The shod stand on one side of the river, gazing across the foaming abyss at the barefoot fraternity on the other. So far, so bizarre. Your colleagues on the shod side mock and degrade the lunatic fringe who are skipping along in their wacky sandals, minimalist shoes and, shock, completely bare feet.
Luna Sandals – for the uber minimalist traditionalist. IMAGE: Nathan Dyer
Most people at this point turn away and go back to trudging along in their heavily cushioned factory products, shutting out the possibility that something else could be possible. Humans, it turns out, are incredibly reluctant to change which is no great surprise given that the majority of our species’ existence has been about feverishly protecting what we have from marauding neighbours and predators. If you find yourself at this river however, inquisitively peering at the eccentrics preaching the joys of minimalist running maybe it’s time to have a dip in the river and see if you can make it to the other side, the domain of the barefoot runner.
The swim is not as long at it looks, nor as fearsome for the reality of barefoot running for most people will most likely end up being a weekly experiment in technique refining. And despite what your orthotic pushing mileage obsessed mates may tell you, we are actually a welcoming and friendly crowd. Some of us even have jobs.
There is one important thing to remember though. Beyond important thing actually. Vital. Critical. Take it slow.
Yes running forums are covered in threads from injured barefoot runners and barefoot running can be a pursuit that takes you towards the freezer in search of ice packs but only if you move too quick. The jury is still firmly out on whether barefoot running will aid performance and lower your PBs but I am a believer in its ability to ward off injuries and, most importantly, clear the mind. If somewhere, deep inside there, you run for fun, it is certainly worth a try.
Despite what the punters will have you believe, the goal is not to run barefoot but to run light. Running light not only puts less impact on your legs it also makes you feel the earth and become more aware of every part of your running. If running barefoot helps get you lighter then that is great, and it may well teach you some lessons to take back to your shod running technique.
So start slow. Run around the block in a pair of minimalist shoes or, if you’re an Aussie and have grown up wearing thongs and ducking into the shops barefoot then you’re probably right to do a lap actually barefoot. The next day run shod, then again the following tap out a circuit of the block and so on slowly, slowly building up the resistance. This will give you a taste of the liberating feeling that barefoot running gives and even if you decide it’s not for you that slightly improved technique will bounce around in your subconscious while you are back in you shoes. At the very least running barefoot around the block will turn you into the weird neighbour and you won’t have to listen to Mrs Cheetam on the corner complaining about what the weather does to her dodgy knee as now she’ll duck inside at the mere sight of you.
My introduction to barefoot running was laboriously slow. I had to undo the damage a few decades worth of running shoes, orthotics, Dr Martens, hefty heeled work shoes and ski boots had done to the structural strength of my legs. By the end of month two I was just cracking out 6km runs and it wasn’t until four months of sandal shod patrolling that I pushed it to 10kms. Having said that, I never had the faintest twinge in all that time so may well have been able to push it a bit further but figured that the risk of yet another running injury was far from worth it. Now, eighteen months down the track and two hour runs are a simple glide in my rubber sandals.
It is probably a positive enough sign that you are reading this. It says that you are happy to at least glance across the river at all the gliding barefooters and ask yourself the question why. The simplest level of curiosity is all it takes. There is no need to go out and splurge on the latest minimalist shoe sent in from the designers of Tokyo as a pair of Dunlop Volleys will do the trick as an introduction. Take it slow, be aware of what your feet and legs are telling you and, most importantly, free your mind.
– Garry Dagg, Trail Run Mag Barefoot/Minimalist Guru
As Trail Run Mag’s resident barefoot/minimalist sage, Garry Dagg will continue to write on issues, opinions, styles and techniques of barefoot/minimalist running. And he’ll test the bejesus (a sandal wearer) out of all and sundry modles now flooding the market. He’s on board not to convert, but to offer a perspective, much the same way our Shoe Guru, Simon Bright offers his. Agree or not, better to be aware, even if you’re not a fan of being bare. We welcome your opinions on the barefoot debate – fling them through on email@example.com or Facebook them at www.facebook.com/trailrunmag. Garry will also write regularly on the topic online, so sign up for his blogs and news feeds at www.trailrunmag.com. Ed.