Thursday, 28 November 2013

Naked Fascination: Barefoot Running

The further we climb into the 21st century, the more size is starting to matter and – unfortunate for some – the smaller, generally means the better.

For years I’ve been condemning vanishing waistlines, but think about smartphones that are becoming slimmer, outfits that are becoming skimpier, and in the world of running? Well the clunky Reeboks I wore as a teenager would certainly not grace the glossy pages of today’s Runner’s World magazine. 

In fact, as I pound through the parks of London, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make out what shoes fellow runners are donning. In some cases, that’s because they’re not, in fact, wearing any. 

So-called minimal or barefoot running is a trend that has grown faster than you can say pronation support, but just like a teeny-weeny phone that you might drop through a drain or - god forbid - even swallow if you’re not used to its svelte form, running without familiar and trusted support could actually leave you limping with pain rather than leaping with pleasure.

If you’re a regular runner with developed leg, ankle and foot muscles though, barefoot running can actually correct your form and foster a forefoot strike, which can result in fewer running injuries than those who run with a heel-strike. (Click here for a blog on reengaging and realigning).

Thousands of people have converted to the natural way already so why not give it a go?


Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila, widely praised as the greatest Olympic marathoner of all time, is arguably the pioneer of modern day barefoot running. In 1960, he won his first gold medal running the 26 and a bit miles in a world record time of 2:15:17 - shoeless. 

Over in the UK, meanwhile, Bruce Tulloh was becoming a poster boy for barefoot running, clocking 13 minutes 12 seconds for a three miler on grass, and 27 minutes 23 seconds for a six miler on cinders, all bare-soled. Later Tulloh ran across America. But he indulged in a pair of shoes for that one. After all, it was 2,876 miles. 

Other notable proponents of barefoot running include Charlie Robbins and Zola Budd. Robbins won two USA National Marathon Championships in the late 1940s and completed 50 straight Thanksgiving Day Road Races in Connecticut – most shoeless with just a pair of socks to keep warm if necessary.
South African Budd, meanwhile, set a track world record at the tender age of 16 in January 1984, blasting 5k in 15:01.83, more than six seconds under Mary Decker's existing record with nude feet being her secret weapon.

More recently, Christopher McDougall's 2009 book “Born to Run” – which explores the roots of barefoot running among the Tarahumara people of Mexico - has revived interest in barefoot running, especially fuelled by his conclusion that pricey high-tech shoes have done virtually nothing to keep injuries at bay.  

Thousands of runners are now, abandoning their shoes altogether. An article published in the New York Times in 2010, described how trainers were no longer a staple item of running gear for many participants in the New York Marathon. 

In the US, the Barefoot Runners Society was founded in November 2009 and just a year later the organization claimed 1,345 members, nearly double the 680 members it had when it was founded.


As an urbanite, who spends most of her runs dodging cars, commuters and all kinds of rubbish, not to mention shards of glass and potholes, I’ve yet to test barefoot running.  I have, however, sampled the minimal approach. 

Dozens of apparel manufactures now sell shoes with very thin soles which promote a similar gait as barefoot running and weigh close to nothing.

The Mexican Tarahumara, for example, wear sandals known as huaraches that have a single long lace and a sole often made from recycled tires or leather. 

Outfitter XeroShoes, whose motto is “Feel the World”, sells a whole range akin to those worn by the Tarahumara that won’t break the bank and can be worn for strolling around on rest days too. If you’re interested in ordering a pair, send me a Tweet (@26andabitmiles) or click here

While providing all the benefits of true barefoot running, they’ll also keep you injury-free if you do come across a sharp pebble.

So if you love your clunky sneakers, are new to running or a city slicker like me, then minimalist shoes are a great way to start developing your leg muscles to eventually strip off completely. Although you might be shy to admit it, nudity can be wildly exhilarating, why not give it a go? Just one step at a time… 

(Image courtesy and

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