Bare feet or funny feet?


Early hunters did fine without runners and a growing number of people are following their lead, while some are turning to a shoe that pretends it’s a foot

FOR SOME it’s a fad, for others a back-to-basics article of faith, but either way, going barefoot is the latest trend to sweep the world of running. After decades in which footwear companies built ever more elaborate running shoes, for which ever more grandiose claims were made, a small but growing number of runners are opting to dump their expensive trainers in favour of direct contact between the soles of their feet and the grass and mud of their local park.

On websites and in books and scientific papers, the gurus of the new running movement preach the gospel of nudity from the ankles down.

Running barefoot, they claim, is central to the way humans evolved; as US journalist Chris McDougall put it in the title of his recent book, we were Born to Run.

McDougall quotes a Harvard professor who argues that prehistoric man’s ability to outrun prey helped him access a diet of protein long before hunting tools came on the scene. Meanwhile, Australian scientists surveyed the literature and failed to find any study which showed that modern running shoes, with their elaborate layers of cushioning, prevented injury.

Add to this eccentric gurus such as “Barefoot Ted” and “Barefoot Ken Bob” (both from California, where else?) and studies which show that the rate of injury among runners remains as high as it was in the 1970s, and the seeds of a counter-culture in the running world were born.

Of course, there have always been barefoot runners; Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia won the marathon in the 1960 Olympics in Rome in his bare feet (but wore shoes when defending his title four years later in Tokyo) and South Africa’s Zola Budd twice set world records at 5000m in the 1980s without the help of shoes.

Closer to home, London and Berlin marathon winner Catherina McKiernan recalls winning a schools title running barefoot: “I used to go out the back fields at home in Cavan and run barefoot because it felt good, even though they were full of cow-holes and the like. Then, when I went down to Dungarvan for the championships, it was like a carpet.” Now retired from competition, McKiernan still runs barefoot occasionally, as do her children: “It’s the most natural thing to do. It can only strengthen your feet and you feel the ground underneath your toes.” Running shoes, she feels, “make your feet lazy” and, besides, “it’s an industry, isn’t it?” Physiotherapist Aidan Woods, who treated the Irish team at last year’s Beijing Olympics, is supportive of the benefits of going barefoot “within limits” and is equally sceptical about the claims made by shoe manufacturers.

“Going around in your bare feet is excellent and I’d advise it for certain foot problems. It strengthens the bones and tendons and toughens up the skin. But in Ireland it’s just not practical; you couldn’t tell anyone to run barefoot over ground that might contain broken glass or nails; they could do themselves a serious injury.”

Woods did try a bit of barefoot running for a time around UCD until a groundsman pulled him aside and told him a few hair-raising stories about what lies in the long grass. But he says the claimed merits of shoes need further investigation: “I’ve never seen any good evidence that they can control the movement of the foot.”

Some people, such as junior international Finbar Horgan, just can’t run long distances in shoes. “After just eight minutes, I’d be suffering fatigue in my arches and it was too painful to go on,” says the 19-year-old 400m runner from Clonmel. Horgan tried various treatments to no avail, but then found that the pain disappeared when he got rid of his shoes.

This year, I decided to give barefooting a go myself, and started gently by running down the beach while on a holiday in Lanzarote last March. The feel of the sand scrunched up under my toes was deliciously satisfying but things didn’t go entirely to plan; I returned to find my sandals had been stolen.

Back in Ireland, I took my first barefoot run through the Phoenix Park on April Fools’ Day, which seemed appropriate. The ground felt cold as I padded forward gingerly. Like a bomb disposal expert, my eyes scanning the ground for danger. Your feet hit the ground with a reassuring thwack when running barefoot, and your toes come into play far more than in shoes. The coast was clear, it seemed, apart from some deer droppings, and soon I had picked up the pace and was enjoying the experience.

And so it went for some weeks, until disaster struck. Not a cut from broken glass, but a hive-like skin rash whose most likely cause was a plant (ragwort?). There was nothing for it but to stop; the rash disappeared.

All was not lost, once my FiveFingers arrived in the post from Italy.

To meet the growing demand from runners who want the thrill of barefooting without the risk, manufacturers – in this case, Vibram – have come up with ultra basic shoes that provide protection without messing with the benefits of going barefoot.

If Spiderman wore shoes, they’d look like FiveFingers; appallingly ugly but surprisingly comfortable foot gloves made of rubber and plastic. There are individual sleeves for each toe, which entails a bit of wiggling, but I found them easy to run in. I did miss the squelch of the earth beneath my soles but no longer had to keep my eyes peeled for shards of glass.

Finbar Horgan also recently took delivery of a pair of FiveFingers and says they are working well for him.

However, if you’re thinking of giving barefoot running a try, the advice from Woods is to start gradually, on safe ground. “Sensible training, whether with shoes or without, will stop you getting injured.”