With the last rays of a sunny spring afternoon fading behind the mountains, I spotted a lone jogger along the waterfront last week in downtown Juneau. There was nothing out of the ordinary except his footwear. It appeared as if his feet and each of his toes were enclosed in a thin layer of cloth and rubber.
These “foot gloves” have been spotted on more feet around town lately. They are referred to as “barefoot running shoes” - a modern twist on an old concept meant to simulate the effects of running in bare feet.
“Barefoot running or minimalist running changes the way you run,” Justin Dorn, a minimalist runner and a physical therapist at Juneau Physical Therapy, said. “You take shorter strides and land more on the middle or forward part of the foot rather than the heel.”
The human foot is a dynamic, intricately-designed structure, Dorn said, composed of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones that flex, contract, and adjust in response to surface conditions. Impact from the ground travels up the foot to the rest of the body, so a runner’s gait influences the amount of force the body receives. The kind of shoe worn, if any, influences the runner’s gait.
Before the invention of the heavily cushioned modern athletic shoe in the 1970s, runners either wore shoes that were thin-soled or they went barefoot. In recent decades, a rise of running-related injuries has motivated scientific research to better understand how footwear affects the body. The results of a biomechanical study published by Daniel Lieberman and his colleagues at Harvard University indicate that heel striking is more common with shod runners (runners with shoes) and results in more ground force impacts than the forefront striking pattern common in barefoot running. While more scientific research is needed to further investigate the benefits of barefoot running, there is much anecdotal evidence linking barefoot running with injury reduction.
Back in Juneau, Dorn explains that the modern athletic shoe provides protection and support to the foot’s arch. For a conventional runner to switch to minimalist running, Dorn emphasizes the need for a slow and gradual transition.
“It takes a commitment of time, patience, and dedication to strengthen muscles in the feet,” he said. “If you go out and run the distances that you normally run, you can develop stress fractures, plantar fasciitis and other problems because the muscles in the foot’s arch have atrophied from being supported for so long.”
Many of today’s elite runners include athletes from places in the world where the majority of the population carry out daily activities in sandals, thin-soled shoes, or without shoes. Chris McDougall’s bestselling book “Born to Run,” showcased the legendary running ability of the Rarámuri, also known as Tarahumara, who are the traditional people of the Copper Canyons in Mexico’s Chihuahua state. The Rarámuri are well-known for their extraordinary ability to run at high speeds over great distances in their desert home. Moreover, they either wear thin-soled sandals handmade from bits of string and rubber or no footwear at all.
Similar to other traditional cultures around the world, footwear was not historically used by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples of southeast Alaska.
“The wet climate doesn’t lend itself to leather moccasins. Most travel was by canoe, so footwear was not really necessary,” Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum, said. “Even Native packers on the Chilkoot trail did not wear shoes on the mountain passes.”
Henrikson also said footwear in southeast Alaska was reserved for ceremonial occasions or winter when fur mukluk-type boots were worn for protection from the cold.
While running in truly bare feet may not be good idea in Juneau during the winter or on rocky surfaces without developing naturally tough feet, some locals opt to run on grass, turf, or indoor surfaces. The majority of “barefoot” runners choose to wear minimalist running shoes for outdoor activities.
The process of transitioning from athletic shoes to minimalist shoes was smooth and gradual for Juneau “barefoot” runner Mikaela Rodriguez. During her indoor treadmill workouts, Rodriguez would take short breaks to jog in bare feet around the parking lot.
“I wanted to notice the difference in running with and without shoes,” she said.
After several weeks jogging for short intervals without shoes, Rodriguez felt more confident to wear her minimalist shoes for running a few laps in the parking lot. Later, she said she started running with the shoes on the treadmill for a little while longer before finally heading outdoors.
“At first (my) calf muscles (felt) really sore, but gradually this goes away as the muscles in (my) legs and feet get stronger,” she said.
“I did a lot of research before buying the shoes,” Michelle Norman said.
Norman's ten-year old son, Connor, is also a “barefoot runner.” Connor Norman ran the Klondike in his minimalist shoes, and he also traveled to South Carolina to compete at the National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships this past winter. Connor said he likes wearing the five-toed shoes even though they were difficult to put on at first.
“They’re also kind of stinky,” Norman said.
Her trick in keeping them fungus-free is to put them on a boot dryer after training.
Although minimalist running shoes are now sold widely in a variety of colors, brands and styles, barefoot running should not be treated as a fad or fashion statement but as a commitment to a different approach to running. Part of the philosophy behind minimalist running is to become more in touch with the ground and to run with a gentler foot strike pattern that reduces the impact forces on the body.
For anyone interested in switching to minimalist running, it is essential to strengthen and prepare the feet to run without the support of conventional athletic shoes. Consult a physical therapist, podiatrist or other health professional if you have a history of musculoskeletal injury to make sure that barefoot running is a good option.
Dorn has seen many patients who have been injured from barefoot and minimalist running and cautions people who are looking to change their running style.
“Some biomechanical issues will just not be solved with barefoot running,” he said. "It’s not practical for everyone.”
He also said many people who wear supported shoes do not have issues.
“If you’re happy and comfortable in the shoes that you have, there is no need to change anything.”
Regardless of running shoe style, it is essential to remember to balance the joy of movement with an awareness of the body’s limits in order to prevent injury. In the words of 10-year old Connor, one of Juneau’s youngest “barefoot” runners, the goal is to “just keep running!”
For more information about barefoot running, visit barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu.
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. Contact her at email@example.com