Save Your Sole and Your Budget: Run Barefoot

Save Your Sole and Your Budget: Run Barefoot
Save Your Sole and Your Budget: Run Barefoot

Want to save $500 a year, be as fit as a lion, and stick it to big corporations? If you're a runner, it's easy. Give up running shoes and go barefoot. Your gait will improve, you'll suffer fewer injuries, and you'll be making great strides toward easing your budget, devotees insist.

Sneaker-wearing entrants in this weekend's New York City Marathon might have already felt run over by sticker shock. Major brands like Nike (NKE) and Adidas (ADDYY) cost north of $110 and manufacturers tell you to replace them every 300 to 500 miles, says Christopher McDougall, a prominent figure in the shoeless movement and author of the bestselling Born to Run.

If you're running 50 miles a week, you could be buying up to eight pairs a year. That puts you on track to becoming the Imelda Marcos of the sneaker set.

McDougall tells DailyFinance he has saved "thousands of dollars" going shoeless. "It's not so much about running barefoot," says McDougall, who has a feature about shoeless running in this Sunday's New York Times. "It's about not buying something you don't need."

McDougall once asked a major shoe executive why his company couldn't make a shoe for $20. "He looked at me like I was speaking Lithuanian," McDougall says.

If pocketing miles worth of moolah doesn't make your tootsies tingle, then how about this? The guru for the unshod says the savings from eliminating visits to the orthopedist are also significant, as is swearing off other activities we pay for. "You don't need massage therapy, you don't need a gym membership, you don't need yoga, you don't need stretching balls," he says. "As animals we are hardwired to enjoy running. Everything else we created. Running was the one thing that came to us as a gift."

Have No Fear for Your Feet

Barefoot running has tiptoed away from the fringe into a boomlet in recent years. The Barefoot Runners Society increased from 680 founding members in 2009 to 1,345 a year later, according to The New York Times. Sunday's marathon, now the nation's biggest, will feature tens of dozens of barefooters among the 47,000 entrants pounding pavement for 26.2 miles.

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Competing shoeless is not new in modern sport. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the 1960 Olympic marathon gold medal with his feet au naturel. Zola Budd of Great Britain ran barefoot at the 1984 Olympics, colliding famously with Mary Decker in the 3,000-meter race.

But among rank and file joggers, the trend has accelerated in the last five years. It didn't take long for the shoe companies to co-opt the movement, producing "minimalist" footwear with maximal price tags. The Vibram Five Fingers has a five-toed design to imitate the contours of your dogs for $90. The Nike Free is anything but free at up to $125. Barefoot advocates say cheap moccasins or even ballet slippers can provide protection.

Shoe companies are heels, McDougall says. They took over running in the 1970s and haven't loosened their grip. "The best marketing tool of all time is fear. 'If you don't have all this stuff, you're gonna get hurt.' People listened to that, and the truth is the exact opposite. You buy that stuff and you will get hurt."

Doctors Have a Foot in Both Camps

Thomas Hollowell, author of the The Complete Idiot's Guide to Barefoot Running, calculated that he saved $482 on shoes in the last year. Hollowell switches between shoeless and minimalist, saying that even a pricy minimalist model will last long because there's no concern about decreasing support. Either way, he says, "Many runners are happy to save. This might give them more money to travel or join other races, or enjoy spending their money on other pursuits."

Arch enemies of the movement say it's dangerous. Aficionados swear that the ball-first ground strike promoted by barefoot running allows the cushiest part of your foot to naturally absorb shock, whereas the traditional shod heel-first impact jars the entire body. The American Podiatric Medical Association explains in a statement that the evidence on both sides is inconclusive. It warns barefoot practitioners about possible lower-extremity injuries and puncture wounds from ground debris.

For an exercise to learn proper barefoot running form, check out McDougall's video (in sandals this time) for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Those who want to try barefoot should start slowly, experts urge. Walk even. Increase your distance by yards each time, not miles. In a while, your feet won't be the delicate dogs you may think they are. Hollowell runs shoeless on asphalt and in winter, saying his feet warm up quickly. But on unfamiliar or snowy terrain, he uses minimalist slip-ons. Common sense should dictate your choices.

As you stride off down the path to big savings, run shoeless -- not clueless.

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