Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How Barefoot is Barefoot?

The barefoot blogosphere is abuzz again today with the frequently divisive questions of whether barefoot is really the best way to run and whether you can really call yourself a barefoot runner if you spend most of your time in shoes.  Here is my take--but first, a note on terminology.  

It is one of the ironies of the barefoot movement that the "foot coffin" aficionados tend to use the word barefoot with a great deal more precision than we do.  For them, it's a word denoting that one's feet are bare, whereas for us it's an ideal, a manifesto, a rallying cry, and--best of all--a really great honorific to put in front of your name.  
"That's Barefoot jerk to you"
Because of that, we have a confusing tendency to say idiotic things like "barefoot shoes" and "I am running in FiveFingers because I am a barefoot runner."  I am as guilty of this as anyone, but for the sake of clarity I will be using the word barefoot in its strict sense in this post.  

So is barefoot really best or not?  After all, aside from Barefoot Ken Bob, most of the people with barefoot in front of their names seem to spend most of their time in some form of footwear.  That is certainly the case for me.  I started out in FiveFingers and it was months before I first tried running barefoot.  I still don't run barefoot that often, or that far.  My personal record is 8 miles of mixed road and trail, while I have run marathons in minimalist shoes.  So, is that a problem? 
I think it depends on why you choose to be barefoot.  If you are trying to prove something, or be part of a club, or maintain your status as a purist, then choosing whether to put something on your feet may be a difficult decision at times.  However, as I mentioned in my post on running joyfully, for me the main benefit of barefoot or minimalist running is recapturing the joy of running that I had as a child.  Since that is my main goal, the question I am faced with as I head out the door is a simple one--what footwear option will be the most fun today?  On some days, there is nothing more fun than heading out the door wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and feeling like a kid who snuck out of the house half-dressed.  Other days, I know I will have more fun with something on my feet.  Trail runs often (but not always) fall in the latter category.  While there is something special--and deeply reminiscent--about feeling the dirt under your feet (and if you have never tried this you are missing out), there is nothing childlike about hobbling through the woods like a 90-year-old with gout.  
I usually don't run barefoot because for me, minimalist shoes (or at least some minimalist shoes) provide nearly all of the benefits of being barefoot without most of the disadvantages.  However, this is a personal preference and there is no reason for you to feel pressured one way or the other.  

So am I saying that barefoot running is stupid and you should spend the rest of your life in shoes like a normal person?  Not at all.  In fact, I believe very strongly that everyone should run barefoot, at least a little bit.  Especially if you are going to run in minimalist footwear, at some point early in the process you should spend some time running completely barefoot. The reason for this is that having an awareness of what running barefoot feels like will provide you with a baseline for what proper form feels like and what natural movement of the foot feels like.  This baseline provides two real world benefits.  First, if you are running in shoes and your form begins to get sloppy, you will be more likely to notice and fix it.  Second, if you are using shoes that constrict the movement of your feet (which can cause serious problems after a while), the issues will be apparent to you if your feet are used to moving naturally.  This is something I never used to notice but which after a relatively small amount of barefoot running I am very aware of now.  

Minimalist runners who have never run barefoot don't have these advantages.  Runners who started out in Brooks Beasts and whose only experience running "barefoot" is in shoes like Kinvaras or Nike Frees tend, in my opinion, to have much worse form and little awareness of the needs of their feet.  They're missing out on the lessons their feet can teach them.  

Also, they just aren't as cool as us barefoot folk.