of exercise anyway, but I do miss running.

What about bare feet running on pavement and shin splints?
posted by krinklyfig at 8:22 AM on April 20, 2009

krinklyfig - I used to get shin splints when I wore shoes, but since I started running barefoot I haven't had any pain, anywhere. It's really remarkable. I think I'm probably an edge case since it seems to work so well for me, but I certainly haven't had any problems and I run almost exclusively on pavement.
posted by Cygnet at 8:24 AM on April 20, 2009

Well, maybe I'll have to give it a try again, barefoot this time. I'll have to start slow, but it's good to hear about your experiences, Cygnet.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:32 AM on April 20, 2009

That's nothing, I routinely make trips from my computer to my fridge wearing only socks on my feet. I do this several hundred times per day.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:45 AM on April 20, 2009 [7 favorites]

I buy running shoes that feel comfortable. Then I run in them. If they get dirty I throw 'em out cuz I got fat pockets.
posted by Mister_A at 8:53 AM on April 20, 2009

krinklyfig: The Daily Mail article linked above ends with a quote form a sports podiatrist where he negates quite a lot of the advice from earlier in the article: unless you are brought up running barefoot you run the risk of injuring your feet by suddenly switching to it. You should not actually run in old worn out shoes - and so on.

This illustrates the dilemma of somebody who is considering running barefoot or with low support shoes quite well. Podiatrists and running shops may well advise that you would be safest sticking with well padded shoes. To do anything else puts you outside the mainstream of advice (and people may laugh at your Vibram Five Fingers if you are like me). Proponents of fore-foot landing techniques such as Pose and Chi will be able to give you information on how their technique is claimed to affect your chances of getting shin splints.

I switched from running heel strike to fore-foot strike/barefoot over the last year because I live next to a large, flat beach. My advice to anybody considering doing the same would be:
1. Allow several months of running to make the change.
2. Whilst you might injure your knees less you can end up with sore shins and sprained ankles until your feet get used to it.
posted by rongorongo at 8:55 AM on April 20, 2009

A good middle ground is the Nike Free Wired - Cool Tools - About. I was given a pair and found them very comfortable and great on hot days. They have different inserts of varying thickness to ease into it. Started running after 2-3 weeks and I could feel dozens of little muscles in my feet strengthening, it was very cool.

Plus, it's the genius of Nike -- give you the experience of running without shoes, for only $90!
posted by msalt at 9:33 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's a verbose article on tire sandals I came across some years ago when I wanted to make tire shoes. My efforts went as far as taking a tire I found on the side of the road and cutting the sidewalls (because the actual treads were reinforced with metal) and adhering the rubber to existing flip-flops. End result: awkwardly heavy flip-flops. Lesson to self: don't half-ass it.

If you do make tire sandals and are annoyed with the excess you have left over, you can make a tire swing and flower pots.

More previous: askme, on the blue.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:45 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

On earth/soil/grass, I would absolutely believe that barefoot is better.

But on pavement and concrete, I do not see how your bare foot could even withstand a several mile run without significant training and acclimation. They would have to be absolutely shredded.

Not to mention broken glass, nails, random metal fragments, and other associated debris found on most city streets.

Those Five Finger shoes look ridiculous, although from what I've (briefly) read people seem to rave about them. I've seen some of the mothers who are dropping off children at my son's school in the mornings wearing them. I had assumed they were specialty footwear for Rock Climbing or something.

Also, for some reason I find toe socks to be rather aesthetically pleasing and "cute", but the Five Finger shoes look upsetting to me. Of course I realize their primary purpose is not aesthetic.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:15 AM on April 20, 2009

I have a pair of Nike Free that I love. It's pretty damn close to running barefoot, which I might do except I run on pavement.

Also, I discovered a couple years ago that I much prefer hiking in single-ply leather soled moccasin-type shoes (they were actually woven sandals from India, but same kind of deal). It's fun trying to convince park rangers that you're not going to die in a canyon. Oh, and it's cooler and doesn't blister.
posted by cmoj at 10:34 AM on April 20, 2009

For the vibram five fingers, I recommend going to try them on in person. Some people's feet (ahem), or rather toes don't fit in them snugly depending on how your outer toes are shaped. I am still thinking about getting a pair but my no roast beef and wee wee wee piggy toes will be a bit recessed from the toes in the shoe.
posted by cashman at 10:39 AM on April 20, 2009

Ynoxas - it only took me 2 weeks to become well-adjusted to running barefoot/in the Five Finger shoes. I'm a pretty low-key runner (3 to 5 miles daily, at a slow pace of 8:30 or 9:00/mile), but since the initial introductory period when my calves and feet were sore, neither my legs or feet have been the least bit tired. No blisters, no skin problems, nothing.

This is not to say that running barefoot is for everyone, or that it's the perfect solution - just that it's more than possible to do it, without significant training, in a very short time. I have 4 friends who also run barefoot and have had very similar experiences - none of them have had any pain or injuries. I'm more than willing to believe that some people would have a more difficult time switching to running barefoot, and I think rongorongo is probably correct as regards switching very slowly - just going barefoot for an hour a day at first, or something - but I bet it can be done in *most* cases.

As for the aesthetics, yeah, they look funny, but I sure don't care. I was never the type to buy footwear in order to look good. (Why yes, I do own a pair of lime-green Crocs. They are hideous, but incredibly comfortable. I kind of enjoy not caring about how awful they look!)
posted by Cygnet at 11:09 AM on April 20, 2009

I have flat feet and when I briefly tried to take up jogging, I absolutely couldn't do it. I was doing one minute walk one minute jog (and never got farther than that) before the knee and hip pain got unbearable. One day I barely made it home I was in such pain. I spent a couple of months in physio getting over it. The physiotherapist said that in addition to flat feet, I also have hips that were somehow pointing the wrong way (congenitally).

And I did go to a running store and get fit for good shoes made for my foot issues before hand (oh, and I have bunions), so it wasn't that I wasn't wearing good shoes.

Barefoot proponents: Would I be someone who could benefit from giving this a shot in something like five fingers (I wouldn't go actually barefoot given the broken glass all over the place)? Or is this just for people with perfectly "normal" feet?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:38 AM on April 20, 2009

> Or is this just for people with perfectly "normal" feet?

I am in a similar position, bad Knees, and I've just been fitted for orthotics which claim only a "20%" reduction in pain / aggravation.

I spend a lot of time not wearing shoes, and I wonder if my problems actually stem from wearing shoes that prevent me from knowing when I am doing stupid stuff (which is when I've injured myself, never running barefoot at the beach, or running up stairs barefoot, just when im wearing shoes). I've just spent this morning re-investigating the barefoot walking / running myself: this video shows a good contrast between the variations in body mechanics between shoes and no shoes.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:52 AM on April 20, 2009

Cygnet: Thank you for relating your experience. That doesn't sound that bad. I was specifically wondering/worrying about going TRUE barefoot, as in no covering of any kind. I would think (based on very little experience) that running on the concrete and asphalt would absolutely tear the skin off of your feet. Also, black asphalt tar is pretty difficult to remove from my CAR, is it not murder getting it off your feet?
posted by Ynoxas at 12:34 PM on April 20, 2009

But on pavement and concrete, I do not see how your bare foot could even withstand a several mile run without significant training and acclimation. They would have to be absolutely shredded.

And yet they're not. When I was still running, I tried barefoot. No transition, I just started doing short runs with no shoes. I have standard soft office feet, but I was easily able to do a few kilometres barefoot on pavement. I hadn't gone barefoot regularly since my teen years.

Consider the effort people put into wearing their soles down with pumice etc. Your feet have this thick layer exactly for this purpose. And it starts growing a bit faster once your body gets the message.

Anyway, you'll notice that people do this, and yet they don't complain "my feet got shredded", so your preconceptions are simpy wrong.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:35 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anyway, you'll notice that people do this, and yet they don't complain "my feet got shredded", so your preconceptions are simpy wrong.

I know somebody who, while switching paved trails ran barefoot through grass, stepped on a broken glass and sliced open their arch and half severed the tendon on the bottom their foot. No more running barefoot ever.

In big cities running barefoot is just asking for some horrible infection.

I have trained pretty much barefoot for over twenty years in kickboxing. Far from strengthening them the impact eventually started destroying my feet and ankles. In the last five or six years I started wearing shoes more and more. No problems.
posted by tkchrist at 12:52 PM on April 20, 2009

Ynoxas - My experience has been that running on asphalt does not tear up my feet at all, though it feels a bit rough at first and takes a little getting used to. My feet do tend to get a little bit dirty, and sometimes it's hard to scrub it off completely, but I've definitely never had any problems with tar.

tkchrist - I think we can all agree that bare feet are no match for broken glass. That's not the question here - I think people are asking whether or not it's possible to run on asphalt without ripping up your feet simply from contact with the asphalt.

It's too bad you've had trouble with kickboxing - I didn't personally have any trouble doing years of kung fu barefoot, but I imagine that once one gets very good at martial arts, the impact from kicking is sure to be much, much more than the impact of running, and not nearly as "natural" (ie, the impact is not as likely to be mitigated by the natural springiness of the legs/feet/ankle working together). However, I do wonder if there's any traditional wisdom about the subject, because as far as I know, traditional martial arts are all performed barefoot - maybe there are ways to lessen the stress on the foot and ankle?
posted by Cygnet at 1:02 PM on April 20, 2009

Ah well - pavement in the burbs is fine for me.

FWIW I wear shoes to train capoeira, but they have no heel and the soles are flexible and thin. I think other activities are whole different kettle of fish.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:05 PM on April 20, 2009

The major warning for those who may start running barefoot in the summer - no matter how tough your feet, hot asphalt (or any dark colored pavement which absorbs a lot of heat) will give you blisters. I pride myself in my tough feet, and padded around on asphalt in July for about 15 minutes, slowly realizing how hot the ground really was. I stayed on concrete or inside the rest of the day, but I had large blisters on both feet.

Asphalt and broken glass (and to thorny leaves and branches to varying degrees) are good reasons to wear some sort of sole. The Tarahumara wear basic shoes, so I'm fine wearing basic foot coverings.

It is not uncommon for a Tarahumara to travel between fifty and eighty miles everyday at a "race" like pace. Tarahumara running is based on endurance not speed. This fact is exemplified by their hunting practices. In order to catch such wild animals as deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits, the Tarahumara simply chase after the animal until the animal drops from exhaustion

Wow. Thanks for this post rongorongo!
posted by filthy light thief at 1:33 PM on April 20, 2009

In big cities running barefoot is just asking for some horrible infection.

Things that I've seen on Pittsburgh's bike trails that I don't want to step on barefooted:

- Broken Glass
- Jagged broken concrete
- Broken rusty steel fence posts stubs
- Needles
- Condoms
- Vomit
- Dog and Goose Poop
- Dead birds and animals

I'll stick to wearing my New Balance.
posted by octothorpe at 1:38 PM on April 20, 2009

It's fantastic if you had/have a good experience running barefoot, but I don't necessarily think it's the best thing for everyone to switch to barefeet running.

It's not surprising at all if you go to a training facility and see people running barefoot. The softness of running tracks these days often will negate the need for shoes.

Actually I think I remember reading, possibly here, how the running tracks used for the Olympics are often to soft for long distance runners and are more catered for sprinters.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:55 PM on April 20, 2009

Thanks for this post. I'm a high-arch, high-instep supinator. After a slow transition to some Nike Free's, I've been running plantar fasciitis-free for almost two years now. Given my results, I was interested in less (as more) shoe options. Can't wait to experiment a little with some DIY huaraches.
posted by klarck at 2:00 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Barefoot Ted is kind of a crazy guy in his own right.

After riding around Volunteer Park on his skateboard for 24 hours, he's decided to move on to competing in a victorian era Iron Man competition.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:52 PM on April 20, 2009

Of course depending on conditions, going barefoot for extended periods of time may lead to cracks and fissures in the sole.

This is a photo Peter Byrne took of a Nepalese porter's foot, circa 1958.

(Photo used with his permission, by the way)
posted by Tube at 5:27 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's too bad you've had trouble with kickboxing - I didn't personally have any trouble doing years of kung fu barefoot, but I imagine that once one gets very good at martial arts, the impact from kicking is sure to be much, much more than the impact of running, and not nearly as "natural"

The top of the feet and ankles are not padded. So kicking pads repeatedly will eventually damage them. Though. Most of the kicking I do impacts the shin.

For me the problem was mostly Plantar fasciitis on the bottom of my feet from jumping rope bare foot on bare wood floors. The thought of running barefoot on concrete is out of the question for me.

However, I do wonder if there's any traditional wisdom about the subject, because as far as I know, traditional martial arts are all performed barefoot - maybe there are ways to lessen the stress on the foot and ankle?

The wisdom is to stop hitting stuff after you turn 50 and do tai chi.
posted by tkchrist at 5:54 PM on April 20, 2009

I also know a bunch of the barefoot guys from around the ultramarathon scene, including folks who have run with the indians and whatnot. If you're a reasonably hardcore trail guy / girl and you meet the right people, you can join the indians for their annual race. I've heard that it's quite remarkable...

I'm certainly not 100% sold on the whole "shoes are destroying your feet" thing... I mean, a lot more people are running than used to. Maybe some of them shouldn't be and hurt themselves?

The vibram 5 fingers / nike free would probably fall apart out on the trails 'n' stuff in AZ, but I've seen people wearing them in marathons. If you need something more substantial, the new balance 790 is very light and simple while still providing protection from rocks. It's amazing the difference it makes.

... it might be worth noting, though, that in the pic in the story, Scott Jurek is wearing his signature Brooks Cascadias. I think he does run barefoot from time to time, but I dunno if he races like that.
posted by ph00dz at 8:38 PM on April 20, 2009

After checking the links in the aforementioned "barefoot" thread about a year ago, I'd decided to splurge and go for a pair of the Vivo Barefoot. I think it was furtive's comment that really got me curious (thanks, furtive!). Walking half a block was painful enough that I realised that I'd better walk smarter or end up hobbling. I'm still wearing the same pair of shoes a year later, and my calves and thighs are rock-hard (a pleasant side-effect that I've had complements on) due to my legs having to absorb the brunt of the shock of walking (min. 3km/2miles a day, every day), and standing for long periods is nowhere near as exhausting as it used to be. Basically it's become "walk/stand properly, or end up with painful heels."
Occasionally sure, there's the 'owch' of a sharp rock to the heel, but I don't heel-strike any more (because that's painful), so it's not like I've just crippled myself. There's a learning curve to walking with them and not having total foot protection with normal shoes, but that's ok, as it's a short one. I think a pair of the Five Fingers are next just for the added ability to use my toes when walking. This seems to have become a hobby with figuring out how I can walk better/safer/more effectively on different surfaces and how many new muscle groups I can use to do the same old walking thing.
In short, if you're thinking of trying them out and have the money and are willing to spend a few painful days readjusting, go for it.
posted by Zack_Replica at 10:07 PM on April 20, 2009

I also wear five fingers for everything I do in the gym and if they didn't look so weird I would wear them everywhere. I have vivo barefoots that I wear to work and most other places. I can absolutely feel the difference and loathe the times I have to wear regular shoes now.
posted by zennoshinjou at 6:16 AM on April 21, 2009

Encouraged by this thread, I just ran my usual ~5km route barefooted, totally barefooted. The conditions are far from optimal, weather was nice sunny 5°C and the route is most paved city streets and a occassional bit of gravel and very coarse sand. I am happy to announce that my feet survived and were very excited by it. I am definitely going to keep doing this.
posted by Free word order! at 10:03 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Deciding to get in on the action, I just put in an order for some Barefoots (these specifically, because they match work attire). My feet are not perfect, but I am willing to try both options (severe immobilization via orthotics vs strengthening existing muscles to prevent injury by having them work all the time).
posted by mrzarquon at 11:13 AM on April 21, 2009

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