Barefoot running gains traction among hard-core runners
As strange as it sounds, barefoot running has become a hot topic. There's a best-selling book that explores the premise, and athletic companies are getting in on the act with "minimalist" shoes that are the next best thing to bare. Seattleite Ted McDonald — aka Barefoot Ted — is among the nation's leading evangelists.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Let's start with a premise: There's a reason for sneakers. Pavement is hard. Heels get spurs, and shins get splints. So in order to run properly, you need shoes that soften the pounding blows with built-up heels and super-duper technology.
Now, let's imagine, for the next, oh ... several paragraphs, that everything you knew about running is wrong. Instead, you might be better off barefoot.
Crazy, right? But strange and anachronistic as it sounds, barefoot running has become a hot topic. There's a best-selling book that explores the premise; athletic companies are getting in on the act with "minimalist" shoes that are the next best thing to bare. And Seattleite Ted McDonald — aka Barefoot Ted — is among the nation's leading evangelists.
"Our problem," said McDonald, "is that since the 1970s, we started thinking we could do a better job with the feet than evolution."
He's talking about the birth of Nike and the arms race for your feet. With shoemakers trying to outdo one another, McDonald and others argue, we've wound up with sneakers that are so over-the-top that they cause injury.
Instead, we should run like cavemen.
"This concept needs to have its day again," McDonald said. "It needs to become part of the choices of mainstream America."
Admittedly, McDonald is a bit odd. He rides an 1890s-style high-wheel bike and wears a 2-inch monkey pendant around his neck. He used to run a website devoted to antique carousels (a family business). He makes and sells Mexican-style sandals out of his garage.
He runs fast and talks even faster.
Still, despite some obvious drawbacks, his premise is not as outlandish as it sounds. You might say he's living proof.
McDonald is 45 and muscled head-to-toe. He runs barefoot on anything — grass, pavement, trails. He puts in a few miles each day, mostly bopping around Volunteer Park. He jumps atop obstacles and sprints up stairs. That's pretty much it as far as training. He has run marathons (and even longer races) without shoes.
Now he has a small business teaching people the secrets of barefooting.
Yes, there's a technique to it. Where other runners might bolt or plod or strain, or even slosh forward, McDonald practically floats. There is no bobbing of his upper body. His legs are instead springs that absorb the impact of each footfall. He takes small, quick steps, yet cares not a whit about pace or distance. He stops to admire the views. He makes hardly a sound.
"Indeed, I may look like a freak," he said. But "I have smart people coming to me to teach them how to run barefoot."
The question invariably arises: why?
Because, McDonald said, running in shoes hurts. For his 40th birthday — before his barefooting days — McDonald set his sights on an Ironman, but his back got in the way.
"I had plenty of juice," he said. "The problem was enduring the pain."
So he did the obvious. "We buy our solution," he said. "And when that shoe doesn't work, we go out and buy a better shoe." That made him hurt even more.
Then, looking online, he found Barefoot Ken Bob, who's been going au naturel since the 1980s. He read about barefoot Olympians Zola Budd and Abebe Bikila. He learned that before the 1970s, running shoes had hardly any support. In recent years, the Stanford University track team has practiced barefoot.
In 2003, he took off his shoes. "It was like an epiphany," he said.
His argument turns on this: Running in shoes and running barefoot involve different strides, different muscles. In traditional running shoes, with their built-up heels, most runners can't help but "heel strike." But try heel striking without shoes and you'll immediately stop because it hurts. Barefoot, we land on our forefoot or midfoot.
It isn't just McDonald who says this. In January, the journal Nature published research by a Harvard professor saying just that.
McDonald and other barefooters argue that heel striking is jarring and can lead to knee, hip or back injuries. But while research has shown up to 70 percent of runners do suffer injuries, there is no research proving modern running shoes are the cause. Nor is there proof that barefooting is less likely to cause injury.
Proponents, however, say they've experienced the miracle themselves.
Simon Gale, of Seattle, took it up last spring, after years of knee pain.
"It is surprisingly less effort and less impact on the joints," he said. "I feel like I'm just sitting up on a bar stool with my feet cycling under me."
There are the obvious issues of rocks and glass. And arches — don't they need support? McDonald turns the question on its head.
"That's like having kids wear a back brace all their lives," he said. They wouldn't be slumping, but wouldn't it be better if they built some muscle instead?
"We should be correcting our gait patterns and strengthening our feet and ankles," said Gale, an occupational therapist.
This run-like-a-caveman debate is nothing new among hard-core runners. However, in the last year or so, the idea has entered a wider consciousness.
"Born to Run," about renowned runners from Mexico who wear just strips of tire rubber on their feet, is a best-seller. There are nationwide clubs (tagline: Changing the running world one odd look at a time). The Harvard research has been cited in the mainstream media. Last year's Los Angeles Marathon had at least a dozen shoeless finishers.
In January, the barefoot discussion reached such a pitch that the Bothell-based running-shoe company Brooks posted a 26-page white paper on its website, arguing that while technofied sneakers are best for most, the company is working fast and furious on something ... less.
A runaway hit
Indeed, the barefoot running craze has sparked a broader interest in shoes approximating bare feet. Vibram is the front-runner, with its FiveFingers line — little more than high-tech, rubberized toe socks that can run about $100. REI can't keep them in stock.
"All of a sudden, things kind of exploded" last year, said Denise Friend, a footwear manager at REI, who expects other shoemakers to follow.
Gale is a big fan of Vibram. McDonald said they sponsor him by sending free shoes, and he's used them to run 100-mile ultramarathons. The company paid the salary of a research assistant at Harvard, as well.
Larry Maurer, a Kirkland podiatrist and running specialist who has done research for Brooks, has mixed feelings about barefooting.
"If you can run without shoes, I think you should," he said. "I just don't think there are very many people who are in that category."
In other words, most people simply aren't born to run.
"You've got the people who are resilient and super durable, and nothing's going to stop them," he said.
But "some people aren't durable. Some people aren't conditioned. Some people have mechanical issues." There's overpronation, flat feet, you name it.
"Exposing ... nutters"
Some critics are more pointed. There are websites like runningbarefootisbad.com, with the tagline, "Exposing barefoot runners for the nutters that they are."
McDonald, meanwhile, sees hope in the new research into minimalist shoes. And he believes anyone can do it.
"We all have this incredible capacity," he said. "We just need to be reminded.
"By the way," he adds, without missing a beat, "there's a whole movement to unshod horses."
News researcher David Turim contributed to this report.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or email@example.com
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.