The other day while unwrapping a band-aid, the idea occurred to me to total up the numbers in my training log. The calculation showed that I’d recently completed my 1,000th mile barefoot. I reflected on the odyssey that had led to this unexpected milestone as I placed the band-aid on a blister. An account seemed in order.
According to the log, the thousand miles had been accumulated over 20 months of running, hiking, and sometimes when injuries prevented more vigorous activities, just walking (the same time period also included around 3,000 miles in shoes). The barefoot miles had taken place on a variety of surfaces, including sand beaches, sidewalks, asphalt that was sometimes slick and sometimes rough as gravel, quarter-mile running tracks at local schools, rocky trails, and the mud, leaves, moss, and stone slabs of virgin forest. Notable experiences had included running a 5k race barefoot, climbing all 35 of the Catskills’ high peaks without shoes including several that don’t have trails, and scrambling up Breakneck Ridge — much to the disapproval of the stewards who oversee this steep and popular Hudson Valley trail and whose duties include counseling people on proper footwear.
I aspire to do even more, but first I want to acknowledge that none of this makes me an expert. Experts include Ken Bob, who’s run 79 marathons barefoot or Rick Roeber, who’s run 83, or Andrew Snopes, who recently set a world record, covering 138 miles in 24 hours without shoes (I learned about this from Jake Brown, who in 2015 ran 3,000 miles barefoot, crossing the US to raise funds for wounded veterans and to promote a lifestyle of cooperation and mindfulness). The “Barefoot Sisters,” Lucy and Susan Letcher, are experts: they hiked the 2,180-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail southbound and then turned around and hiked back to their home in Maine (this is called completing a “yo-yo”), going barefoot so long as it was “comfortable and fun” (they wore boots in the winter and sometimes put on sandals to move faster). Another expert, Alyson Laskas, happily runs barefoot year-round, even in subzero conditions and deep snow. There are legends from history, like Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian who won the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics marathon running barefoot. And then there was that fellow running neck-and-neck with me at the 2015 Boston Marathon, me with face twisted into a grimace as I desperately held on to targeted race pace, he pattering along with a smile, waving at the crowds and once or twice pulling out a small camera and taking pictures. These are experts. I am still a beginner, although I’ve certainly learned a lot since unlacing my shoes.
Barefoot running started as an experiment. Before this, I’d spent virtually every waking second of my adult life conservatively shod. During four years in the Army I wore old-fashioned leather combat boots and then jungle boots, the latter containing metal plates to protect the foot from punji stakes and small holes in the instep for water to drain out. Later on as a bank employee, my feet were clad in polished leather wingtips. Nor did I ever go around barefoot as kid, except for occasional visits to beach and pool.
The idea for the experiment came from Chris MacDougall’s “Born to Run,” in which he argues that barefoot running promotes natural form, whereas shoes predispose one to chronic injury by ever-so-slightly altering the stride. This hypothesis seemed logical: imagine a machine that even minutely out of adjustment, how its gears would grind together and wear down faster — why would the body be any different? Looking around, one sees older runners shuffling around with ghastly degenerated gaits, bent over or leaning to one side, gasping. This fate I was determined to avoid.
Following McDougall’s advice, I conducted an experiment: removing my conventional, padded, structured shoes and peeling off socks, I ran a very short distance on a soft trail. The difference was startling! For the first time in my life I felt like I understood how to run. Instead of slamming the ground with my heels, I found myself placing the balls of my feet on the path thoughtfully, paying close attention to the texture of the path and the location of gravel and rocks. The sensation of pounding vanished. Instead, the focus shifted to picking up knees, using legs and feet as levers, and engaging the core.
As a first step, I switched to light-weight, flexible, minimalist shoes that are meant to promote a more natural, barefoot-like experience. It took me two years to fully adapt to these new shoes, and the transition was often painful, but the results were worth the effort: I felt so good running in them that I replaced all my shoes (work, dress, leisure) with minimalist equivalents and threw wingtips and boots in the trash.
Then about two years ago, I was reading a blog post by a U.K. podiatrist, Dr. Steve Bloor, who advocates barefoot walking as therapy. He himself practices a full barefoot lifestyle, going everywhere without shoes, even shopping at the grocery (the only exception being church). Dr. Bloor explained in the post that the soles of the feet contain a huge number of nerve endings, some 100,000-200,000 of them, rivaling the nerve density of the face and hands. When one’s barefoot, the brain receives a robust flow of sensory data, helping it adjust gait to suit the surface and protect not only the skin of the soles but all the elements of the kinetic chain from feet to hips. Whereas shoes block most of this information, constrict the motion of the foot, cause muscles and ligaments to weaken, and throw the rest of the body out of kilter.
Dr. Bloor doesn’t mince words: “I believe that every shoe compromises foot function and that with chronic, long-term wear they damage the muscles, joints, nerve pathways and other structures within the foot.”
Intrigued by his reasoning, one day in March 2015, I put on a pair of sandals and trotted out to the local running track, which winds 1.5 miles around a reservoir on a path of hard-packed dirt, clay, and fine grit. With some trepidation, the sandals came off, and the next experiment commenced. The 1.5-mile jog was slow and more than a little painful. At first, the results didn’t seem compelling.
The surprise came the next morning: upon waking my feet were literally itching for more. It was as if those 200,000 nerve endings had awoken after a long sleep – and now they demanded more stimulation – in fact, they were screaming for it.
Within a few days, the scratches from the first run had healed, and it was time to try the experiment again, this time for two circuits or 3 miles. Over the next two months, the distance gradually lengthened to ten miles, and pace accelerated to a more normal speed, although the first couple of miles were always tender, and by the last mile or two, my feet were begging for a break. But there were times when I’d come flying along the track that were exhilarating. I felt so fleet of foot as I landed in and skidded through the soft dirt, especially when passing shod runners who were clumping along and puffing with effort.
The east coast naturalist John Burroughs, who loved to tramp through the Catskill Mountains observing the forests, birds, and plants, ordained the bare foot to be the symbol of “the order of walkers.” He wasn’t recommending against the use of footgear; rather his point was that too much civilization cuts us off from a vital connection with the natural world. The leather that protects the foot also “cramps and distorts,” he wrote, preventing people from experiencing the exhilaration that comes from “direct contact and intercourse” with nature.
Man takes root at his feet, and at best he is no more than a potted plant in his house or carriage till he has established communication with the soil by the loving and magnetic touch of his soles to it.
— John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine
Burroughs was not known as a barefoot practitioner, and I wondered where he’d come up with this bare foot metaphor. One day when reading a different essay of his I discovered this comment:
When I was a farm-boy, it was about this time [of year] that I used to get out of my boots for half an hour and let my bare feet feel the ground beneath them once more. There was a smooth, dry, level place in the road near home, and along this I used to run, and exult in that sense of lightfootedness which is so keen at such times. What a feeling of freedom, of emancipation, and of joy in the returning spring I used to experience in those warm April twilights!
— John Burroughs, Leaf and Tendril, 1908
Meanwhile, the experiment was teaching me not only about exhilaration, but also about form. I noticed that the bony knob on the outside edge of my feet (this is called the “tuberosity”) was dragging along the gritty surface of the track and getting a little bit scratched up. Like the heel, this part of the foot was evidently not designed to take up the impact of ground strike, whereas the ball of the foot seemed able to absorb all but the sharpest obstructions. Minimalist shoes had helped me transition away from heel-striking, but as thin as they were, they still had enough cushion to permit a midfoot strike – something that didn’t seem to work when running without shoes.
A website created by Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, who studies human anatomy from an evolutionary perspective, revealed that footwear modifies the gait even for elite African runners who’ve grown up running barefoot. They tend to strike on the forefoot when running barefoot, but on the midfoot when shod. This evidence supports McDougall’s thesis that footgear distorts biomechanics.
It was exciting to see my form changing – but progress was soon interrupted by injuries, including a stress reaction in the third metatarsal, which might have been a side-effect of asking the feet to bear more impact. The stress reaction soon healed, but then other injuries piled on, whether caused by barefoot running or an increased training load, it was hard to tell.
While taking a break from running, the idea occurred to me to try barefoot hiking, an activity that would continue to strengthen the feet while letting other injuries heal. The first shoeless hike found me squelching up a muddy ski slope. Next I picked my away along a rocky trail in the Catskills. Stepping from gravel to cool dirt and then through the leaf litter and moss beds of the forest floor presented such an array of textures, it opened a whole new dimension on the hiking experience. It also slowed me down, making it easier to observe little things in the forest, like unusual lichens or moss or small birds flitting through the thickets. I decided to complete all 35 peaks in the Catskills without shoes and this goal soon became a driving passion.
Barefoot hiking reinforced the importance of forefoot striking, especially on the washed-out logging roads that abound in the Catskills and are typically covered in stones and gravel. Stepping on a sharp rock with the heel just doesn’t work. And getting jabbed in the instep (on the underside of the arch) isn’t much fun, either. I found the only way to survive a gravelly trail was to get way up on the front of the foot, like tip-toeing.
A friend explained: this is called “cat-walking.” It’s how Native Americans used to move through the forests, he elaborated, in contrast to white people, who crash though the brush in thick boots. The latter practice, he added, is called “cow-walking.”
Interestingly, while reading John Muir’s account of his first summer in the Sierras, I discovered that he had made a similar observation: “Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels,” he wrote.
Henry David Thoreau noticed the same thing while traveling in Maine with a native Penobscot guide named Joe. The Indian proceeded through the woods “with a peculiar, elastic, noiseless, and stealthy tread,” Thoreau observed, impressed by how easily the guide moved over even the worst terrain. One day while scouting for moose, Thoreau watched as Joe landed their canoe on the shore to reconnoiter: “he stepped lightly and gracefully, stealing through the bushes with the least possible noise, in a way in which no white man does, — as it were, finding a place for his foot each time.”
Later on, Joe challenged Thoreau to a race along a rough path and set off running barefoot carrying the canoe above his head. “Rocks cut ‘em feet,” Joe admitted at the end, laughing, and added, “Oh, me love to play sometimes.”
Meanwhile, winter arrived, and my experiment went on pause. My feet could endure cold surfaces, even in the 20s, but snow left me howling in pain.
Eventually it was spring again. I ventured back to the local track, but to my dismay could barely complete a single circuit. Evidently my feet had lost much of their conditioning. Also, it seemed the track had gotten washed out in some places, with only a thin film of dirt left covering jagged concrete — an awful surface. I ventured onto paved roads, which were fine where smooth, but disheartening where the asphalt turned bumpy with embedded particulate. The exhilaration began to wane.
Somewhere around this time, I figured I’d try running barefoot at the local college quarter-mile track. The surface was a little gritty, which took some getting used to, and it could get quite hot under the midday summer sun. Nonetheless, distance quickly increased from 3 miles back to 10, and soon I was searching out high school tracks in every town where business travel happened to take me.
I’ve spent a lot of time running high-intensity speed workouts at this track, but never while barefoot. The very idea was a little scary, since running hard meant a lot of friction for tender soles; I didn’t want to tear my feet to shreds. But maybe a small enough dose would toughen the skin, I reasoned, and help get me moving again on the washed-out dirt track and bumpy pavement.
The first drill was a series of 200-meter strides, and to my relief this short workout was completed without damage. Then it was on to 1/4 mile repeats and a few 1/2 mile intervals, at a pace that if not quite as quick as in shoes was still respectable — and remarkably, the feet held up. The sense of exhilaration returned. And my form continued to improve: posture straightened, core muscles were fully engaged, and my feet felt like springs. Running no longer felt like pounding, grinding, or laboring — except for heavy breathing and friction on the feet, it seemed almost effortless.
At the track one morning I found myself gradually speeding up and soon I was passing other runners who were much younger than I, and feeling a little smug about this — until a muscle in my calf began to spasm — at which point I cut the workout short and limped off the field. Shifting from midfoot strike to forefoot and then pushing the pace was evidently putting a lot of load on the calves. According to the training log, the last year has included four or five calf strains, not something I’d experienced before.
Now it’s winter again. I’ve been running steadily at the track, even as the temperatures have dropped into the 30s, but running fast on cold feet is teaching a new set of lessons. Experienced barefooters advise that “numb is dumb,” which is good advice: I ran a brisk ten miler at just above freezing and discovered afterwards that I’d incurred six or seven bad blisters and a couple of cuts. I’d just learned that it doesn’t pay to be bold when the weather’s cold. Three weeks and a box of band-aids later, another ten-miler gave me a fresh blister. I buckled on a pair of sandals, ran ten miles the next day, and found afterwards that the straps had rubbed a sore in the skin. A few more bandages went on plus some anti-bacterial cream. Today it’s 51 F and raining, and I’m trying to figure out how to approach the afternoon’s run.
Barefoot running’s been an interesting experiment for me. It was based on the calculated bet that more natural form would prolong my useful running life. What a surprise to discover light-footedness and exhilaration and a more direct connection with nature — in short, a whole new dimension to running and life.