Running barefoot is not just a trend but practised by many elite runners as a habit, writes Capt Seshadri.
Running a marathon is certainly no walk in the park, more so if you are running barefoot. But for many an athlete, unshod seems to be a preference over wearing shoes, be it a marathon, a cross country event or, for a few, even a sprint!
‘Barefoot’ or ‘natural running’ as it is often termed, ignoring technological and biomedical recommendations, is still practised in some parts of the world, more prominently in Africa and Latin America, rather than in the European or North American continents. The arguments for and against make for interesting reading, although there is no proven evidence to substantiate either view. It is widely believed in some circles that barefoot running, being natural to the human body, brings health benefits. History confirms that all the running before the advent of footwear was done on uncovered soles, most likely, even the first marathon that Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta with the news of the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. It also seems logical that the track events before the first Olympics must have been contested barefoot.
Preliminary scientific research suggests that the barefoot runner tends to land on each stride, on the ball of the foot, thereby avoiding stressful impact and repetitive shock of heel landing. This also increases the elasticity of the muscles and protects the adjoining areas like the plantar fascia. The arguments against, are lack of protection against climate and inclement weather, and the possibility of cuts and bruises from uneven running surfaces, resulting in painful injuries and sepsis. Advocates of natural running however, maintain that the shoe could cause and aggravate injuries and stress to knee and ankle joints, especially if not conforming to the specific configuration of the feet of individuals.
Since the late 70s, with much debate surfacing between running barefoot and with shoes on, manufacturers of athletic footwear took cognizance of the pros and cons and began designing running shoes for comfort and injury prevention. One of the cautionary points put across by them was that diabetics, especially, should avoid running barefoot, to prevent complications, while also citing possible bone damage to users.
All this triggered the move towards an intermediary and realistic compromise between running barefoot and running shod. And so came about the hybrid term ‘minimalistic running’, using thin soled and flexible shoes with a minimum of padding, like sandals or moccasins. This could possibly be an evolution of what runners wore for a millennium or more, before the design and development of the modern running shoe. A soft covering that permits the feet to adapt to the contours of the ground, allows for greater flexibility and adjustments to each individual’s peculiar stride or style of running.
Natural running is gaining popularity among the athletic community the world over. In November 2009, the Barefoot Runners Society was formed in the US; soon after, on December 12, 2010, the Barefoot Runners of India Foundation garnered 306 participants for a half marathon in the town of Khargar, near Mumbai. A few medical associations though, warn runners not to transit overnight to the barefoot ideology. Time, training and an understanding of the effect such a transition would have on the muscles involved, should dictate the duration of transition.
So, if the bare necessities of your running lives involve shoes, you might like to think again. Or, even maybe not. Possibly, time will tell.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.