Running an ultramarathon is hard enough, but to do it with no shoes on is a challenge many can only dream of. Even so, the elite club of barefoot runners is slowly burgeoning and the trend is sure to stay on the radar as long as we have ambassadors like Milind Soman, Christopher McDougall and Abhishek Mishra.
“The debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently. Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please.”
– Christopher McDougall
Author McDougall wrote ‘Born to Run’; a book about barefoot running after he repeatedly injured himself while running. The year was 2009 and barefoot running was still a very small niche. The book discussed the Tarahumara people in Mexico who run close to 100 km at barely fathomable speeds, and all of them barefoot. This is not a special occasion either, as the Tarahumara do this on a regular basis. A large part of it is down to the culture of the region, however, many put it down to simply being a natural way of running for this special group of people.
India’s barefoot brigade
When it comes to barefoot running in India, Milind Soman remains the face of this phenomenon having recently completed the Ultraman challenge in Florida without shoes on. Joining him there was Abhishek Mishra who also finished the Ultraman challenge, and has taken to running barefoot in recent years. Abhishek is also an avid ultra-runner and has been a mainstay in the Indian ultra-running circuit for the past few years. He is currently preparing for an expedition to Mount Everest.
For Milind, going barefoot was the logical next step after he transitioned to minimalist shoes. “When you run barefoot, your body is constantly told how to respond to various surfaces. So your balance, your coordination, the foot strike, the impact – everything is taken care of by the body’s response. Trillions of responses happen in the body at the same time. It is instinctive. You have to allow the body to take care of itself,” he says.
When you choose to discard your running shoes, then you get that much more feedback from the ground and if you have not perfected your running form, this could also lead to some serious injuries. You get a sense of friction, which starts off the impact avoidance, and it becomes very uncomfortable to land on your heel, which is something novice runners are wont to do. So it’s advisable to actually have some experience of running regularly, before you decide to give up on shoes.
In a study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72 runners between 18 and 44 years of age were tasked with either running barefoot or with running shoes at a comfortable, self-selected pace for roughly 15-20 minutes. They were also asked to regularly step on targets laid out on the track in the form of poker chips. This was in order to simulate how runners must precisely place their feet when running barefoot, to avoid sharp objects. The working memory in runners was measured before and after running. The results showed barefoot runners having a 16 per cent increase in working memory performance, measured as the ability to remember instructions, recall directions, and process information. Improved working memory is also linked to sharper performance in school, working a 9-to-5, or in retirement, the researchers said.
There have always been minimalists (runners who run in minimal shoes) who believe that barefoot running can correct a runner’s form and eventually lead to a forefoot strike. This results in fewer injuries because non-minimalist runners run with a heel-strike. However, this has not been scientifically backed and there is no clear consensus on the benefits of running barefoot as a whole.
McDougall’s book also had some controversial chapters that conclude running shoes have done little to prevent injuries. The popularity of minimal shoes, such as the Nike Free and Vibram FiveFingers, has stoked the fire a little more. While some studies have found that less weight on your feet will improve your running efficiency, it’s also worth noting that running barefoot will lead the foot to impact the ground differently.
“When you run barefoot, you start by running very, very slowly. The body begins to train itself. Then you slowly increase your speed and distance,” Milind says, while adding, “During the rains, I wear very thin vibrams (rubber outsoles) as the skin is more vulnerable to cuts and bacteria.”
Barefoot running also forces you to drop your training volume down quite a bit in the initial days. If you keep up your training schedule as before, your feet will not be able to handle it immediately. So you have to build up your running capacity slowly, so your feet get used to the activity. The trick is in not doing too much too soon, because your feet will not allow it. So first start running regularly, before you decide to go shoe-less.
Tips for barefoot newbies
If you are looking to go barefoot, here are some pointers to keep in mind which will hold you in good stead.
- Strengthen the lower body and core. Focus on your feet by stretching them out regularly and practicing some toe curls, shin raises and ankle rotations. This will help develop the muscles which run deep into your foot.
- Start using the elliptical or treadmill for your first few trial runs. Even before that though, practice with a minimalist shoe to get a feel for how your feet express themselves when there’s no big foam or cushioning to absorb the shock. It may be harder than you think.
- Begin to incorporate short intervals (seconds to minutes) of barefoot walking around the house or on the track, while also continuing to run using minimalist or low-profile shoes. The walking will warm you up and your feet also get used to the activity of being open to the elements.
- Be patient and stretch more than usual. We always recommend stretching at the end of every run. You just have to do a little more of these, especially for your feet. Incorporate yoga poses into your recovery to ensure great conditioning of the feet muscles.
Give barefoot running a shot over a period of time and you can decide for yourself whether it’s something you want to embrace.