You Won’t Run Barefoot

inkscape pasted image 20100306 161008 You Won’t Run BarefootWe’re Intrigued, but We Won’t Bite

The rea­son so many peo­ple bris­tle at the idea of run­ning with­out shoes on has lit­tle to do with the ick­i­ness fac­tor and every­thing to do with a story about an apple, a ser­pent, and a naked man and woman in a per­fect world. Let me explain.

The press has been going crazy lately after new stud­ies were pub­lished show­ing the mer­its of run­ning bare­foot. It seems every news­pa­per, web­site, blog, mag­a­zine, and news pro­gram has run a story about bare­foot run­ning over the past few months, from TIME Mag­a­zine to the New York Times to the Boise Weekly. The cov­er­age has exposed thou­sands, if not mil­lions, to the idea of shed­ding their shoes and going for a run. Many read­ers have been con­vinced to give bare­foot run­ning a try, though they are in the minor­ity. Many peo­ple, it seems, would rather eat a slug than hit the road with­out their trusty shoes.

There are a num­ber of rea­sons peo­ple give for why they won’t give bare­foot run­ning a try. They say they’re scared they’ll step on some­thing sharp, like bro­ken glass or a nail. They say the ground is dirty and crawl­ing with bac­te­ria and viruses that could make them sick. And they say that they’re body is not bio­me­chan­i­cally perfect.

While all of these rea­sons peo­ple give stem from real fears they have, they’re unaware of a much stronger and deeper rea­son for why they cringe at the thought of run­ning with­out the sup­port of shoes. It’s so deep, in fact, that most of us don’t real­ize its impact on our deci­sions, and will likely ques­tion it’s real affect on us.

Cul­tural World­views & Frames

To under­stand the deeper rea­son we won’t run bare­foot we need to first under­stand a few con­cepts. Psy­chol­o­gists and anthro­pol­o­gists – the folks who spend their lives fig­ur­ing out why we do the things we do – tell us that there are under­ly­ing cul­tural sto­ries that we use to explain our world. These sto­ries help define and prop­a­gate rules about the way the world works and how we should behave in it. These sto­ries, such as the story of Cin­derella (which, inter­est­ingly, exists in pretty much every cul­ture in the world), are exam­ples of a larger nar­ra­tive. In the case of the Cin­derella story, the nar­ra­tive is: oppressed woman is saved by man.

Nar­ra­tives go a long way in help­ing a cul­ture con­tinue cer­tain beliefs, val­ues, and sys­tems. Put sim­ply, the way we see the world and behave in it is influ­enced a great deal by the sto­ries we tell and buy into.

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The Orig­i­nal Sin Narrative

I was lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast in which Ted McDon­ald (aka Bare­foot Ted) was being inter­viewed. He was talk­ing about the argu­ments folks have against bare­foot run­ning and the men­tal­ity that the human body is bro­ken. It struck me how sim­i­lar this belief sounds to the Chris­t­ian phi­los­o­phy of the Orig­i­nal Sin, that we’re all born defi­cient because man has sinned against God.

At the cen­ter of the Orig­i­nal Sin nar­ra­tive lies Adam and Eve. In this story, God cre­ated Adam and Eve in his like­ness and gave them the per­fect world to inhabit and look after. It was all theirs on one con­di­tion: they mustn’t eat from the tree of knowl­edge. They are tempted by the devil dis­guised as a snake and eat fruit from the tree. Hav­ing bro­ken their promise God they are ban­ished out of the per­fect Gar­den of Eden to live in the imper­fect world we know today. While death did not exist in the Gar­den of Eden, it is ram­pant in their new world. The human body was sud­denly sus­cep­ti­ble to ill­ness and death. We were cre­ated per­fect, but dis­ease and death entered the sys­tem with the Orig­i­nal Sin of Adam and Eve.

The effects of this story are quite pro­found. The nar­ra­tive leads us to believe that the human body is dam­aged goods. The result of this belief leaves us depen­dent on tech­nol­ogy, med­i­cine, or divine intervention.

West­ern med­i­cine and sci­ence have grown and flour­ished within this nar­ra­tive. The Orig­i­nal Sin nar­ra­tive is per­haps the best thing that ever hap­pened to the med­ical indus­try. It’s why West­ern med­i­cine gen­er­ally treats the symp­toms rather than look at the sit­u­a­tion holis­ti­cally with the goal to find and stop the rea­son we’re sick in the first place.

The Shoe Fits the ‘Orig­i­nal Sin’ Narrative

So what does all of this have to do with whether we wear shoes or not?

If our bod­ies are imper­fect, thanks to the sin Adam and Eve com­mit­ted in the Gar­den of Eden, we must need shoes. Our bod­ies just can’t han­dle the stress, impact, fric­tion, and force of run­ning. The Orig­i­nal Sin nar­ra­tive under­lies the rea­son most peo­ple won’t run with­out shoes. If they did run with­out shoes, they’d be going against one of the strongest, most foun­da­tional, and guid­ing nar­ra­tives the West­ern world knows.

As the say­ing goes, if the shoe fits…

There is, of course, an alter­nate pos­si­bil­ity. That we as a soci­ety are ques­tion­ing the so-called absolutes of the Orig­i­nal Sin nar­ra­tive and West­ern med­i­cine frame­works. In this sce­nario, the rise in inter­est of bare­foot run­ning is the log­i­cal next step in our explo­ration into the power of the human spirit and body. Time will tell whether we’ve turned a cor­ner or are still held by the grips of the world­views of our fore­fa­thers and foremothers.

What do you think?

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  • Nick

    If this was true, and the thought has some qual­ity to it, wouldn’t it sug­gest that if com­par­ing shod vs bare­foot run­ners, you might find a larger group of old tes­ta­ment believ­ers in the shod run­ners?
    Or do you think the story itself has shaped soci­ety in spite of indi­vid­ual beliefs?

  • David Cran­dall

    As some­one who is a devout Chris­t­ian and a believer in the story of Orig­i­nal Sin, I’d love to add my $.02. :)

    I think you are cor­rect in your analy­sis of one of the ways that the story of Orig­i­nal Sin has impacted peo­ple. I believe that story myself and have seen how it has affected me. I also believe that peo­ple have come to view that story in such a way as to ratio­nal­ize frailty and weakness.

    How­ever, I don’t think God intended for that story to be used as a crutch. It’s not meant to say that we are messed up so we have no other choice. In fact, it is quite the oppo­site; I think it is meant to illus­trate what hap­pens when we stray from what we were designed to do. Once Adam and Eve did what they weren’t intended to do (dis­obey God), then things went to hell…literally.

    If any­thing, I think this story should be an illus­tra­tion as to why we SHOULD be run­ning bare­foot. Ini­tally, we were run­ning around with­out ANYTHING on. While I’m not nec­es­sar­ily in favor of that (obe­sity rates being what they are and all) the fact that when we go against what we were designed to do, things break. We weren’t designed to run in squishy shoes. We weren’t designed to slam our heels down with a straight leg. Even if you view the world as hav­ing been torn apart by dis­ease and death, an eval­u­a­tion of how the mod­ern human foot looks STILL points to the fact that we should be kick­ing off our shoes before run­ning. Whether you believe we evolved to this state or were cre­ated in it, the truth remains: run­ning in shoes = bad!

    At 6’5″, I’ve had back prob­lems almost my whole life. Almost…meaning that last year when I “dis­cov­ered” the bare­foot lifestyle things changed. Now I’m either bare­foot or wear­ing my Vibrams as much as pos­si­ble. Since then, almost all of my back pain has gone away. (The only time I have it now, is when I have to wear dress shoes to work.)

    So as some­one who wears his Vibrams to church every Sun­day and uses it as a tool to spread the word of bare­foot liv­ing, I say we use the story of Adam & Eve to show those who believe in it why we SHOULD be wear­ing shoes.

    Excel­lent post as always!!!!

  • Clyn­ton

    Good ques­tion. I’m not sure about Old vs. New Tes­ta­ment. I do think there’s a force within the nar­ra­tive that works through­out time.

  • Matt

    David — To expand on your line of thought. Wear­ing highly engi­neered run­ning shoes is like behav­ing like we know more than God. Instead of trust­ing that God cre­ated us per­fectly, we act as if we can improve upon God’s creation.

    Kind of like for­mula vs breast milk. It’s hard to improve upon the original.

    Clyn­ton, as usual, you’ve writ­ten and inter­est­ing, thought pro­vok­ing post.

  • David Cran­dall

    Good obser­va­tion!

    And unlike for­mula (which is use­ful if breast milk can’t be obtained), I can’t think of a use­ful rea­son for my run­ning shoes.

    Well, fash­ion state­ments maybe…but then we get into that whole van­ity thing. LOL

  • Matt


    I would like to think that my feet are very fash­ion­able in their unadorned state.

  • Bob (Down­town Runner)

    Great dis­cus­sion guys!

    I agree with David that this com­par­i­son with scrip­ture leads to a con­clu­sion that we should be run­ning with­out shoes.

    On a related thread, I’m glad the nar­ra­tive has fig leaves!


  • poly­ne­sian­metal

    The only reser­va­tion I have with bare­foot run­ning, as a West­erner, is that I grew up in a cul­ture where we wear shoes before we can even walk. I’ve trav­eled abroad and have seen the dif­fer­ences in the feet of peo­ple who grow up in a cul­ture that go bare­foot pretty much from birth and their feet are broader, more cal­loused and have lower arches. I don’t think that at my age I can attain this kind of foot so bare­foot run­ning, espe­cially com­pet­i­tively at endurance dis­tances is out of the ques­tion. Now I won’t rule out run­ning bare­foot on nice loamy trails in Wood­side or on the beach but I can’t make bare­foot run­ning a reg­u­lar prac­tice. It just wouldn’t make sense for me now.
    Another thing I see is that bare­foot pro­po­nents cite that injuries in run­ning have been on the rise since the advent of the mod­ern run­ning shoe, but at the same time so has par­tic­i­pa­tion. Just like more peo­ple have a ten­dency to drown in the sum­mer, more peo­ple are doing water sports. I have never seen those sta­tis­tics qual­i­fied.
    Now I’m not say­ing that I’m against bare­foot run­ning, it just wouldn’t make any sense for me to adopt it. Still these are my 2 biggest reser­va­tions, the 3rd being that enthu­si­asm for bare­foot run­ning is seem­ing to be gen­er­ated fore­most by a shoe com­pany. If you have the time to bother, could you touch on my 3 con­cerns?
    Thanks! Z

  • poly­ne­sian­metal

    I’m sorry David, but to me it seems to me that you are say­ing that fat peo­ple shouldn’t be seen naked?

  • David Cran­dall

    Oh, I can totally see how that’s what it looked like I was saying.

    Let me clar­ify, I never called any­one fat. Also, I never said they SHOULDN’T be seen naked. How­ever, I did imply that I have no DESIRE to see them naked.

    To be per­fectly fair though, I’m absolutely sure no one wants to see me naked either. Ha ha!

    (PS — I seri­ously hope that all of this can be taken in good fun…and not as insulting.)

  • Matt

    poly­ne­sian­metal — In terms of the 3rd point you raised, I have no idea what you are talk­ing about. What shoe com­pany is pro­mot­ing bare­foot run­ning? If any­thing, I think shoe com­pa­nies are pro­mot­ing run­ning in shoes. That’s how they earn their income.

    I think any enthu­si­asm about bare­foot run­ning comes from peo­ple run­ning bare­foot. Peo­ple seem to enjoy how it feels.

    As far as feet. I went 4 decades wear­ing shoes. Yet, my feet were able to adapt to bare­foot run­ning. Feet can regain their strength.

  • David Csonka

    I think in west­ern cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly the US, the under­ly­ing sen­ti­ment that dis­cour­ages peo­ple from going bare­foot is that it is seen as some­thing poor peo­ple did or still do. Shoes are every bit as much a sta­tus sym­bol as fancy clothes, cars, and jew­elry. Even many run­ners set them­selves apart by their will­ing­ness to spend hun­dreds of dol­lars on shoes, as a way to show how elite they are or how com­mit­ted they are to the sport. As well, the con­sumer cul­ture relies on the abil­ity to “buy” some­thing as a way to solve a need or prob­lem. It is almost con­sid­ered heresy to think that the answer to our pains is some­thing we were born with.

    Bare feet are simul­ta­ne­ously anti-consumerist and the ulti­mate equal­izer — some­thing decid­edly opposed to our cap­i­tal­ist heritage.

  • Clyn­ton

    I agree that we shouldn’t let this nar­ra­tive define what we will and won’t do. And I much pre­fer the mes­sage be that God cre­ated us with every­thing that we needed to run cor­rectly, so we shouldn’t need big, clunky shoes. Keep spread­ing that word!

    I love hear­ing sto­ries like yours and mine, that walking/running in bare­foot form keeps the pain away! What a won­der­ful thing that is.

    Thanks for the insight­ful comments.

  • Clyn­ton

    Excel­lent point and great anal­ogy. I fully agree. Thanks for shar­ing that.

  • Clyn­ton

    Ha! Sure is a lot of mean­ing tied up in the leaves from the fig tree! Prob­a­bly no other leaves would get such a reac­tion from so many peo­ple! Excel­lent — or hor­ri­ble — brand­ing. LOL

  • Clyn­ton

    Yes, I cringe every time I see infants try­ing to learn to walk in big shoes. It’s crit­i­cal that they are able to get sen­sory feed­back through their feet, and that’s severely com­pro­mised with big shoes on.

    I’ve actu­ally read that when peo­ple go bare­foot and begin to use their arches how they were intended to, that the arches rise. The body is incred­i­bly able to recover from years of abuse, I guess. You might be sur­prised at how your body is able to adapt.

    I will say that it is dif­fi­cult for com­pet­i­tive run­ners to tran­si­tion to a bare­foot form — run­ning with­out shoes or in very min­i­mal shoes with no arch sup­port, raised heels, or padding — because it requires more than a month’s time. That’s an eter­nity for a run­ner. Hav­ing said that, I do think that elite run­ners can tran­si­tion with some warm-up run­ning every other day. My 12 Step Pro­gram to Run Bare­foot ( might be help­ful for you to peruse and sprin­kle into your run­ning pro­gram. It was designed to layer over an exist­ing run­ning pro­gram, not sub­sti­tute for it.

    At a min­i­mum, doing a bit of bare­foot run­ning will help strengthen your foot mus­cles which helps to reduce injury and increase speed. That’s what many top col­le­giate run­ning coaches — Stan­ford for exam­ple — have their run­ners do a few times a week. A friend of mine was part of the team and shared the par­tic­u­lars of this first-hand. He now runs in Vibram Five Fingers.

    In regards to shoe com­pa­nies pro­mot­ing bare­foot run­ning, I have only seen Vibram doing so. Most have waited until they’ve absolutely had to say some­thing. Now com­pa­nies like Nike have real­ized that a change in what peo­ple wear has been afoot so were first out with Reduced shoes, the Frees. Yet I wouldn’t say they have pro­moted bare­foot run­ning in any way.

    I encour­age you to give bare­foot walk­ing a try, start­ing with just a lit­tle bit every other day. Won’t hurt, and the upsides are poten­tially tremendous.

    I hope what I’ve shared is of some help. Thanks for the comment!

  • Clyn­ton

    Well said, David. I think the “Make it bet­ter by buy­ing some­thing” nar­ra­tive is very related and equally strong. Another whole post could be writ­ten in a sim­i­lar fash­ion about how cap­i­tal­ism will keep us from run­ning bare­foot (or at least buy­ing shoes). The com­pa­nies posi­tioned to actu­ally profit from the whole bare­foot “move­ment” — if you can call it that — are those who make what I refer to as Reduced shoes — com­pa­nies like Inov8, Nike, and increas­ingly more com­pa­nies. While many buy Five Fin­gers, only a small per­cent­age reg­u­larly run in them as far as I can tell.

    Thanks for the great comment!

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  • Guest

    So many con­tra­dic­tions– so many dou­ble stan­dards. just go run peo­ple and stop throw­ing stones in glass houses…

  • vik­tor

    Amaz­ing satire! Love it, but beware, some peo­ple might take your the­ory literally.

  • Clyn­ton

    Ha, yeah :) Thanks for stop­ping by and leav­ing a comment!

  • Clyn­ton

    Good advice indeed. Thanks for the com­ment! Happy, healthy run­ning to you.

  • Tim Miller

    I used to be afraid to go out­side for fear that wild dogs and ani­mals lurked every­where, ready to devour me. Dri­vers freaked me out too. Even­tu­ally, a whole world opened up when I started walk­ing. That turned into hik­ing, which even­tu­ally led to scal­ing 14ers and trail run­ning. Every “can’t” and fear I’ve believed in has dis­solved through a sim­ple process of logic and let­ting go, with a side of cau­tious courage.

    Wear­ing shoes was my last crutch. I always fig­ured that there was no way humans went with big, clunky shoes for our entire his­tory. How­ever, as a sub­ur­ban­ite, I couldn’t envi­sion going with­out them. After read­ing ‘Born to Run’ and Bare­foot Kenbob’s blogs, I was will­ing to give it a try. Now, the last crutch has bro­ken. Yet another world has opened up for me, so I dig how you’ve all related bare­foot run­ning to epipha­nies of var­i­ous kinds. These days I loathe the times at work and cold evenings when I have to wear shoes.

  • Clyn­ton

    What a fan­tas­tic story! Thanks for shar­ing. Shed­ding our shoes can indeed be an epiphany, and one sym­bolic of much larger trans­for­ma­tions, if we’ve open to them.

  • Bob the Builder

    Wow 80 years!!

  • Caitlin

    It’s funny.. as soon as I heard about bare­foot run­ning, I got online to learn more about it and after read­ing only a few arti­cles thought, I HAVE to try this! I only found out about it many 2 or 3 weeks ago, but I went out and bought Born to Run which I find so inter­est­ing, and I bought my Vibram FiveFin­gers today! I can’t wait to really get in to them, but I will be tak­ing your advice and being patient! I took them out today and jogged for maybe 100 feet then walked back. I already love it!

  • Clyn­ton

    So glad you’re giv­ing bare­foot run­ning a try. And, that you’re tak­ing it slowly at first to see how much con­di­tion­ing your feet and legs need. Born to Run changed my life, and it did so when I really needed a change! I really enjoy see­ing the enthu­si­asm caused by the reframe that we can do far more than we thought we could with our own bod­ies spread. Thanks for sharing.

  • AK

    Ahh, very inter­est­ing take. Has a way of explain­ing how many other cul­tures view bare­foot walk­ing, run­ning and daily activ­i­ties as quite nor­mal in con­trast to “No shirt, No Shoes, No Ser­vice” I saw in sev­eral places in the “South” :) for the sev­eral years I lived there.

    This is an inter­est­ing the­ory and worth explor­ing as a part of the wider research on barefoot/minimal run­ning etc. How­ever, as with any­thing even just being alerted to some­thing like that is in itself the begin­ning of a solu­tion and the path to more ques­tions. It’s quite awesome.

  • Clyn­ton

    Thanks. Yes, a num­ber of cul­tures view bare­foot very dif­fer­ently as they have dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives sur­round­ing it. And you’re absolutely right, being aware of the world­views that help shape our opin­ions and inter­pre­ta­tions is in itself quite pow­er­ful. Thanks for stop­ping by and leav­ing a comment!

  • Clyn­ton

    Thanks. Yes, a num­ber of cul­tures view bare­foot very dif­fer­ently as they have dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives sur­round­ing it. And you’re absolutely right, being aware of the world­views that help shape our opin­ions and inter­pre­ta­tions is in itself quite pow­er­ful. Thanks for stop­ping by and leav­ing a comment!

  • Sand Sock Girl

    Very well said Clyn­ton. Run­ning bare­foot is kind of fun too but would not be doing that for­ever. I still need to wear my shoes to pro­tect my feet. Thanks for the very inter­est­ing post!

    • Clyn­ton

      Thanks! I’ve found that I need to run bare­foot pretty much daily in order to keep my feel con­di­tioned. It might be dif­fer­ent if I didn’t have to wear shoes to work. I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing the new Zem min­i­mal­ist shoes.

  • stom­per

    This is a really thought­ful anal­ogy, Clyn­ton, thanks for a lively read.

    Though I guess any anal­ogy like this can get bogged down once one starts dig­ging into the details, the basic theme here, “peo­ple are inher­ently bro­ken,” is the same. But this notion that peo­ple are inher­ently bro­ken isn’t one that we are born with… we have to learn it, whether we learn it from Sun­day school or from run­ning mag­a­zines. My 5-year old doesn’t think he needs shoes to run! And though he cer­tainly knows there is right and wrong, I don’t think he believes he is inher­ently sinful. :)

    There may be some­thing less pro­found going on, though. Humans are a tool-using species. We know how well tools can work for all sorts of things. So it’s prob­a­bly just nat­ural for most peo­ple to assume that using a tool can help. It’s unusual to find an art where tools are a hin­drance, but I think for many peo­ple run­ning shoes are just that. Cheers!

    ps By the way, there’s lots of info and dis­cus­sion about bare­foot run­ning at the Bare­foot Run­ners Soci­ety:

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