A barefoot man walks into a shoe department. Nope, that’s not the setup of a joke — it’s what happens every Sunday at 9 a.m. at Hudson Trail Outfitters in Tenleytown when the outdoor retailer hosts its weekly barefoot running clinics.
“It’s now so foreign to me to run in traditional shoes. They feel like bricks on my feet,” said Rodney Wells, head of the Barefoot Runners of Northern Virginia and D.C., who stomped inside on a recent Sunday with nothing on below his ankles but a couple of toe rings. (“It’s just a little bling,” he explained.)
Wells attends these sessions regularly to help other runners make a transition like he did: from traditional running gear to Vibram FiveFingers — the glovelike shoes that allow wearers to mimic barefoot running — and eventually to no footwear at all. “We did it before shoes were invented,” Wells said. “It’s made me feel better and go faster.”
Over the past five years, proponents of barefoot running and minimalist footwear have forced everyone to rethink what they’re putting on their feet, and consider whether the cushioning in shoes is actually causing problems. This idea has gone from the fringes of the running world to front and center. This weekend, Washington hosts the Naked Foot 5K, part of a national race series that invites participants to kick off their shoes — or not.
“If you don’t want to run barefoot, don’t,” says Scott Jones, who created the Naked Foot 5K two years ago with his wife. Their first event in Denver generated so much interest that they’ve expanded to cities across the country. Part of their success, Jones says, is that they welcome anyone. Barefoot runners, minimalist shoe runners and traditional shoe runners show up in equal numbers.
But even if they’re not ready to ditch the shoes completely, participants get a chance to see what it feels like to walk in the grass before the run. “You’d be surprised by the number of people who don’t take off their shoes even in the house,” adds Jones, who recommends that nervous barefooters simply take their shoes with them. “If they get uncomfortable, they can put them on.”
Chances are, they won’t get into too much trouble. “We’ve never had any injuries other than a stubbed toe, but that could happen even in shoes,” Jones says.
What runners have to worry about more is soreness. Running without traditional shoes requires a different kind of stride than the one most people have developed, explains Sandy Cohan, owner of Hudson Trail Outfitters, which is the largest Vibram FiveFingers retailer on the East Coast. Instead of striking with the heel, barefoot and minimalist runners need to land on their midfoot or forefoot to absorb the shock.
In order to help customers make the shift, Hudson Trail Outfitters has partnered with the Naked Foot 5K to host a pre-race education day and has launched these weekly events. The aim, says Cohan, is to show them how to start running in the barefoot category without fear.
On that recent Sunday, 41-year-old David Feldman, of Silver Spring, and his son Ian showed up in FiveFingers and barefoot, respectively. After reading “Born to Run,” the bestseller often credited with the resurgence of barefoot running, the elder Feldman decided to give it a try, and now his 13-year-old is following suit. But the two of them have questions. “I think I’ve got most of the basics of form, but I’m curious to see other people and watch how they run,” he said.
Minimalist shoe company reps offered technique pointers and a piece of training advice: the 10 percent rule. They suggested that if you run 10 miles a week, you should do just one mile barefoot. Then you can up that amount 10 percent per week until you’re finally doing all of your running barefoot.
Customers got fitted for sample shoes before the group went for a jog around the block, and then they discussed the experience. “I noticed it a lot in my ankles. I might be trying to compensate,” said Chad Nelson, 36, of Cleveland Park. “But I like feeling more connected to the ground. I’m sold on the philosophy of simplifying everything.”
Maybe soon, he’ll be walking into stores barefoot, too.
Best Foot Forward
This is the weekend to learn more about barefoot running:
-Saturday is education day at Hudson Trail Outfitters (4530 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-363-9810, Hudsontrail.com). From 2 to 6 p.m., get a medical perspective, pick up technique tips and mingle over beer and wine samples.
-The Naked Foot 5K (Thenakedfoot5k.com) kicks off Sunday with a free kids 1K at 8:30 a.m. at 8200 Meadowbrook Lane in Chevy Chase, Md. Before the 5K ($40), there will be a barefoot-friendly warm-up. The race will be followed by a festival, featuring minimalist footwear vendors, fitness demos and kids games, including “bareball,” a croquet variation with a soccer ball.