Opinion

Boston Marathon and beyond: Running is ready for a barefoot revolution

Boston Marathon runners feel compelled to wear high-tech – and expensive – running shoes. But the way to run better, feel better, and even live better is to run with no shoes at all.

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In the weeks leading up to today’s Boston Marathon, ads near the finish line boasted of the latest high-tech – and expensive – running shoes, promising to help marathoners run better.

But what if the way to run better, feel better, and even live better is to run with no shoes at all?

Our ancestors moved over the earth, and found their way into nearly every nook and cranny of the planet, with their bare or minimally clad feet. The foot has been the primary vehicle of our success as a species, allowing us to fulfill our desire to explore, discover, achieve, and eat.

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Yet, most people these days have come to see their feet as broken appendages, unfit for the real world, sickly and weak, prone to injury, in need of support and padding, doomed to suffer.

Why?

Well, arguably, we are the first generation of runners who have worked with the hypothesis that more cushioning and support equals safer running and reduced impact. We have concluded that modern surfaces, hard and unforgiving, require ever-thickening sole padding to help counter the shocks of landing, but is that true?

It is counter-intuitive, but the truth is – and studies back this up – that the more you block out the feeling of impact in your feet, the more impact you are likely to put into your body, at the wrong time in your stride, by moving and landing differently than you would if you actually felt what you were doing.

Have you ever wondered why you have so much feeling on the bottom of your feet, so much information sensing capacity? Well, one of its purposes is to feel impact and make changes in your stride to reduce it through form and technique.

Like race-car tires, the soles of your feet are supposed to feel the road. But putting an inch or two of foam, air, or gel between your skin and the surface of the earth dulls sensation. And this dulling seems to set in motion a series of unfortunate events that ultimately leads to inefficient movement and injury.

By taking off your shoes, you give your body a chance to reuse some amazingly useful, built-in systems that help you move in a way that need not be jarring nor pounding – regardless of the hardness of the terrain.

It’s a way of movement that more effectively captures and releases stored energy through elasticity in our bodies: the splaying of our forefoot, the arch in our foot, tendons in the lower legs, calves and quads, and form, all positioned ideally to absorb and recoil the energy of movement, smoothly and efficiently.

With barefoot running, your feet and mind are synced-up, communicating in real-time, by tapping into a kind of primordial physical intelligence, which is our birthright. This built in recoil system puts to shame the claims of the marshmallow soft, spring-loaded shoes that capture the imagination of so many.

So, why did we give up our state-of-the-art – and totally free – feet for expensive sneakers? What went wrong?

My hunch is that we got unplugged – detached – from our own bodies, from our own feet. That disconnect has led to gait patterns and running styles that are unique to a generation of runners. We are the first cohort in the history of the world to run distance with cushioned, high-heeled shoes. Such shoes have encouraged us to run the wrong way!

Watch barefoot youngsters run: They know how to do it. Small, quick, light steps, landing on the forefoot, all while keeping good posture. Now watch how some adults run these days wearing $150 sneakers: big, slow, heavy steps, landing on the heel, all while slightly hunched. Ouch. It is even painful to watch.

Our padded sneakers represent a case of the cure becoming worse than the ailment, the ailment being hard surfaces and tired bodies, trying to continue moving when the safe form of moving has exhausted itself and the feet and legs would normally protest about continuing.

Does it have to be this way?

Nope. Learning how to master the fundamental human capacity of running, sans shoes, is a lot easier than you think and does not require a purchase.

Simply take off your shoes and start listening to your feet, listening to your body, moving without internal hard edges, with flow. Focus on incrementally redeveloping your feet and lower legs, one step at a time, giving them a chance to feel the world and grow from interacting with it, learning from it. And become a student of your own body and of movement, share your experiences, learn, and be inspired by others.

Crack the nut of joyful movement in your own body, your own unique vehicle. There are lots of resources online to re-learn the art of running. Check out my web site, Barefoot Ted’s Adventures, along with links to my popular Google Group on Minimalist Running. Watch for a book coming out this week called “Barefoot Running” by Michael Sandler, with a special greeting by me. Read “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall.

The paradigm shift away from the over-engineered shoe is connected with other shifts in thinking about our bodies and being human. In your bare feet, you are more connected to your body, better balanced, more aware, mindful, present. Those characteristics are good qualities to mimic in your mental life.

The logic behind giving up your cushioned shoes is likely to travel to other parts of your life, getting you to give up other bad or less-than-the-best habits. You’ll see.

In this past generation, running has been primarily defined by performance and weight loss, driven by the desire to become healthy and happy, yet it often missed the mark with overly ridged training schedules and pushing through the pain.

Through barefoot running, you begin to find movement patterns that chime with your mind’s and body’s needs because you are listening to your body, tuned in. Running becomes more joyful, more meditative, healthier.

Becoming healthy in mind and body is an incredibly effective way to experience authentic happiness. And it can begin by simply slipping off your sneakers and moving freely.

Ted McDonald, aka “Barefoot Ted,” is an independent athlete, speaker, and barefoot running coach.

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