The idea of taking a long, leisurely run without something on your feet doesn’t, at first, sound appealing to a lot of runners — especially those who are protective of this very valuable asset. We know that barefoot running and minimalist shoes had their heyday about a decade ago, after which some runners dismissed it as a fad, and others say it really changed their lives.
We’re here to tell you…. the research is far from absolute about whether running without shoes will change your life, or prevent injuries, etc. But if you talk to runners who have done it, and still do it, they will gladly tell you why it works for them. Our Novant Health Charlotte Marathon Ambassador Arun Kallikadavil is one of them.
If you know Arun, you know he is an ambitious runner. He’s run marathons all over the world, and each year brings a new focus for him — his AAA plan. (He’s on his 7th “A” year by the way, with the 8th planned for 2022.) His 4th “A,” in 2018, was “Adaptation” — a year of learning to run without shoes. He made his mistakes, and adapted to that, too. We’ll hear more from him in a minute — but first, the research.
As we said, the research won’t tell you whether or not running barefoot, or even minimalist, will make you stronger, faster, or less prone to injury. One of the most-often cited early studies, by Daniel Lieberman, et al., of Harvard, compares the impact runners’ feet made with the ground, both with and without shoes. In a nutshell, barefoot runners tended to run on the mid- and fore-foot with lower strike force than runners in shoes, who landed mostly on their heels at greater force.
As you might expect, other studies followed. Most notably, Peter Weyand and biomechanics researchers at Southern Methodist University fleshed out the understanding of how much force our bodies take when our feet strike the ground in different ways.
Author and journalist (and self-described ex-physicist) Alex Hutchinson sums it up nicely here. And Alex briefs us on another important study from the British Journal of Medicine that is, basically, inconclusive because results were statistically insignificant and barefoot runners ran fewer miles anyway.
There is also, of course, Christopher McDougall’s, Born to Run. His best-selling narrative shed further light on the running prowess of Mexico’s Tarahumara in his pursuit of pain-free running, and arguably elevated the concept of barefoot or minimalist running from the fringes of certain running circles and into the popular culture.
For a rather humorous (albeit long) summary of all of the research, read this from science writer Paul Ingraham on PainScience.com. His conclusion: The studies are inconclusive. Basically, running barefoot will make you more likely to land your foot at mid-foot or front, instead of heel, which will strengthen your calves and hamstrings but can place additional stress your achilles tendon. So if you try it, start slow.
But back to Arun: He trained himself to run barefoot in 2018 and enjoyed the results. He got the idea while running the New York Marathon in 2016, when he encountered a barefoot runner around mile 16, and talked to him for a few miles (whew!). He was fascinated by the idea. He read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, which focuses on a Mexican tribe that runs barefoot or in the thinnest of foot protection.
“Naturally, we are created to run barefoot, more than with shoes,” says Arun. He also ran a marathon and half-marathon with relatives in India and noticed quite a few barefoot runners there. He told himself, “Let’s give it a shot,” and so his year of Adaptation was… off and running.
“It’s how humans run, and I adapted to it,” he says. “I made a few mistakes.”
What he did right, though: He didn’t go cold turkey on the shoes. “It was a bit of a process,” he adds. “Adapting ourselves comes first.”
Arun says he started by alternating his running shoes with “zero drop,” or “minimalist,” shoes. His brand of choice was Vibram’s FiveFinger shoes, aka “toe shoes.” At first, he wore his Vibrams on his short-run days.
“Once I got a feel for running in shoes without heels, I ran in Vibrams for a couple of months. Then I alternated between Vibrams and bare feet,” he continued. “It took a month to a month and a half to build calluses, but then it started to harden my feet.” After running a 5k barefoot in April of 2018, he felt like he could continue to train that way.
He also learned a few things the hard way:
1. Pick your course carefully. The Lake Norman Marathon was a learning experience because there was a stretch of gravel road between miles 8 and 9, and he wasn’t prepared for that. “It was awful for my feet,” he states simply. Gravel isn’t tulips; he had to tiptoe through it… carefully.
2. Watch below your feet. He learned this the very hard way, on his way to a personal best pace at the Chicago Marathon. At mile 13, he popped his big toe when he hit it on a bridge and it was “really painful.” Ouch. He walked the rest of the way to the finish, but the pain endured. “I realized I must watch carefully,” he says in retrospect.
In fact, and this is a good training note: apply both of these tips to training as well as races. Arun recommends sidewalks and greenways for bare feet, as they are generally more clear of debris than streets.
So his verdict, more than 2 years later? He still runs barefoot or minimalist. If he’s on a track, he’ll go barefoot. On the streets, he’ll run in his Vibrams or Luna sandals — summer or winter. He stretches before and after running, like he would in shoes, and rolls out normal aches and pains with a foam roller or percussion gun. He has adapted, like he had hoped.
“The human body is an amazing thing,” he learned. “It’s not as hard as it appears.” He even runs marathons — including the 2019 Novant Health Charlotte Marathon — in sandals. He plans to do it again this year.
“I have been able to overcome the fear of needing shoes always,” he says. He has adapted his running style, switching from a heel-first runner to a mid-foot and toe runner. “My form naturally adjusted, so I have no back problems.”
It worked for Arun. But again, barefoot or minimalist running isn’t for everyone. If you want to try it, take his cue: start slowly, and build your barefoot runs into your routine instead of going all-in the first week. Like Arun, you may grow to enjoy the feel of the ground against your feet — or not. You may also want to consult with your doctor or a coach before making significant changes to your workout routine.