Barefoot running – how sweet the sound! I have just returned from a run wearing my Vibram KSO’s – 12 minutes easy warm up and then 10 x 1 minute on / 1 minute off on rolling terrain on highway 34 heading towards Rocky Mountain National Park. Although concrete and tarmac aren’t my favorite surfaces, they serve a useful purpose allowing me to generate faster leg turnover while the trails are still covered in snow and ice. Even on this kind of surface the Vibrams feel superb; I love the light weight of the shoes that allows me to move my legs pretty quickly. On one section I hit 5.15 pace without much effort, just allowing my legs to spin without pushing that hard. Jacqui ran with me for the warm up and then I shuttled back to pick her up on the recoveries. To me the morning felt perfect – feeling that rush of cool air caressing my face as I picked up speed lets me know I am alive.
I was quoted as a contributor in a recent article on CNN about barefoot running – the feature followed swiftly on from a Harvard study by Daniel E Lieberman and others, that provides “an evidence-based-resource for those interested in the biomechanics of different foot strikes in endurance running and the applications to human endurance running prior to the modern running shoe.” The CNN feature stated that I didn’t need a Harvard study to tell me what I had known for years. So true; when I used to run track at the equivalent of high school back in the UK, I ran on cinders in spikes that had thin leather soles. The sole was so thin, I could literally feel the cinders spread under my feet with each foot strike, much like running in the KSO’s now; that feeling excites me even now, over 40 years later. Which brings me to a point that I haven’t seen raised in the discussions on the pros and cons of barefoot running. Modern running shoes generally insulate us from a complex and highly developed sensory system that not only provides proprioceptive feedback, it also stimulates far more that that – it provides feedback to our spiritual self.
I believe that we are spiritual beings having a human existence. Our bare feet are part of a sensory system that provide sensory input that enhance our spiritual experience of a situation. Remember the feeling when you get to the beach and can’t wait to kick your shoes off to run barefoot in the sand? The joy, the freedom, the feeling! I remember that – having every part of my feet massaged as I get to feel the roughness, the smoothness, the changes in gradient – and my natural skeletal system kicks into action, allowing me to respond. It is intense – not that running around on a beach in shoes isn’t fun; barefoot it’s a whole level above. When I was younger I had some hearing problems, and would often have periods where my hearing was “muffled”; what a joy it was to have the muffled feeling ease away, and be able to hear the rustle of the grass in a field as a vole hurried by, or the cries of birds in distant trees that carried across the countryside. Running barefoot, or as close as I can get to barefoot, opens up that sensory channel for me that cushioned shoes just can’t hit – I touch the earth, and my spirits soar!
Are running shoes a good thing? For me personally, I prefer to run in light weight, neutral shoes where surfaces mean that I can’t run barefoot or in KSO’s. I love my La Sportiva Crosslites, and my Mizuno Wave Riders with Icespikes in for trails. For track or road, I love my Adizeros or Newtons. In those circumstances, traditional running shoes have an extremely useful role to play. As the weather warms and the trails clear this year, I will be running more and more of my training in KSO’s (excited to try the new Trek version too) or barefoot. Is barefoot running for everyone – maybe not, but it’s worth a try. There is plenty of information out there about how to transition from running in shoes to barefoot running – I started off by barefoot hiking; that seemed to help my feet prepare for the change and toughen up . I do think that everyone should kick off their shoes and let their feet touch the earth at some time – Native Americans viewed “touching the earth” as important as by touching the soil we can touch the soul of this planet and be at peace within the universe. I know exactly what they mean.