Barefoot running shoes: Oxymoron or the future of running?

This week’s post was written by anthropology doctoral candidate and self-proclaimed barefoot running evangelist, Erik Lee Skjon.

I enjoy spending most of my time barefoot. I’m an academic who works alone, so I sit at my desk barefoot. In the summer, I’m mostly barefoot outside. Even in the Midwestern winter, I often BBQ out on the deck and fetch my mail barefoot. But it hadn’t occurred to me to run barefoot. True, I did run barefoot 20 years ago, while studying karate in Japan, but in the martial arts everything is done barefoot. When I stopped training karate, I stopped running barefoot.

Then, in the summer of 2010, soon after returning stateside from a six-and-a-half-year research stint in Mozambique, someone sent me a link to a YouTube video in which Daniel Lieberman, a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard, extolls the virtues of running barefoot. I was extremely intrigued by this new phenomenon. When did they invent YouTube?

I was also intrigued by barefoot running.

So, like all good modern researchers, I immediately googled it. Instead of surrounding myself with dusty books in a library, I soon found myself embraced by a whole community of people, on Facebook, on blogs, on official barefoot running sites. Apparently, the explosion in barefoot running (or “BFR” as insiders have initialized it) can be traced all the way back to … ahem … 2009, when a book called “Born to Run” was published. Many who took up BFR after reading this book refer to themselves, rather self-consciously, as “early adopters,” or “veterans” of the barefoot “movement.”

So who runs barefoot? I’ve identified roughly five demographic niches: (1) people who like to be barefoot, and so when running, run barefoot; (2) runners who have experienced running shoe-induced injuries (shin splints, sore knees, etc.), and have therefore taken up barefoot running as a more natural, less injury-inducing, way of running; (3) thrill-seekers (e.g., ultra-marathon runners), who see doing barefoot whatever it is they do as an extra challenge; (4) people who like to feel “different,” for whom barefoot running serves as a good, overt identity marker; and (5), people who are seeking out a more natural lifestyle in general.  For example, a lot of barefoot runners are into the Paleo diet, MovNat functional strength-training, sit-stand workstations and similar health trends.

Now, the first thing that crosses most people’s minds when they think of barefoot running, besides shoes, is stepping on sharp, pointy objects. Glass is everywhere, right?  No it is not. The only time I’ve been harmed while barefoot was when I got hookworm in Africa. The local people, some of whom were in-laws, thought that was pretty funny. Why wouldn’t an affluent westerner wear shoes?

Well, for me, shoes are like most things you wear for protection—helmets, condoms, heavy coats—I prefer not to use them unless it’s necessary. And nothing compares to that feeling of feeling the ground, the improved balance, and lack of most foot-related ailments, from athlete’s foot to plantar fasciitis. But that doesn’t stop some marketers, like Invisible Shoes, from endorsing the “broken glass is everywhere” myth as a problem to which they have the solution.

I doubt it’s needed. The fact is, people love shoes, and now they love barefoot running shoes.  More than BFR, sales of these shoes – more fittingly called “minimalist shoes”—are exploding. Almost every week a new brand or model is released. It’s just too much fun to buy stuff, and let’s face it, you can only express a market-mediated, pop cultural identity with something you buy, right? Being barefooted can express an identity, but it lacks any detail or nuance as a fashion item. And even if you’re a barefoot purist, there will always be some temps and terrains that make BFR next-to-impossible.

So I encourage you to join the fun, but with two caveats. First, if you go the minimalist route, make sure the shoe has: (1) “zero-drop,” or zero height differential between the heel and the toe; (2) a sole that is no more than 2-8 mm. thick; and (3) no arch support. Second, whether barefoot or minimalist, go slow. It’s easy to underestimate the degree to which our feet have atrophied in the soft casts that are the modern running shoe. A lot of people get injured in the transition phase, before their feet and legs have had a chance to toughen up.

Erik Lee Skjon, is a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics and anthropology at the University of Chicago. He received his B.A. from Lawrence University. He is also an accomplished musician, world traveler, as well as a barefoot running aficionado. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and two young children.