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.