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It is said, the best part of snow skiing is taking off the boots. There are runners that feel the same way about running shoes. Over the past few decades, running shoes have developed from thin, flat and barely cushioned footwear to very supportive, anti-pronating, anti-supinating high-tech devices. Some people think running shoes have taken some of the fun out of the run.
Jason Robillard is the area's leading proponent of barefoot and minimalist shoe running. He's the founder of the website Barefoot Running University and the author of The Barefoot Running Book. And when he's not running barefooted, he teaches history and psychology at Kenowa Hills High School.
"Running barefoot is fun. It is a sensory experience like no other," said Robillard. He's been running sans shoes since 2005, which is when he began running and racing seriously. He found that after several races, including two marathons, he was hurting and injured. He knew he needed to look for alternatives if he wanted to keep running. He started researching and discovered information on barefoot running. "Shoes, among other things," he explains, "have a raised heel, which alters the geometry of your feet, your knees, your hips, your posture. It promotes over-striding and heavy-heel strike," he said. This can cause injuries.
He thinks modern running shoes are analogous to a cast. "A traditional running shoe does the same thing as a cast - it supports parts of your foot that aren't meant to be supported," he said. Those supported tendons and ligaments become weak and contribute further to injuries. Essentially the shoe is making the foot weaker. Contrary to logic, it is often injured runners, those with common runner's injuries like plantar fascitis and illiotial band syndrome that benefit most from barefoot running.
Robillard notes that people who are running in shoes and aren't experiencing injuries don't need to drop their shoes and take up the shoe-free life. "Occasional barefoot running might be a healthy supplement to add to a routine," he said.
There are two groups of people who take up barefoot running. "There are those people-runners who try it, and never go back to shoes. They love the freedom, the way it feels. They may have to scale back their mileage some to adapt, but they love it. The second group isn't so easily sold. They might not like the feel of it; it hurts their feet. They might not like dialing back their mileage or running slower until they adapt to the change; the time to be comfortable with barefoot running," he said. Robillard says it takes about six months for a person to become a full-fledged barefoot runner. "In that time, people can be back up to pre-barefoot mileage and speed," he said.
Those who adapt most quickly to barefoot running are usually college-age people who don't have an extensive running experience. "They are able to adapt physiologically," he said. Long time runners have the most difficulty with the transition. "Usually it has to do with form and changing how they run," said Robillard.
Learning to run barefoot requires a change in a runner's form and a greater consciousness about how to run. For instance, barefoot runners constantly need to scan the terrain ahead of them, looking for hazards like glass and thorns. They also tend to have a footstrike that is more frequent than shod runners, 140-160 strikes per minute for shoes vs. 180-200 for barefoot. This higher cadence shortens the stride and keeps the runner's feet under the body, not out in front. "There is a learning curve, but people need to try things out and see what feels right," said Robillard. "Your feet are the greatest running coaches you have."
He estimates the barefoot running community in West Michigan to number around 100 people, thousands nationally. "I thought I pretty much knew everybody, but people keep popping up," he said. There is a national Barefoot Running Society with a Facebook fan page and a local group, too.
While it is catching on here in West Michigan, the cold weather is a limitation. Robillard is doubtful that there will come a day where a local race will have half of its entrants running barefoot. "For most people it isn't practical," he said, "but what it is doing is changing how we think about running shoes and we are already seeing changes in how shoes are made."
First in a three-part series about barefoot running. Next, some steps to take if you want to run barefoot.
- Part I: Running bare: The shoe-free running phenomenon
- Part II: Feet on the ground: The basics of barefoot running
Roberta is the Vice President of PR & Marketing at Grand Rapids Community Foundation. She writes, takes photographs and sometimes makes videos about all kinds of interesting people and things.
Reports on: Running, the arts, musicians, this and that.
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