Running for sport and recreation are perhaps as unique as the enthusiasts who first roused the market. Today, that market (running shoes) is changing. While the 21st century has propelled us into an “age of hyper-engineered performance gear and space-age wicking fabrics;” barefoot running has reinvented the marketplace, while simultaneously inspiring the new generation (Sprinkle 2004).
The idea that running barefoot can be beneficial is a relatively liberal idea in a comparatively conservative culture (today’s running community, particularly with respect to shoes). And, while the majority of research on the evolution of human locomotion has focused primarily on walking, the demand for a new perspective on running has taken hold (Bramble & Liebermann 2004).
When Ken Bob Saxton first pioneered the “barefoot running movement” around 1998, the year he started keeping track of races he had completed in the absence of shoes; the U.S. scene for distance running was experiencing a decline in performance consistent at the Olympic level (Kenyans, Ethiopians, and smaller East African nations were leading the pack). Moreover, America’s love of running had declined greatly since the 1960’s and 70’s jogging boom when Steve Prefontaine was breaking records and challenging runners internationally. Effectively, the 21st century needed a wave of new pioneers to revive distance running in the U.S.
Saxton, albeit not singlehandedly (the philosophy has existed though has only recently become mainstream and marketable), has worked to generate awareness for the new movement through his site: “therunningbarefoot.com”. “The Running Barefoot,” self-proclaimed “the original Running Barefoot website on-line since 1997,” has set itself apart from other perhaps less-educational competition sites— sites that largely provide archives of race results and news for professionals (i.e. “Letsrun”)—as the “how-to” of barefoot running. Ken writes, “Running Barefoot is about LEARNING how to run, not so we can endure pain, but so that we can run, gently, efficiently, naturally, and comfortably over most any terrain. Our bare soles, with thousands of nerve endings, provide the sensory feedback necessary to run sensibly” (Domain, “Who is this for?”). While there is little scientific research to support many of Saxton’s claims; his logic and experience with the “subculture” that is barefoot running—has instigated a new style of running (a technique that is still largely based on individual trial and error).
The majority of barefoot enthusiasts challenging conventional shoe ideologies (cushioning, stability, motion control) tend to focus predominantly (as one would expect) on scientific reports related to the foot. According to research conducted by Daniel E. Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, “Habitually shod (runners wearing shoes) runners mostly rear-foot strike, facilitated by the elevated and cushioned heel of the modern running shoe” (Nature 2010). Lieberman’s research further indicates that “Rear-foot strikers (RFS) must repeatedly cope with the impact transient of the vertical ground reaction force, an abrupt collision force of approximately 1.5-3 times body weight, within the first 50ms (milliseconds) of stance.” A “major factor” contributing to the prevalence of rear-foot strikers in today’s running culture is “the cushioned sole of most modern running shoes, which is thickest below the heel, orienting the sole of the foot so as to have about 5 degrees less dorsiflexion than does the sole of the shoe,” thus allowing a runner to “comfortably” strike the heel prior to propulsion (Nature 2010). Albeit a noteworthy analysis, Lieberman’s research has given firepower to barefoot enthusiasts who, by no fault of their own, appear to have made a few hasty generalizations. Ken Saxton writes, “Running barefoot is safer than running with sneakers. It’s easier on the body” (The...