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Should You Try Running Barefoot? The Definitive Guide to Minimalist Running

I was out for a jog one early spring day in Central Park. I was coming down Great Hill and, being tired from a hard workout the day before, I was moving slowly. Another runner pulled up beside me and said, “Pick up your knees more, you’ll cover ground easier.” 

I glanced at him and noticed he was barefoot. Running along pavement wearing no shoes. It took all of my inner strength not to say, “Put some shoes on, you won’t look like a jackass.” Instead I mumbled a quick thank you and let him continue on his run. I watched as his unshod feet struck the pavement and he pulled away from me. The downhill flattened out and soon I passed him back. I bit my tongue about his lack of shoes. I know I personally like shoes, but as more and more studies are released, the jury is still out on whether barefoot, or minimalist, running is the way to go.

The minimalist running boom made headway with Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestseller Born To Run. The book follows McDougall’s journey from injured runner to ultra-marathoner in the Copper Canyons of Mexico with the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe McDougall calls super athletes. The book posits that humans evolved to be long distance runners — there is evidence that humans used to hunt by exhausting their prey by running them down for hours on end. Since humans did not have the fancy running shoes that are available now, it makes sense that we evolved to run barefoot.

What followed was a peak in minimalist running. While some people took to the streets without shoes, shoe companies saw a market and pounced. Meanwhile, studies on the subject started piling in. The results are still pouring in; there is a lot to look at.

A 2010 study looking at Kenya’s famous Kalenjin distance runners noted that running barefoot forces most people to land on their forefoot, which most experts in bio-mechanics say is the most efficient way to run. The idea is that the more efficient someone’s bio-mechanics are, the less chance that they will injure themselves running.

A 2013 study, however, states that landing on one’s heel may be the natural way to run. The study examined the running form of the Daasanach people of northern Kenya. While researchers thought that the information would support the forefoot-striking theories of barefoot running, they noticed that the Daasanach people usually landed on their heels.

Even as new evidence supporting or opposing barefoot running comes in rapidly, running shoe companies have continued to pursue the minimalist running market. For good reason, Americans spent $59 million buying minimalist shoes last year. Meanwhile, studies on the barefoot running shoes are being conducted; the initial findings are that they’re very similar to normal shoes.

I am a very serious runner. I competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials in both the 800- and 1500-meter runs. I have worn — and will continue to wear — running shoes until I’m done running. I do, however, understand the appeal of Born To Run and returning to our “collective running roots.”

One of the most intriguing characters in Born To Run is Micah True, a famous ultra-marathoner who is known as Caballo Blanco, or White Horse. True, who died in 2012 while out running, was described as “a free spirit who survived on cornmeal, beans and wild dreams.” He was often seen in running shoes, but represented the mantra of Born To Run and minimalist running: you should love running.

In Born To Run, True says, “One thing about crazy people — they see things other people don’t … Only crazy people.”  I sometimes view barefoot runners in the park as crazy. But then again, they may look at me in the same way.

At a 2011 symposium of the American College of Sports Medicine, the question was posed: “Does barefoot running increase or decrease skeletal injury risk?”

The answer? Probably both.

The jury is still out on minimalist running. It likely will be for a while, so be a crazy person with shoes, or a be a crazy person without.

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