Running Barefoot: The Pros and the Cons

 

emil-zatopek-and-frank-sando-at-helsinki-olympics_circled
While legendary Emil Zatopek leads the pack in the 10,000 meter race at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Frank Sando, with only a sock on his left foot, ended up fifth.

 

It was 1952, at the Helsinki Olympics, there was no brighter star than Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. But sharing a part of the shade under the towering figure of Zatopek was a Brit named Frank Sando. Somewhere early in the 10,000-meter race (at the end of the first or third lap depending on which report you read), Sando was spiked by a trailing runner and lost his left shoe. Sando kept running.

In fact, Sando ran nearly the entire 29-minute race, with bare left foot. And he incredibly came in fifth, running steadily in one of the more grueling of Olympic competitions, breaking the British record and coming within 3.6 seconds of a bronze medal.

It was 1960 when a man from Ethiopia topped that feat (as it were). Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win a gold medal, winning the marathon in Olympic record time….shoeless.

Abebe Bikila in Rome
Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.

There have been many other cases of runners losing a shoe in a race, but usually the loss of the shoe impacts the performance of the runner negatively. When someone prepares hundreds of hours for a particular running competition, it is with the understanding that the shoes will hold up. There is no training without shoes. And when an athlete is suddenly without a shoe, it will be painful. The soft skin of the bottom of the foot will peel away. The tendons and muscles that support the ankles and calfs and hamstrings will feel the effects of a suddenly altered running style, one instinctively designed to avoid pain.

But there are also people who, today, run barefoot regularly, who believe that un-shod approach is the natural way to ambulate, and better for a body that did not evolve over the millenia with Nike’s or Adidas shoes on foot. (See Barefoot Runners Society.) Barefoot runners not only enjoy barefoot running, they believe it improves their overall foot and leg condition and diminishes arthritic pain.

According to this siteAccording to this site, these are the potential benefits if you take up barefoot running regularly:

  • May strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot and allow one to develop a more natural gait.
  • By removing the heel lift in most shoes, it will help stretch and strengthen the Achilles tendon and calf muscle which may reduce injuries, such as calf strains or Achilles tendinitis.
  • Runners will learn to land on the forefoot rather than the heel. The heel strike during running was developed due to the excessive padding of running shoes, but research shows this isn’t the most effective natural running stride. Landing on the heel causes unnecessary braking on every stride. The most efficient runners land on the mid-foot and keep their strides smooth and fluid. Landing on the forefoot also allows your arches to act as natural shock absorbers.
  • It may improve balance and proprioception. Going barefoot activates the smaller muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination.
  • Running barefoot helps one improve balance, but it also helps them stay grounded and connected with your environment. A person can learn to spread their toes and expand the foot while it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all movements.

And for the competitor, there is a potential benefit regarding increased speed, perhaps one of the more important factors for a competitive runner. According to this article in Runner’s World, research has shown that the simple matter of reducing the weight your feet and legs have to carry can have a significant impact on your running speed. This article quotes long-distance runner, Bruce Tulloh, who cites the research of Dr Griffith Pugh. Dr Pugh’s huge claim to fame was to be the doctor to the team that first climbed Mt Everest.

zola-budd
The South African long-distance runner, Zola Budd, who ran barefoot under the British flag in the 3,000-meter race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“Dr. Pugh had me run repetition miles, to compare the effect of bare feet, shoes, and shoes with added weight. He collected breath samples. It showed a straight-line relationship between weight of shoes and oxygen cost. At sub-5:00 mile pace, the gain in efficiency with bare feet is 1 percent, which means a 100m advantage in a 10,000m. In actual racing, I found another advantage is that you can accelerate more quickly,” Tulloh said.

But if you’re not dealing with pain in your feet or legs, and you have never trained in barefoot, there is no real great advantage to start doing so. When you first run barefoot, as most of us can clearly imagine, it will hurt. The bottom of your feet will be chocked by the impact, particularly the moment you step on a pebble, a thorn, or a piece of glass. In addition to punctures and lacerations, the chance of achilles tendonitis, calf strain and plantar fasciitis are high. Then there’s the frostbite if you run in the cold….

My intent is not to pull your leg, or put my foot down on the merits of running unshod. If you have itchy feet and yearn to feel the dirt and grass as it caresses and cushions your overly protected puppies, then perhaps it’s time to stop dragging your feet. Go ahead, dig in your heels and put your best foot forward.