Cool Running

Barefeet running, and running with specialised footwear that closely simulates running without shoes, is fast becoming a “new” fitness craze in this modern age of rapidly passing and rising fads and fashions.

Of course, advocates and practitioners of such an au naturel style of movement would have been part of a largely unheeded minority some time back, until the sporting industry came up with a series of fancy schnazy products, along with the indispensable wave of advertising campaigns that made running as close to being barefooted as possible look cool.

Before one wonders at the revival and return to popularity of such “natural” movement, one cannot help but ponder at the magnitude of persuasive power that our planet’s commercial entities hold over the minds of the consumer multitude.

But enough of my musings, for now. Let me cut to the chase (pun intended, of course – never believe it when they tell you that it’s not), and share with you some tips and tricks from my own experience with barefoot running.

When I was younger I used to run around alot without shoes, and my feet were hardened on the sun-baked concrete of the neighbourhood street soccer court. The tough, smooth, leathery and slightly glossy look and feel that the soles of my feet developed after years of such barefeet activity used to be a great source of man-pride for me – the tougher and harder the better, isn’t it?

And then serious schooling started to get in the way of my more carefree days spent kicking a ball around a hard court almost all day long. That, coupled with a few nasty grazes I sustained when hard flesh met even harder stone as I mistimed some of my powerful left-legged strikes, left me with an enduring phobia for playing the beautiful game without proper protective footwear.

And so the flesh, covered and pampered with synthetic rather than the natural leather that used to sheath my feet like a second skin, (so tough that puny mimosa thorns would be turned aside on contact like toy cars running into a brick wall) softened, and the excess skin, which was the manifestation of the body’s defensive adaptation mechanism, slowly disappeared.

Many years later, as the craze of barefeet and pseudo-barefeet running hit the markets and the streets, I was seized with an irrational urge to rebuild my ability for running without the need for shoes.

Here is my guide, amounted from personal experience, for beginners who are looking to do real, barefeet running for the first time:

1. Unless you do alot of barefeet walking on rough surfaces and already have some pretty tough feet, it is best to start out by just walking on some rough surfaces such as sand, fine gravel, unpaved concrete, etc. Remember the rules of physical training – progression is the name of the game.

2. Once you feel comfortable walking barefeet on rough surfaces, it is time to ramp it up to a light jog. Manage the distance covered to something comfortable i.e. before the skin on your feet starts blistering or ripping off.

3. When you feel good about jogging without shoes, you can either go for longer distances, or run at a faster speed, or both, depending on your personal training objectives.

And now for the running technique:

1. In most cases, land using the ball of your feet. Landing on the heels when you are not wearing shoes can be painful and jarring. Your footfall should not be so heavy as to cause any pain other than the superficial wearing of the skin. You should not be feeling alot of stress or the impact from your steps travelling up your lower legs.

2. Unlike running with shoes, which changes the mechanics of the movement, I find that I tend to take smaller and quicker steps when running barefeet. This seems to feel more natural as compared to longer and slower strides with the feet reaching far forward of the hips. Of course, my strides open up when I do sprint barefooted, but I strive to stay on the ball of my feet, rather than letting my heels strike the ground first.

3. Ultimately, I believe that every individual will have a slightly different running technique which is optimal for his/her physical build. So do experiment with different stride lengths, different stride frequencies, different ways of swinging your arms etc. when you run barefoot. Only the fundamentals of running apply across the board, e.g. breathing technique, feet orientation etc.

Bottom line is, be progressive, as with all other things, and make sure that what you are doing is not hurting you, or pushing the adaptation mechanism too hard and too fast. Please don’t tear up your feet on your first attempt at shoeless running. Not only is it painful, it will take a few days at least before you can hit the road again.

And a few final pointers, mostly for safety:

1. I would advise against running on grass or other overgrown terrain near or around residential areas. I have seen twisted metal struts left over from construction works and shards of glass from broken beer bottles lying half-hidden amidst innocent-looking tall grass. So be safe rather than sorry, and avoid running where your eyes can’t see everything.

2. Building on the idea of keeping your eyes open when you run, do please keep a lookout both around you, and on the ground that you are about to tread on. If you happen to step on a nail half-hidden in the grass and dirt, I’d be sympathetic. But if you get pierced by one lying on wide open ground, I’ll still be sympathetic, but I’ll also ask you to be more careful in the future.

3. Personally I run on concrete pavement, cos alot of people walk on them, and so they are relatively free of litter and other nasty objects that can hurt me. I do about 2.4km 2 – 3 times a week, usually in the evening or at night, when the ground is cooler. Hot ground tears up the skin alot faster, so unless you are pretty confident about the toughness of your feet, I wouldn’t advise an afternoon run without your shoes.

For those of you who may have questions about pseudo-barefoot running, I’m sorry, I haven’t done any running with Vibrams or their like so far, and I don’t see myself doing that anytime in the near future, so you’ll have to look for your answers somewhere else in the meantime.

And for those of you who want to do real barefoot running, for whatever reason that you may possess, I’d say go on and give it a try. As long as you go about it sensibly barefeet running can add a new and hugely enjoyable dimension to your fitness regime. Being able to feel the ground under my feet never fails to make me feel more alive and connected with the world around me, in a very strange and maybe even a little spiritual way (though I guess it’s all down to human psychology haha).

You will learn the natural way of running by going barefoot, and move over the land the way our ancestors used to do when they hunt, work and travel. Your feet, so long cooped up inside those shoes or sneakers, will have their instincts reawakened by the contact with the ground, and you will learn to run lighter, faster and happier.

Just be prepared for your calves to ache mightily the first few times you do your running without your shoes, for they are part of a natural shock-absorbing complex that many of us have lost partially due to the use of gait-changing footwear. The ache will subside as your legs readjust to the mechanics of barefoot running, and you would have regained an essential and natural component of your body’s mechanism for stress-injury prevention.

So go forth, and hang up those running shoes once in awhile to hit the pavement with your bare feet. Just don’t sue me for anything unfortunate that happens in the process. 🙂

Good luck, and good training!

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~