A few things happen when you run barefoot. Most of them are not what you would expect. If done correctly, rather than injuring yourself, your running form will improve which will actually allow you to heal injuries and weak muscles in the body. Rather than being distracted by trying not to step on things, you become more in tune with your surroundings. Finally, even at a fast pace, your mind won’t let you step on anything sharp - as long as you don’t look too far ahead. This to me was the most surprising and important find because of its philosophical implications.
I was first introduced to the idea of running barefoot in 2015 at the XY Planning Network’s Annual Conference in Charlotte, NC. There was a group run one morning before the conference where I met Shah Devang from Mumbai, India who was also attending the conference. I noticed him because he was running barefoot in a rather large group of us in downtown Charlotte. After striking up a conversation with him that of course started with “aren’t you scared someone is going to step on your foot or you are going to step on something sharp?” He replied that he runs barefoot all the time downtown in Mumbai! He loves running barefoot because it provides a greater sense of connection to the activity and surroundings.
I gave it some thought, may have even tried it, but stuck with my trusty Asics Gel Kayano series shoes that I have run in since the early 2000s.
Due to recurring problems with my hip and back that have kept me out of triathlons, I took a running clinic from The Foot Store in Mt Pleasant in 2016 in an attempt to correct my running form. The instructor, Carolyn Varndell http://footstore.com/about/staff/ , who is in my estimation a “running shoe whisperer”, videotaped our strides first with our shoes on and had the class watch the playback. Then she had the class take off our shoes and run past the camera again. An interesting thing happened; everyone in the class’s running posture improved. Our body posture was better and our foot strikes improved. It seems the excessive padding in our modern shoes, while providing cushioning and the various corrections many of us need, also facilitate bad habits like heel striking and incorrect weight distribution that can cause injury to other parts of our bodies most commonly knees, hips and back.
The tips from the class got me running again, but flash forward to early 2017 and I am dealing with the same problems again. Thinking back to the class and my experience with Devang, I started running barefoot on the beach at least about once per week. This isn’t something you want to jump into at your typical distance because it puts stress in different places than running with shoes on. For one thing, you will feel your Achilles the next day because basic running shoes elevate the heel and without them you run flat footed causing that Achilles to stretch in ways it is not used to. If you are lucky enough to have a beach nearby, running in the sand also really stresses the hip flexors and yields some blisters on the fronts of your toes until your feet toughen up. I would recommend starting out with a mile or two at the most then building up. Running on the sand in general has helped with the impact, but running barefoot has helped my form so much that I feel fewer adverse effects in my hip and back after a run.
Like Devang said, running barefoot really forces me to be present and mindful of the running experience whereas when running in shoes it is common for my mind to wander to the point I pay no attention to my surroundings. This increased mindfulness provides a sort of post meditation - post run effect which is like killing two birds with one stone providing more of the precious time we are all after.
Most importantly, what I realized after doing this for a while is that I run for miles in the sand that the tide has recently compacted and laden with shells, I have found that as long as I don’t look too far ahead, my mind won’t let my feet step on anything sharp. If I maintain focus about 3 feet ahead of me, it makes automatic adjustments without even looking where my feet are touching down. Alternatively, if I look too far ahead to take in the veritable minefield of obstacles ahead of me, my mind becomes overwhelmed and the automatic adjustments become disjointed, get very uncomfortable and the feeling becomes one of danger. I find this to be an analogy for life. As many things as we all have going on it is sometimes easy to look at it all at once, become overwhelmed and suffer negative consequences like anxiety and stress. If we instead start with a plan of where we want to go, remain mindful of what is immediately in front of us and a general consciousness of all that lies ahead, things seem to just work out in the end.
So, if you are lucky enough to live by a beach like me, or even if you live in a city as big as Mumbai, give barefoot running a shot. It may improve your running stride (or your life)