Barefoot running takes off

Posted 5/11/10

John Milton gave up running in his mid-40s because of chronic injuries like shin splints, joint soreness and muscle pain. Six months ago, at 71, the …

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Barefoot running takes off


John Milton gave up running in his mid-40s because of chronic injuries like shin splints, joint soreness and muscle pain.

Six months ago, at 71, the Littleton man took up running again and so far he has not been plagued by the same problems that hampered his running in his youth. He says it is because he ditched the one thing that was the cause of his pain: his running shoes.

“I’m running for life,” Milton said. “I’m very happy with the effects I’m having from barefoot running.”

Barefoot running is a growing trend in the running community, in part because of a book called “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall that chronicles Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe, who run great distances shoeless or with thin-soled sandals.

The human foot contains 26 bones (one-quarter of the bones in the body are in the feet) 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Proponents of barefoot running say it helps strengthen and realign those muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments, thereby reducing injuries. Cushy running shoes make feet weak and limit their natural movement, they say.

Running barefoot also eliminates heel-striking, which some say is a cause of injuries, in favor of landing on the ball of the foot.

Milton now runs a few times a week on an indoor track, logging between 22 and 28 shoeless miles a week. Although he had to overcome some initial soreness caused by working rarely used muscles, especially his calves, Milton says he now runs pain-free.

“I have never covered this many miles before,” he said.

He says barefoot running has strengthened his ankles, improved his posture and lifted his arches. He has also lost weight.

Milton is not the only Littleton-area runner to have discovered benefits of barefoot running.

Scott Jones, who has a background in exercise physiology, teaches the high school athletes he coaches to warm up barefoot. Jones said he does about 20 percent of his running barefoot and teaches it as a complement to running in shoes.

“For my athletes, I want to show them what good form feels like,” Jones said. “A lot of runners get hurt all the time, but if you can learn the form barefoot running teaches you, it’s injury prevention.”

Jones is organizing a no-shoes-allowed 5K race on June 27 at Redstone Park in Highlands Ranch. The event, 70 percent of which will be on grass, with a short section on sidewalk, swept clean before the start, will focus more on family fun than on competition.

“We’ve gotten away from going out and running around barefoot in the grass and there’s nothing wrong with it,” Jones said. “I think it’s fun to get out there like a kid again.”

The event will be collecting shoes for the charity Soles4Souls and participants are asked to bring an old pair to donate.

But not everyone agrees that barefoot running is good for feet. Dr. J. Cade Christensen, a podiatrist at the Allied Foot and Ankle Clinic in Littleton, says he typically wouldn’t recommend running barefoot. Most people, he said, unless they are an elite athlete, need a supportive running shoe.

“If you are constantly barefoot, the muscles and ligaments in your feet have to work a lot harder to support the arch in your foot,” Christensen said. “I don’t believe it’s for everyone.”

Christensen added that he sees a surge in common foot problems and injuries in the summer months when people wear less-supportive footwear, like sandals and flip-flops. Barefoot running is a trend that comes and goes every few years, he said.

“The younger, athletic, fit, toned people can get away with (running barefoot), but I really can’t recommend it,” he said. “I think it’s probably more of a fad.”

Not only might running barefoot get you injured, it could also get you in trouble. People who are not familiar with the technique are bound to be thrown for a loop when they see a shoeless runner.

In March, Milton was kicked off the track and told he was not allowed to run barefoot at the Buck Recreation Center because of safety concerns. Although the center does not have a rule against barefoot running, the manager thought it would be a liability if Milton stepped on broken glass or stubbed a toe.

After considering the issue, South Suburban Parks and Recreation District Executive Director David Lorenz says people are allowed to run barefoot on the track.

“I really thought there was nothing wrong with it,” Lorenz said. “The district has no problem with it.”

Milton now runs about three times a week on the indoor track. He hopes to move his workouts outside this summer.

Jones says that in his experience, the running community has been accepting of barefoot runners, even when confronted with a group of them running through Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, like Jones and others did last weekend.

“Usually, people are pretty cool and impressed,” Jones said. “It’s been out there a little bit this year, so many endurance athletes know about it. It’s just the culture out here.”

But it may take a while for the concept to catch on among the general population. The only downside to barefoot running that Milton can think of is the confusion it tends to generate at the track.

“You get a lot of weird looks,” he said.

For more information about Jones’ barefoot 5K, go to


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