Whilst Bikila was making history, Britain’s own Bruce Tulloh was achieving European records in the ‘50s and ‘60s nearly always in bare feet. His record of 27:23 on a cinder track over 6 miles will dismay those sceptics who are worried about what they might tread on. Zola Budd, who always ran barefoot, set a world 5000m track record in South Africa at the age of just 16 taking more than six seconds off Mary Decker’s world record of the time. It has always been a shame that Zola is probably better known for the acrimonious collision with Decker in the 3000m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
And then of course there’s Charlie Robbins, winner of two US National Marathon Championships in the late 40s. He went on to complete 50 consecutive ultras, the Thanksgiving Day Road Races in Connecticut before calling it a day in 2003. He nearly always went shoeless, although he would wear a pair of socks if the temperature went below 20 degrees.
It probably wasn’t until the late naughties that barefoot running came to the forefront again with the publication of Christopher McDougall’s book, ‘Born to run’, and this seemed to change everything. The book is mostly about a mysterious tribe of Northern Mexican Indians, the Tarahumara, famed for their ascetic lifestyle and extreme brilliance at being able to cover incredible distances, just in very rudimentary sandals or barefoot, not on roads, tracks or pavements, but over desserts and rough terrain. It seemed that overnight, runners started to question whether everything they had been told by the shoe manufacturers about overpronation, supination, insoles, midsoles, infills, orthotics, gait analysis, structured and neutral cushioning, motion control, EVA, UiC technology and so on, was indeed correct or misleading. Bearing in mind that 80% of joggers and runners will suffer a running related injury in any one year, questions started to be asked about whether the actual shoes were causing the injuries. Whether or not the shoes might be causing the injuries, it was clear to many that the type and style of shoe was not preventing the injuries the way the shoe manufacturers represented themselves in their advertising and marketing. Also, at the time of publication of ‘Born to run’ runners looked around for other runners who were running barefoot and found that the elites from Kenya and Ethiopia were training barefoot. As for McDougall, his perception was clear as to the biggest mystery in modern running and the question, “why does my foot hurt?” – his answer, “it’s the shoes, stupid”.
So, shoes or no shoes, or maybe, the middle way, a compromise. I have no doubt that the proponents for either way will stand their ground until the last runner crosses the line. What is clear though is that over the last thirty years or so, the running shoe industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar market with so many different brands and models, the confusion for runners is understandable. Just who in fact do you believe, there are so many articles now in the running journals about the best shoes on the market and many, many articles have been written of the pros and cons of this shoe and that shoe. Are we to believe the articles, of course we are, after all, they are supposedly written by the experts. The fact that the shoe manufacturers are probably the biggest earner for the journals in terms of advertising revenue is of course, beside the point, but that of course is another story.
Just as you wouldn’t expect to pick up Andy Murray’s tennis racket and go off and win Wimbledon, we can’t expect to lace up with the latest high tech running shoes and win the London Marathon. Basically, we have to learn how to run and run correctly, for style, cadence, posture and breathing are far more important than what is on or off our feet. When I watch runners along the streets, roads and pathways, probably 80 to 90 per cent of them are basically injuries waiting to happen. Modern shoes have very high levels of cushioning and this means that we do not feel the forces, sometimes up to three times our body weight that we are experiencing on landing, particularly with a heel strike which is nearly always associated with a long stride. The shoe actually cushions the impact of your feet, but this force has to go somewhere and will be absorbed through your knees and other joints, tendons and muscles. What Christopher McDougall suggests and is well supported by a highly regarded clinical study by Daniel Lieberman from Harvard is that we don’t actually need this cushioning as long as we are running with correct style and posture. Unlike golfers or tennis players who have lessons and coaching to learn how to play their sport correctly, runners tend to just go out and run, just putting one foot in front of the other, but, like all human movement, running is a skill. Of course, anyone can put trainers on and run, but most will not be running correctly, which is why injuries happen. As a marathon coach, I have seen this so many times in the first stages of training someone. The best way to learn to run correctly, apart from concentrating on cadence and posture in your shoes, is to run barefoot. This is so that our feet and legs can feel the impact of our stride pattern which provides feedback and allows our running form to adjust to the impact. This is called proprioception, the awareness of where your body is in space. A heavily cushioned shoe does not allow you to feel the impact, but practising running, barefoot, will make you run with better and more economical form and better foot strike. Put quite simply, your natural gait in bare feet is a mid-foot strike, you land on the ball of your foot and then push off. In your cushioned running shoe, you adopt a rear foot, heel strike with the accompanying longer stride, which is basically a braking and accelerating pattern.
So, let’s start off, how often do you take your shoes off and walk around barefoot feeling the grass or sand between your toes, or around the house, probably, not very often. Your feet were designed to be mobile, why else would you have twenty six bones in such a small part of your body? Your feet are normally stuck in shoes all day, and they’re not happy feet, encased in thick soled, heavy, high ankled and high heeled shoes, they need to have freedom of movement, they need to breathe. You have more nerve endings per square centimetre in your feet than any other part of your body, so if you’re stuck in thick soled flat shoes all day you won’t know whether to alter your movement to cater for uneven ground, declines or inclines. These are messages through your feet but when they’re constricted in shoes the messages don’t get back to your brain. And, stiffness in your feet will eventually affect muscles, tendons and joints higher up in the kinetic chain such as ankles, knees, hips and the spine. By paying attention to your feet you will be able to prevent the experience of pain in other areas of your body.
First of all, spend time walking around barefoot and getting used to the way your feet work. Kick your shoes off when you get home, when you take the dog for a walk on the grass, the beach, be aware of your gait and how your stride tends to be shorter. Continue running as you normally would in shoes but after a couple of weeks walking around barefoot when you get the chance, on one of your runs, take your shoes off and try about a quarter of a mile or so barefoot, keep your socks on if you feel nervous about treading on something sharp, you won’t anyway, but it will give you that little bit of confidence. Run tall, as though there’s a piece of string running through your body, pulling your head high, shoulders relaxed and down, away from your ears with your chest open allowing you to breathe properly. That short distance is unlikely to quench your thirst for a run so put your shoes back on and run as far as you want. You probably won't notice too much difference in your running style or your foot-strike, that will come later. Most importantly, almost every runner that tries barefoot running does too much, too far, too soon and inevitably finishes up with discomfort and delusion. So, plan your routes that take in areas suitable for barefoot running, running tracks, golf courses, tennis courts, clear fields and nicely tarmacked roads and pavements. Don’t run barefoot on consecutive days but gradually build up the distance combining the barefoot run with the shoed run, and remember, life is not for hurrying, so hurry slowly. It will take a while before you’re covering decent distances, but you really will get there much quicker if you are patient.
What you will find is that your barefoot running will be changing your running style to the correct posture and form. Your cadence will be around 180 steps per minute for a start. If you look at all the top class and elite athletes, what is their cadence, yup, you’ve guessed it, around 180 steps per minute and believe it or not, that applies to Radcliffe, Tergat, Gebrselassie and Kimetto at one end of the scale and Powell and Bolt at the other.
So, what happens next? Is it for you, there’s only one way to find out, do you want to follow in the steps of Tulloh, Budd and the Tarahumara Indians, probably not? Treat barefoot running as a training tool, not as a lifestyle choice. Introduce it into your training schedule and you’ll find that your running style will have gradually changed your skills of better cadence, posture and style, you will have become a better and more efficient runner, and likely not to be suffering the injuries of your past, whether you’re in shoes or not. Remember too that the running shoe industry has reacted like a coiled spring, particularly since the days of ‘Born to run’, and have launched minimalist footwear that allows you to run as if you have no shoes on at all, to more conventional models, but with very little cushioning, that give you the benefits of barefoot running without the risks of getting things stuck in your feet.
If you’re still sceptical and say you wouldn’t try because …., that’s a bit like saying that you’ve never drunk Guinness because you don’t like it. Running barefoot will help to realign, to release tension and the patterns, to feel the earth, and allow the body to remember as a child, how to re-learn to be oneself and to be free, but still committed.