When Hank Greer goes running on a downtown Spokane street, he’s an unusual sight.
Obviously in good shape, he runs light and effortlessly, wearing neutral running gear and a cap on his head. Yet look down toward the ground and you’ll see no fancy sneakers, no $300 track shoes or hikers. You’ll see nothing at all: Greer does his running barefoot.
“I’m not trying to start some sort of a movement or anything,” Greer said. “I saw an article about a Stanford coach that had his runners run barefoot on a golf course, and they had fewer injuries.”
Intrigued, Greer decided to give it a shot, and like so many other barefoot first-timers, he started a bit too fast.
“It went well and I got overconfident, and I ran too long and too fast,” said Greer, who came home with sore and blistered feet. Then he slowed down and did only part of his running barefoot, until he could run without pain or blisters.
Barefoot running completely changes a runner’s stride. Where most runners have been taught to land on their heels, roll forward on the foot and push off with their toes, landing on the heel is not an option when running barefoot.
“That is very painful,” Greer said. “But my body adjusted right away. You land more on your forefoot, then keep that foot on the ground as long as you can – you don’t want to push off, you just kind of peel it off.”
Greer has been a runner for years but said he’s not a racer. Running for exercise was just something he did, without much enjoyment until he went barefoot.
“I can run greater distances now, because I’m running more efficiently,” Greer said. “I can run 4.5 miles at lunch and still have plenty of energy for the rest of the day.”
Barefoot enthusiasts believe that running shoes actually increase the chance of injury to a runner, because their built-in cushioning prevents the biomechanics in a runner’s feet and legs from doing what it’s supposed to do: cushion the impact.
In his book “Born to Run,” Christopher McDougall devotes an entire chapter to statistics and studies that say the evolution of the running shoe has done nothing to prevent injuries in runners. If the modern running shoe in all its variations really is such a technological marvel, runners’ injury rates should go down; they don’t, McDougall writes.
McDougall cites Dr. Stephen Pribut, a running injury specialist and past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, as saying Achilles tendon complaints have increased about 10 percent and plantar fasciitis has remained the same since the advent of the new running shoe in the ’70s.
“Putting a foot in a running shoe is like putting a cast on your arm and expecting it not to atrophy,” said Jake McBurns, a Spokane-based massage therapist and barefoot runner. “The arch of the foot is the strongest arch ever built. A foot in a shoe cannot express its full potential.”
McBurns has been running barefoot since 2005, and in his work with massage and Rolfing he has helped many clients onto the barefoot trail.
His main caution is this: start slowly.
“And I mean slowly as in years of going slowly,” McBurns said. “When change happens quickly it’s called an accident. You must start very, very slowly.”
Both McBurns and Greer said listening to the body is key as well.
“If it doesn’t feel right, stop and re-evaluate what you are doing,” McBurns said. “This is not for everyone, and it’s not, ‘this is good, and that is bad.’ The body is ever-changing, but be smart about it. Listen to how you feel.”
Common sense goes a long way, said Greer. Don’t run on dirty streets with sores and cracks in your feet, and runners who know they have ongoing physical problems should seek medical advice before changing any part of their regular workout schedule.
So – how does a barefoot runner keep his feet clean?
Greer laughs: “You do get calluses and I do use a pumice stone in the summer, but it’s not like there’s dirt caked to my feet when I’m done running.”
Has he ever stepped in anything unpleasant?
“I haven’t stepped in any dog poop or anything like that yet,” Greer said, laughing. “Right now, the big hazard is acorns at the park. It hurts stepping on them.”
Does Greer plan to turn into a completely shoeless runner?
“If it’s over 40 degrees I go barefoot and I can go 4 miles,” said Greer. “I plan on running Bloomsday barefoot, but that’s probably as far as I’ll take it.”