Barefoot running on city streets?

Barefoot running on asphalt road

See you in hospital! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Yarkoski1012)

I saw a guy running barefoot on the tarmac paths of my local park yesterday evening.

This surprised me. I hadn’t expected to see someone in bare feet on the hard ground of the city. What’s more, he had chosen tarmac paths instead of the short grass on the football fields beside us.

The rest of this runner’s gear looked quite modern and hi-tech: black, figure-hugging lycra top and shorts. He ran on his forefeet in the short, clippy trot of a horse in a sulky race. His face and posture looked tense – concentration and attention to form, perhaps, or maybe pain.

You can imagine what kind of urban detritus litters the paths of your average city park. But even if the streets were spotlessly clean, the sharpness of surface stones and the harshness of the impact would be cruel to soft feet that have only known the protection of shoes and socks.

If our friend’s barefoot running was just a short workout to improve his form, then why not do so on the grass? Hitting the tarmac without shoes seems like a foolhardy experiment – or a misguided attempt at improvement.

Books like Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run have romanticised and popularised the notion of minimalist footwear as giving runners a fast-track to some kind of scientific advantage and return to authenticity. This is as much of a fad as its opposite, the clunky overpronation shoe. (You can still improve your running form regardless of your choice of footwear.)

But minimalism still puts a shoe on your foot – and still demands considerable adjustment and practice. Away from beaches, back gardens and cross-country races, barefoot running is a rare sight these days, and something I’d never seen on a street or road before.

Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became an icon when he won the 1960 Olympic marathon through the streets of Rome while running barefoot. However, he had intended to wear running shoes – but he was dissatisfied with the uncomfortable pair provided by the shoe supplier to the 1960 Olympics, and so he made a late decision to go in his bare feet.

And even Bikila’s 1960 win was an oddity. He won the 1964 Olympic marathon while wearing running shoes.

Adharanand Finn’s book Running with the Kenyans dispels the image of African athletes happy without shoes; the top-class runners he trained with in Iten may have run barefoot as kids but all were now wearing running shoes (and not minimalist ones) as adult professionals. Finn concludes that childhood barefoot running is only one of numerous possible factors for the success of east African athletes, and certainly not the magic secret.

The day I see considerable numbers of people without shoes (and not just one outlier) completing a city marathon, then I might believe that running barefoot on hard streets is feasible, let alone advantageous. But I think I’ll be waiting a while for that.

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6 Responses to Barefoot running on city streets?

  1. Louise says:

    Maybe he was training to climb Croagh Patrick….

  2. Aidan says:

    Real interest in this topic for a variety of reasons. For voice of balance I recommend the science of sport blog posts on the topic. For the voice of the zealot check out the blog of Rene Borg, champions everywhere or his personal blog mountain-runner.com, equally interesting, zero balance but a lot of food for thought. He ran the Killarney 10k barefoot.
    Personally I’m inclined to think it possible but not for everyone, a least not more than a few kms a week. Best thing about the debate, highlighting strong feet and limbs are beneficial to all, you build a running stride from the ground up.

    • Run and Jump says:

      I’ve seen a few people get injured from rushing headlong (or footlong) into barefoot or minimalist running without proper adjustment or moderation. It’s something that should only be attempted with extreme caution and common sense, as it has a radical effect on the bodies of anyone who has worn shoes constantly since childhood e.g. most people in the developed world.

      My sports physio maintains that we need a half-inch of cushion for our heel, now that we’re so culturally and physiologically used to it, and that there’s nothing ‘inauthentic’ about this. My problem with the barefoot zealots is the notion that running with shoes on is somehow inauthentic. I don’t like fundamentalism in anything, and I bet they don’t sleep in caves or hunt bison.

      I agree that one benefit of the discussion about barefoot running is that it has made good running posture a more common issue. Still, economical midfoot or forefront running is still possible with shoes on. Catherina McKiernan gives excellent advice on this in her ChiRunning courses, for instance.

      • Aidan says:

        The science of sport’s basic summary is the best I have heard. A minimalist practitioner, he sees it as beneficial but not to all, a skill to be learned but for many not worth the trade off for what isn’t even a guaranteed benefit at the end of it.
        I do a little, mainly back and forth across my garden but never tempted to go out on the streets barefoot. I know this wouldn’t be a good idea for me as I have a very odd gait, not poor just idiosyncratic. For starters I’m an extreme suppinator, I also have one leg shorter than the other, have one ankle less flexible than the other (congenital) and a right foot where the biomechanics have altered following a car accident. So I wouldn’t be able to run without orthotics and I have a podiatrist I trust. My only regret is discovering this support in my 30s. In terms of the zealots, the champions everywhere crew have some of the best strides I have ever seen but a blinkered view to suggest to me that my idisyncracies could be ironed out of my stride solely with their techniques. I’d be particularly interested how they’d make one leg longer to equally divide my weight baring!
        Strangely one thing I rarely if ever hear mentioned with the subject is spikes. Most young club runners regularly run in spikes and while you still see athletes heel strike in spikes, McKiernan in her prime was an example, they definitely help build your lower limb strength and encourage a mid foot or toe strike.

      • Run and Jump says:

        Benefits for some but not for all – a good summation. Barefoot practice on grass or other safe surface could be a good short drill for working on form, but on hard streets seems like asking for trouble.

        Catherina is definitely past her heel-striking days! You might remember she ran and won the schools cross country barefoot because she found her spikes ‘too clobby’ 🙂

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