FEATURE 2 — A Running Debate
Charles (Chuck) Molson has been doing it for about five months now, and he insists for him there’s no going back. He’s hooked.
Molson is one of a small but growing number of Kingston runners who’ve kicked off their athletic shoes and are running “barefoot.” The term can be a misnomer, as most barefoot runners continue to wear shoes of a sort: a mesh-fabric, rubber-soled foot glove with individual sheathes for the toes, the most popular brand being the Vibram Five Finger model.
This back-to-basics innovation — if that’s the right word — is the latest take on a means of locomotion that’s as old as humanity itself. Those who sing its praises insist this way of running is how Mother Nature intended it. Molson agrees. “I’ll never go back to heel-strike running,” he says.
Molson has been a recreational runner most of his adult life. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, he ran marathons. Today, at age 62, he contents himself with occasionally competing in short races. Molson now uses his 35-minute daily run to help him stay in shape and ease the stresses in his workday life as an adjunct professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department at Queen’s University. He’d been running for these reasons long enough that he was starting to feel as if he’d fallen into a bit of a rut.
That’s when Molson read American author Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run (Knopf, 2009). That book has sparked discussion in the running world and touched off an at-times heated debate about the pros and cons of barefoot running. McDougall recounts how the Tarahumara indigenous people of northern Mexico, reputed to be the world’s best long-distance runners, complete ultra-marathons — runs of more than 100 km in distance — in awe-inspiring times with only strips of old tire treads or leather tied to their feet.
“For me, the McDougall book was a splendid read, and it was a life changer,” says Molson.
“What the author had to say made a lot of sense. It also led me to realize that proper form is vital for any runner. I’d been running for 32 years, and all of that time, I’d been running incorrectly, with poor form. So the director of my son’s basketball camp said, ‘It’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect.’ I was a heavy ‘heel-striker.’ I landed on my heel on every stride. That was hard on my joints, not to mention my shoes; I was going through three or four pairs per year and still seeking out grass to run on every chance I had.”
“I’d been running for 32
years, and all of that time,
I’d been running incorrectly,
with poor form.”
Intent on trying out the lessons he’d gleaned from the McDougall book, Molson jogged from his midtown home over to Tindall Field on Queen’s campus. There he kicked off his shoes and did his best Tarahumara imitation, running on the university’s rubberized track and on the artificial turf of the Union Street playing field. By chance, Shane Lakins, a well-known Kingston health consultant and running coach, was also on the track. Lakins, a lifelong runner, is a born teacher who coached the Queen’s cross-country team for 14 years and is now on staff at the university’s business school. He offered Molson a few tips to help him improve his running form, pointing out that he was still heel-striking. It wasn’t until Molson started running on pavement in his Vibrams that he actually learned to stop running this way.
“I have to admit it wasn’t easy to change the way that I run,” he says. “I went through a period of adjustment that lasted several weeks. My calf muscles ached and I had blisters, but I was determined to stick with it. Now I’m now glad I did. I feel liberated and I’ll never go back to wearing athletic shoes. I run in my Vibrams in the warm weather — I have three pairs — and I have minimalist shoes for when the weather turns cold. I love it.
“Good running form is complicated, but a key is having your centre of gravity ahead of your feet. Running barefoot forces you to move in that direction. You naturally land on the balls of your feet, not the heels.”
Studies have shown that taking shorter strides and increasing the number of strides per minute lead to better balance and movement that is more efficient. Experts tell us those are the keys to running smoother, faster, with less stress on the body and with fewer injuries. All runners experience a degree of pronation (the inward roll of the foot) or supination (outward roll), and it is these biomechanical realities that prompt podiatrists and orthopedic specialists to advise most recreational runners to continue wearing athletic shoes for the ankle support and stability.
Charles Molson, LaSalle Causeway, photo by Tim Forbes
Lakins concurs, cautioning that barefoot running isn’t for everyone, especially with Kingston’s cold, snowy winters. However, because he stresses the crucial importance of good mechanics, he believes in barefoot running as a training tool. “Have I tried it myself? Yes, and I can tell you that it is a very different way to run.”
Lakins also warns those who try running barefoot that they will find, as Chuck Molson did, a transition period that involves sore calf muscles, blisters and other assorted minor ailments. “There are lots of books, articles and websites out there to tell you how to run barefoot, but the bottom line is it’s really very natural.”
That’s why many of the world’s elite marathon and ultra-marathon runners go this route. Lakins recalls being at cross-country race in Scotland a few years ago and seeing a group of Ethiopian entrants prepping in the warm-up area. “It was a wet day, and the course was muddy. When the runners went to the starting line, the Ethiopians left their shoes behind in a pile. When I saw that I thought to myself there was a lesson to be learned,” he says.
“I think barefoot running
will fade out as runners
realize it’s just not practical to
run barefoot on most terrain.”
editor of Toronto-based Canadian Running magazine
The same wisdom is something that Derrick Spafford has also picked up. Well-known in the Kingston running community as an ultra-marathoner and running coach, the owner-operator of Spafford Health and Adventure has long been an advocate of a minimalist approach to running. He began experimenting with barefoot running back in the 1990s and is now sold on the practice. Like Shane Lakins, he prescribes it a training technique to improve the form of many of the competitive runners he coaches.
“It’s not something you can just jump into,” he cautions. “I recommend to begin with that after you finish your regular run, when the weather is warm you discard your shoes and run around in bare feet on the grass for three or four minutes, gradually increasing the amount of barefoot running until it 10-25 per cent of your workout. After you do this for a while, your body starts to remember proper running form.”
The technique has worked for Spafford, who at age 44 continues to perform at a high level in ultra-marathons and remains relatively injury-free. He and his wife, Sara Montgomery, another avid runner who shares her husband’s preference for minimalist footwear, frequently run together.
Ed Brand, president of the Kingston Road Runners Association, says most of the members of his running club are still lacing up, but most are also aware of the arguments for and against barefoot running. While Brand hasn’t yet tried it, he has read a lot about the practice and tries to incorporate the principles into his own running. He believes barefoot running can be a useful training tool for anyone who runs. “The principles are sound,” he says. “Once you get used to it, you run the way nature intended you to run: You avoid heel-striking and instead land on the ball of your foot.”
Michal Kapral, editor of Toronto-based Canadian Running magazine, says he has tried running completely barefoot and wearing foot gloves. His verdict? “I think barefoot running will fade out somewhat as runners realize that it’s just not practical to run barefoot . . . on most terrain. Even if the evidence shows that barefoot running is best to avoid injuries, running on pavement with no cushioning under your feet is just too uncomfortable for the average person.”
Kapral says that like many serious runners, he’s switched to lighter, more flexible shoes. Many of the major brands are now “jumping on the bandwagon” and are selling minimalist shoes that provide the wearer with the feel of sans shoes. “[Barefoot running] has forced the industry to take a look at the traditional running-shoe technology, and I think that will have a lasting impact,” he says.
While Chuck Molson goes along with the assessment that going barefoot isn’t the right step for everyone, he says for him it was a game-changer. “It was the start of a whole new running journey for me,” he says. “It improved the way I run, and I know that I feel much better physically.
“There’s a quote in Born to Run: ‘You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.’ I firmly believe that. Now, instead if retiring at age 65, I’d like to continue to run and to teach as long as I’m able, and I’m grateful for the books, online information and coaching that have made running an adventure for me again.” kl
A Real Barefoot Runner
The term “barefoot runner” can be misleading, since most practitioners wear some other type of minimalist footwear. Not Clive Morgan. The 51-year-old, who works as a technician in the genetics lab at Kingston General Hospital, kicked off his athletic shoes in 2006, and whenever possible he’s been running barefoot ever since.
“I had a bit of a head start,” he explains. “I grew up in the Bahamas. It’s warm there year-round, of course, and so as a kid I ran around barefoot most of the time. That toughened up the soles of my feet.”
Even so, when he moved to Canada about 35 years ago, Morgan took to wearing shoes. He continued to wear them when he began taking part in triathlon competitions and other races. By the time he was in his late 40s, time was working against him, and his race times were slowing. So he slipped off his athletic shoes and began running on the grass. Doing so brought back memories, it felt good, and he knew many of the world’s top marathoners run this way or in minimalist footwear. “That’s when I decided to give running barefoot a try,” says Morgan. “I figured I could at least maintain my race times, and maybe even improve on them a bit.”
That was easier said than done. Running on the hard, uneven surfaces of city streets, in parks strewn with all sorts of debris, or even on dedicated tracks was at times hazardous and painful. His feet hurt so much that he gave up the idea for a while. After a couple of months, his wounds having healed, he started experimenting again. “I was determined,” he says.
Morgan began taking off his shoes after his regular daily runs, jogging barefoot for five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and he gradually lengthened his training sessions until he was running barefoot for about 45 minutes. His race times are as quick as ever — he covers a kilometre in about 4.5 minutes — and he’s been pretty much injury-free of late. He has also become something of a legend around Kingston, where just about everyone who runs seems to know or know of him. “I draw stares and people come up to ask me questions pretty much every time I run in a race,” says Morgan. He still wears athletic shoes when the weather turns cold, but he trains barefoot on a treadmill in the winter months.
Morgan concedes that running on city streets can be hazardous. The soles of his feet are so calloused and thick that he can step on pebble or a shard of glass and it doesn’t bother him. When he finishes his run, he inspects the bottoms of his feet and removes any debris.
“Most articles I’ve read say running barefoot is a good way to go if you can do it,” says Morgan. “It’s probably not a good choice for someone who didn’t grow up as I did, not wearing shoes. I don’t condone or promote barefoot running. I’d never encourage others to run this way, but seems to be right for me.”