"Just as long as you keep your shoes on!"
I heard that a lot growing up in Brooklyn, on the corner of Flatbush and Sterling, where buses, delivery trucks, and dollar vans filled the streets, and broken glass made a delightful crackling sound underfoot.
Shoes? Check! (Pink Chucks, to be exact.)
Barefoot in Brooklyn was not an option.
But as the years passed, juice bars replaced dollar stores, Bikram yoga became the pre-brunch thing, and the rules of the road started changing — fast. People were running outside — and not because they were late.
And, just last week, I spotted my first barefoot runner zipping down 8th Ave.
Was he just a new school Park Slope hippie? Or yet another “Born to Run” convert? With short hair up top and Dri-FIT down below, this mysterious city creature was light on his feet, self-assured, and grinning like a fool.
The head turning run-by, of course, wasn't an anomaly. Since Christopher McDougall’s bestseller hit shelves in 2009, barefoot running has been slowly and steadily taking off. And unlike other fitness fads and trends, I'm clearly a few years late to the party.
But before I could click my Nike IDs together, an invite to the LUNA Chix Summit* landed my well-protected feet in Berkeley, CA. It was time to give barefoot running a go.
Worth the Weight — Is Less Really More?
In a small conference room in the DoubtleTree Hotel, I met with running expert and physical therapist Chris Chorak and 20 other women curious about bare-footing it. Would it prevent injuries or cause them? Make us faster or slow us down?
According to some experts, going sans-shoes can encourage a more biomechanically-efficient forefoot strike, allowing the leg muscles to absorb more impact than heel-strike promoting running shoes (and less impact could mean less potential for running-related injuries). But for some, barefoot running could potentially cause more problems than it’s worth — including Achilles tendonitis in heel strike runners who forced the forefoot transition too quickly Barefoot running claims and controversies: a review of the literature. Jenkins DW, Cauthon DJ. Arizona School of Podiatric Medicine, College of Health Sciences, Midwestern University, Glendale, AZ. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 2011 May-Jun;101(3):231-46.. And while experts insist more research is needed, this was no laboratory.
We were here to see what makes an ideal barefoot candidate, and how to do it right.
But first, we’d have to show our feet.
Chorak dropped down to all fours to take a closer look. Looking down at my un-pedicured, calloused toes, I hoped for good news.
“Barefoot running isn’t for everyone,” the former triathlete and Iron(wo)man competitor conceded. Unsurprisingly, she told us, the ideal barefoot runner tends to be younger, with no history of chronic injuries (particularly Achilles injuries since it’s hard to adapt once that elasticity is gone). They also have good alignment and proper run mechanics.
Did I qualify? Chorak needed to see more.
After a series of strength, balance, and mobility tests (think: single leg ¼ squats and single legs hops) it was clear not all of us had it quite as together as we thought we did — not even the pros! Clenched toes, wobbly knees, and swerving hips were all signs there was more work to do before hitting the pavement unprotected.
“Your joints are only as good as the shock-absorbing muscles around them,” Chorak explained. With that, she taught us a few exercises for stronger feet and safer strides, including intrinsic foot muscle strengthening moves and ankle exercises. Calf raises and core work were also not to be ignored. After 20 minutes of strength work, and our muscles comfortably fired up, we were ready to hit the road.
Born to Run Barefoot — How Do You Know?
Over in the hotel parking lot, we slipped off our cushy kicks and placed our feet firmly on the bumpy pavement. Chunks of dirt and gravel prodded my sensitive soles, but the ground was cool and comforting. Standing in place we practiced our form, raising the knee high, and placing the foot down gently but purposefully — forefoot first (try that 100 times fast, aka 100-ups, to really nail the form).
As we approached the crew, Chorak nodded in approval. My forefoot strike was just right (special thanks to running coaches Andrew Kalley and Nabie Fofanah for helping me banish my body-shocking heel strike!). But, if I didn’t let my heel drop a bit more, I’d eventually risk some Achilles troubles (like the ones researchers warned about). And while some ladies were a little more out of whack, (“a foot from your mother, and a foot from your father” was one assessment) there was a prescription for most. Increasing hip and glute strength, strengthening the core, shortening stride length, and so on…Then, three-by-three, we ventured out past the cycling tents and trucks, oohing and owwing with each step. And suddenly, turning the corner to head back to the crew, I found myself smiling — grinning, actually — just like the barefoot runner back in Brooklyn. My stride felt light and airy, and the prickly pebbles seemed fewer and further in between.
Two days later I arrived back in Brooklyn with tender calves and a serious case of jet lag. Down on the sidewalk a street sweeper passed though. With a freshly cleaned road, I considered going on another short barefoot run. My dad would have likely still protested, but then again, who doesn’t like to rebel — and feel a little freer sometimes.
Hitting the Pavement — Some Final Suggestions
Choosing to go barefoot, minimalist, or marshmallow-soled is of course a personal choice. But for those interested in trying it out, Chorak compiled this list of suggestions to slowly (and safely) incorporate the new training modality:
1. Switch terrain. Get started on a grassy field or hard-packed sand to feel a little more give. Go for 10 to 15 minutes, two times per week, and work up to 20 to 30 minutes by adding five minutes progressively.
2. Go Minimalist. Switching to a slimmed down shoe might help the body ease into the barefoot movement, while protecting those soles. (Just remember these too are not ideal for those with a tendency to over- or under-pronate.)
3. Finish free. Try kicking off the shoes for the last five minutes of a run two times per week. Suburban folks, that can mean once the house is in sight.
4. Think in increments. Run a ¼-mile per week, every other day for a max of three days per week (increasing by no more than 10 percent per week).
Regardless of footwear, the key is progression and mastering the form and the foot strike. If something hurts, back off. And if soreness persists for more than one to two days, take a break. Your feet will thank you.
Have you made the minimalist or barefoot switch? Tell us what you think in the comments below!
*Full Disclosure: Travel, accommodations, and all other arrangements to attend the LUNA Chix Summit were paid in full by LUNA. Special thanks to their team for including Greatist in their biggest summit yet! Anything Greatist has published related to the summit was written solely because we wished to share the information with our readers, and not in exchange for inclusion in the events or through any arrangements with LUNA.
Photos by Jordan Shakeshaft and Tina Gowan