When Derek Shaw was visiting his family in Scarborough, Ont. earlier this month, he attracted more attention than he had anticipated during his daily run.
“Way to go man,” yelled a passerby. “You’re going old school.”
The residents of the Toronto suburb were a little more impressed with the long-distance runner’s choice in footwear – or lack thereof – than the avid running community in Victoria. But even amidst the mild climate and the free spirits of the West Coast, Shaw is a bit of an anomaly amongst his peers.
He’s a barefoot runner.
“It’s a cool feeling,” said Shaw, who began running in his late 40s after he had to give up his morning bicycle commute. “It’s a whole different dimension to running, feeling the ground beneath your feet.”
Now the information technology consultant visits his clients barefoot to keep his feet trained on the midfoot strike – a hallmark of the style, allowing the calf, instead of the heel, to absorb the bulk of the shock.
“It’s like having a really good golf game, feeling everything in your swing, then halfway through putting on the biggest, thickest mittens and playing the rest of the game. That’s the difference between running barefoot and running with shoes on,” Shaw said.
Seated inside the coffee shop at Cedar Hill Golf Course, Shaw doesn’t appear much different than any other middle-aged runner in town. He dons a technical T-shirt and baseball cap over his silver hair, a hydration belt and timing watch. But when he stands up and walks across the café toward the trail outside, his bare feet tell a different story.
It was here just more than a year ago that the 55-year-old Saanich resident first took off his shoes and ran 100 metres along the wood chip, grass and dirt trail.
But Shaw, amidst a plan to log six half-marathons in a year, was running 35 to 40 kilometres each week in shoes and wasn’t willing to risk falling behind on his schedule by adding barefoot to his regime.
Between those small jaunts out to the chip trail, Shaw walked barefoot everywhere: to Mount Doug and Thetis Lake with his wife and dog – and, of course, to work.
“What you learn is that your feet change really quickly when you change the demands on them, so going out of shoes and walking in those environments is like going to the gym and doing perfect weight training,” he said. ”Your tendons and ligaments all get stronger. Your feet change shape.”
Equipped only with minimalist shoes when the cold was too much to handle, Shaw systematically worked up his running base (after completing those six runs in traditional footwear) and this month took on the McNeill Bay Half-Marathon in Oak Bay as a pace bunny sans shoes.
“The most efficient and fastest runners have excellent biomechanics and they don’t need to run barefoot to have them, but it’s a lot easier to learn them barefoot,” Shaw said.
“I have 50 years of bad habits to overcome and that’s not something that’s easy to do consciously. Taking your shoes off forces you to do everything differently.”
Barefoot running, or natural running, may offer benefits to runners such as Shaw, who was willing to take his shoes off and add mileage incrementally, but even with the proper precautions, it poses risks.
“We know biomechanically, that people who run with a midfoot strike get less injuries because they’re not running into the ground, they’re running over the ground, which means there’s less breaking forces at the knees or the ankle or even the hips,” said Dr. Jamie Grimes, a chiropractor at Synergy Health and a former Olympic sprint coach. “It forces us to go back to a more natural, improved biomechanical way of running.”
But despite the efficiency and the lessened impact of training the foot to run as we did as kids, said Grimes who has used running on sand as a training tool, the lack of structure provided by a shoe can wreak havoc on a runner should they suffer from poor mechanics of laxity, hyper mobilities, pronation or a disparity in leg length.
Grimes warns of the corkscrew effect that can begin in the unsupported arches and continue through the shins and knees, eventually changing hip angle and external rotators of the hip and alignment through the back.
“It is true that if you run barefoot often enough, you do build callouses up and it protects the skin, but the problem is people going out there and thinking that running without shoes on is good for you, is just silly,” added Victoria-based podiatrist Dr. William Mirchoff. “For most people, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. You’re not protecting the foot.”
Yet for Shaw and a growing number of barefoot runners born with good biomechanics, going old school makes much more sense.
“After a few times doing it, probably after a couple of weeks, I was lying in bed and my feet were just – alive,” Shaw said. “Have you ever been to a concert where you clapped so much your hands had a tingly feeling afterward? They were just alive.”
See previous story in series: New marathoners have reason to run