Does running barefoot make you a tough guy?

I was running barefoot (I mean without any shoes, minimals or whatever) the other day working on a 5-miler focusing on speed and posture when a biker passing me said “tough guy, huh?“. I just laughed it off then and didn’t think much about it. But later on I started wondering, I wasn’t trying to be macho or anything. Yeah, my arch is more pronounced now, my feet are wider, it’s hard to find comfortable shoes (ever tried wearing latex gloves all day while working on a computer?) and I’ve got a nice fat pad on the balls of my feet, but “tough guy“? I don’t think so.

Running Barefoot

Barefoot Running Style

Barefoot Running Style

You see, last summer, I was just goofing around with my kids, playing soccer and busted by ligament on my ankle as I took a crazy fall. My ankle has always been prone to sprains and this just pushed things over the edge. The next six months, I started noticing that the lower I was to the ground (barefoot, zero drop, etc), the more comfortable I felt. The moment I put on sneakers, my ankle would start getting sore and I would have to sit down pretty soon. I started running in my VFF’s first, then Xero shoes and eventually one night on a stroll, when my crocs were flipping and flapping loudly, I took them off and started walking barefoot.

You know the idiom: “kid in a candy store“? That’s what it felt like. The thermal differentials on the side walk, the cool, evaporating water from the sprinklers, the little pebbles and leaves, the undulations of the road – it was this sensory overload from a part of my body that had been shut down and masked away for many many years. More importantly, I felt deeply connected to what was around me.

I started running barefoot the very next day. Wasn’t a long run, but boy was I grinning the whole 30 minutes. From there, I ended up running the San Francisco Half Marathon barefooted to finish in the top 10%. I still love my trusty Luna Sandals for trail running, but pavement, sidewalks, asphalt and roads? Barefoot it is.

Tough Guy?

Now the interesting thing about being a tough guy is that, I ain’t. When the unfortunate acorn gets in the way or a sharp pebble decides to take me on, I still very much feel it. I’m still dreading the day a runaway stapler magically magnetizes under my naked foot. However, running barefoot has taught me to appreciate proprioception. To pay attention to what’s ahead of you without ignoring the pain. You can’t just run for 13.1 miles and not listen to your body. I can feel ever step, every drop of sweat, every heel flick, a little soreness on the ankles where I’m not relaxing, watching out for over-striding or not leaning forward a little bit. It’s also why I don’t listen to music while I run. Running barefoot, in my opinion, makes you self-aware in a profound way, because you can’t just macho over gravel and maintain your pace. I really don’t keep track of my splits, because frankly, my pace is all over the map depending on the terrain. Gravel? Hell, I’m going to slow down. A nice smooth stretch of asphalt? I’m going to be picking up my pace. A 2% grade I’ve got to climb? Slow down, pitter patter and focus on cadence and breathing. And sucking wind? I’m walking.

Here’s a short clip of me running barefoot, focusing on proper posture and style. Notice the slight lean forward at the ankles, looking straight ahead, relaxed shoulders (still needs a little improvement), 90 degree elbows, short stride and a mid-foot strike with the feet landing directly under the body.

So really, running barefoot hasn’t made me tougher, just made me more attentive to my own body and the surroundings. As the old Tarahumara saying goes:

If you run with the earth and you run on the earth, you can run forever.