Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Anton Krupicka Runs Barefoot

By Anton Krupicka

I initially began pursuing the act of running barefoot and wearing more minimal running shoes over six years ago. After a series of injuries in high school, a well-meaning podiatrist convinced me that I needed heavily constructed motion-control shoes coupled with expensive, custom-made fiberglass orthotics in order to remain injury-free.

The thought of throwing out my orthotics and experimenting with lighter shoes first occurred to me simply because of how much more enjoyable running was on the few occasions that I wore lightweight racing flats (at that time, I typically wore flats for speed workouts and races). As a result, over the course of a few months, I gradually transitioned from wearing orthotics and conventional trainers to logging miles in racing flats and often nothing more than my bare feet. Over the past year or two—and with the help of the timely publication of some peer-reviewed research and the best-selling book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall—this practice has now hit the mainstream in a big way.

However, the adoption of this minimalist philosophy by the masses has not been without debate and controversy. While I consider the scientific evidence on barefoot running regarding injury prevention and performance enhancement to be largely inconclusive and lacking any significant causality, as with most things running-related, I view footwear as an experiment-of-one type situation that should be based on personal goals and individual preferences, not necessarily on a generalized theory.

So, what are the reasons that I have chosen to run barefoot and in minimalist shoes? Recently, running author Matt Fitzgerald wrote an article titled “But Is It Faster?” that outlined his take on the recent shift towards barefoot running and its potential for improving racing performance. I appreciated the article’s pragmatic, levelheaded spirit in addressing an issue that has—strangely—become quite heated on both sides. However, in reflecting upon my own practice of running barefoot and in minimalist shoes, I realized that his titular question was relatively irrelevant for me.

Part of this is because I don’t see myself as a fanatical adherent to any sort of unshod dogma. Rather, as a trail, mountain and ultra runner, I find myself balancing the practical demands of my preferred terrain (steep, rocky, rooty trails) with the more aesthetic requirements of taking the simplest possible approach to running in the mountains. If I want to run quickly, efficiently, and effectively in such an environment, shoes are definitely in order. But, the shoes I do wear in the mountains manage to provide some requisite protection while still aligning with the basic minimalist design principles of a low-profile midsole and very little drop between the heel and forefoot.

As runners, our feet are what keep us connected with the ground and offer important tactile, sensory feedback, which makes the structure and design of the shoe on our foot essential in shaping our experience with the surrounding terrain. By wearing a shoe that eliminates unnecessary gimmicks and gadgetry (and, most importantly, a big, cushioned heel), I am allowing my foot to operate more effectively, efficiently and naturally while freely relaying proprioceptive information back to the rest of my body.

Minimal footwear enforces a heightened sense of the position of my body in space and its position relative to the technically challenging terrain. This sort of awareness is at the basis of any skilled movement we do as athletes, and the athleticism that running quickly over variable terrain requires is probably the essential difference between a trail/mountain runner and the traditional road/track athlete who operates primarily in a straight-ahead plane of movement.