Photo: ezioman
Photo: ezioman

Everyone is talking about it. Almost nobody, it seems, is doing it.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

I like to do some of my running at San Diego’s Mission Bay Park. It’s pretty, it’s big, it’s flat, and every quarter mile is marked. I am not the only one who likes to run there. On any given day you will encounter scores of runners there (along with walkers, cyclists, and inline skaters). All kinds of runners come to the park: fast and slow, big and small, young and old. There’s only one kind of runner you won’t see in Mission Bay Park: a barefoot runner.

It’s the same everywhere. Recently I informally polled a few of my running friends who live in other parts of the country on whether they ever see barefoot runners in their training environments. One of them recalled seeing a single barefoot runner last fall. That was it.

The rarity of barefoot runners would not have been a surprise a year ago. But since the publication and runaway success of Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, which romanticizes barefoot running, one would expect to see a major spike in the number of shoeless runners shuffling through America’s city parks. I remember hearing that there was a huge surge in the popularity of Dalmatians after the remake of the film 101 Dalmatians was released in 1996. That movie did not explicitly encourage people to adopt Dalmatians. Born to Run does explicitly advocate barefoot running. Despite this and its tremendous popularity, it does not seem to have altered many runners’ behavior.

Unless you count communication as behavior. Born to Run certainly has gotten a lot of people talking about barefoot running. Running-related online forums have been overrun with threads on the phenomenon. A large fraction of the runners who post to such forums are dismissive of the idea, but there is also a goodly number of fierce advocates. But how many of these fierce advocates of barefoot running actually run barefoot? If any do, they must be doing it in secret places where they are never seen.

Everyone is talking about barefoot running, yet no one is actually doing it. That makes it a virtual trend. What a strange phenomenon. I can’t think of any close parallels. Imagine a fashion trend such as leather pants coming into vogue without anyone actually wearing leather pants except on runways and magazine covers. Everyone asks for leather pants for Christmas but no one gets them, because the leather pants in stores are for display only. All of the salespersons at the boutique talk about leather pants from opening till closing, but they are not wearing leather pants either and they won’t sell you any.

A virtual trend happens when a lot of people really like the idea of a certain behavior, but it’s just not very practical to practice. That’s barefoot running. The idea of barefoot running is appealing. It’s about freedom, primitivism, getting back to basics, and sticking it to Nike. But running barefoot is very uncomfortable. You can get used to it, but it takes a long time. You basically have to stop running and then start over, letting your feet adapt very gradually to repetitive naked impact with the ground until, after several months, you are able to run as much as you were once able to run in shoes.

I do believe that running shoes generally cause as many problems as they prevent, and that many runners wear too much shoe. I believe that running shoe designs will evolve to better allow the foot to be the foot. But I do not believe that barefoot runners will ever be a common sight at Mission Bay Park. And I believe that within a year or two nobody will talk about barefoot running anymore, much as Dalmatians lost popularity in 1998 after America realized that they are a very high-maintenance breed and are not good with children.