Go barefoot. Provided you dodge any real nasties — glass, sharps, bear traps — your feet might just thank you for it.

Spurred by Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run (published 2009), the barefoot running movement has skipped ahead in leaps and bounds, so to speak, over the past 12-18 months.  Barefoot advocates argue there are aeons of evolutionary engineering tucked away in the old “plates of meat”, which for thousands of years carried us around quite efficiently.   The advent of the modern running shoe (McDougall dates this development to the emergence of waffle soles in the ’70s) and the advertising campaigns that went with it saw us trade out of barefeet and un-cushioned footwear into mattresses with laces.  This, in turn, sent the natural workings of our feet into forced redundancy and our stride into distortion.

The theory goes that when we run in cushioned shoes, we deny the natural biomechanics of the foot to chance to do their thing — to feel, arch and spring in response to the ground beneath us.  Our gait changes from one in which we kiss the earth with the forefront of the foot, to one in which the heel strikes first and the rest of our weight follows.  Our lower legs go from being shock absorbers to pile drivers, sending impact jarring up our bodies.  In short, in exchange for wrapping them in the latest gel-filled, aerowow wonder shoes, our feet repay us with knee and ankle injuries.

The science is apparently still out as to whether going barefoot really does confer health advantages over running in sneakers.  I’m neither biomechanic nor podiatrist, but I do have a pair of feet.  Having gone barefoot now for more than six months, I can report that the niggle in my left kneecap has disappeared, and running is lots more, well, fun, than it ever was in joggers. Granted, my pace is slower, but equally I can run further, without feeling like I’m going to reach the pearly gates before my front gate.

The barefoot experience seems to get foot speed and breathing into sync much more efficiently than when running shod, in turn allowing for a jog that is, while not effortless, less demanding than the old heel hammering I was used to.  In fact, the only insults I fear now are those to my dignity, given social norms dictate bare feet should be restricted to children and mystics (“late for the Last Supper?” is still my favourite).

Mind, you will need to ease into it.  Barefoot experts suggest first-timers take things gradually, which makes sense.  Certainly the soft, pampered meringues I called feet took some toughening up before I could reliably get distance out of them au naturale.  There’s also a range of shoes on the market nowadays for those who are looking for a close-to-barefoot experience without fear of a tetanus stick injury (or cruel barbs from neighbourhood toughs).

For tips and advice, try here and here. Or pick up one of the number of books on the topic.  And for the fervently immobile, check out Born To Run anyway — it’s a fascinating look at the physiology of the foot, the marketing of joggers, and a lost tribe of Mexican super-athletes.

Peter Fray

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