I fell into barefoot running entirely by accident—literally.
On April second of 2006 I was injured in a near-death accident.
I’d been inline skating on a Boulder bike path as I trained for a world-record attempt, a 4,000-mile, solo coast-to-coast skate to help children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. I’d done a similar journey in 2004, a 5,000 mile, 40-day, solo, unsupported bike ride across the U.S., which got me invited to speak in Washington, D.C. before the House and Senate.
On this day I had taken off my skates to meditate in the river—to clear my mind and pray for safety and guidance. Then I laced up my skates and pushed off. I’d been listening to Dr. Wayne Dyer’s audiobook Inspiration on my MP3 player. He’d just shared a beautiful story about a butterfly that landed in his hands, before saying “everything happens for a reason.”
As I began skating again, I told myself to go slow, aware that on Sundays there would be tourists on the path. I didn’t expect what happened next. A father from out of town, teaching his baby son how to walk, inadvertently stepped out onto the bike path right before me.
In a split second I had a choice. Hit the baby? Or hit the deck?
I somehow (through the grace of God) managed to throw myself up and backward—a move that would have made an Olympic high-jumper proud.
As I went through the air, I wondered if I’d still be able to do my cross-country skate.
Then as I landed with a dull concussive thud, I had my answer. I was broken—and badly. But the baby and dad were all right.
The words of Dr. Dyer resonated through my head, “Everything happens for a reason.”
I wiggled my fingers, then my toes, then looked at the father, the boy, and the sun shining above. Life is good. I thought. Life is good.
And then, as I lay on the ground like a splayed, broken chicken, I grabbed my left leg, held my breath and pulled it over to my right. This move likely saved my life. It turns out shards of my femur were less than a centimeter from my femoral artery. Had I moved wrong, or perhaps left my leg in that position, I would have bled to death.
Doctors didn’t know if they could put my leg back together. But I knew something amazing would come of this experience.
And something did.
Though I now have a titanium femur and hip but no left ACL and have chalked up a total of 10 knee operations, not to mention having the “world’s flattest (and worst) feet” as labeled by podiatrist after podiatrist, I now run 10 to 20 miles a day, barefoot.
Doctors said I’d never be able to run again, that I’d be lucky to keep my leg, and lucky to walk. But it was only by feeling the ground, by connecting to the earth, that I was able to heal, get balanced and run again, despite one leg being shorter than the other.
I’ve been a professional athlete and coach for the better part of 20 years, but not in the barefoot running world. However, with the inspiration of Jessica Lee, I now coach, write and speak before others about barefoot running, healing and connecting to the earth.
From Broken to Barefoot
After finding my way out of a rehab hospital, I ventured into nature to heal. At first, I could crutch only a few hundred yards, alternating deep breathing and meditation to block the pain. But then, over time, my body relaxed and began to grow stronger.
I went from a few hundred yards to a few miles. I even crutched the Bolder Boulder 10K, and then the Denver Half-Marathon. I wanted to demonstrate how much we can accomplish if we believe in ourselves, no matter what.
From there I continued to spend more time in nature. Crutching each morning before the sunrise, and then back again at dusk. I found something special at these times of the day, something sacred in the silence.
Being forced to go slow, I began viewing the world in a different way too. I was seeing things differently, more vividly, and with vibrant color. One morning I stopped to stare at the dewdrop on a leaf, just as the sun began to rise. I began to see all the colors of the rainbow in that drop. It inspired me, and I began to cry. I soon began carrying my camera and capturing amazing healing pictures both at sunrise and sunset.
And I continued to heal. I went from crutching, to walking and then to jogging. Trouble was, once I tried running, my body began to fall apart. With a nearly 1-inch leg length discrepancy, I couldn’t get balanced, no matter how much I tried. I went from one overuse injury to another.
It was frustrating being out on the trails, or out on the roads, stopping to modify my insoles or orthotics on the fly, stuffing another heel wedge here or trimming more cork there. Having worked with custom insoles and orthotics in the past, I was a walking insole modification store. And yet I couldn’t get it right.
I wanted to scream out profanities, or just cry on the trails. Why couldn’t I run pain-free?
And then one day, I accidentally stumbled upon the solution. As I was struggling on a hot summer’s “run,” future Olympic champion Constantina Diţă, training in Boulder’s high altitude, flew by me with a smile. I so desperately wanted to run like her: with a smile, without effort and without suffering. In agony, I was frustrated and out of ideas. I didn’t even know how to get home without more grisly pain. And so, I took off my shoes and limped home.
It was the best thing I ever could have done.
At home on a Google search, I stumbled across an article by prominent orthopedic surgeon Dr. Froncioni entitled, Athletic Footwear and Running Injuries: Essay on the Earmful Effects of Modern Running Shoes. Since I’d just walked home barefoot, I decided to read the article. My jaw hit the floor.
Fewer injuries in less expensive shoes than in more expensive ones. Higher impact in a shoe than out. Perceived safety of cushioning actually harms feet. Better balance and control in thinner, less cushioned shoes. Children in third-world countries far less likely to have fallen arches and foot problems. The insights went on and on.
And so, two days later, I decided to give it a try. After all, I was already broken. What did I have to lose?
I went out and jogged 100 yards on the local bike path. Then I walked home, grabbing the ground with my toes, trying to strengthen my arches.
And then I iced for two days straight.
On the third day I went out again. This time a bit farther, 200 yards. And then again, I iced.
Two days later I repeated, 300 yards. Then 400 yards.
Going out every other day I began to get stronger and stronger.
Within three months I’d adapted on the roads, running 10K’s and running them fast—faster than I ever had in a shoe. And that was just the beginning. Now I’m running barefoot on trails, gravel, snow, hot melting asphalt and more. I run 10 to 20 miles a day without shoes, and love running up hills, if not mountains, grabbing with my toes and bounding along. I’m even known to chase a cyclist or two on the road.
How did I do this despite being barefoot? Because being barefoot wasn’t the hindrance. Wearing shoes was. Because I was wearing shoes, I couldn’t feel the ground, modulate impact, learn to run light or get balanced. Once I took off my shoes, my feet began to wake up, to grow strong and become springs. I became aware and in doing so became light, nimble, and far more efficient. I was no longer running, but dancing on the roads, with nature and with my surroundings.
My perception of the world around me changed too, as I become one with my world, rather than one trying to conquer it. I became more peaceful and quiet, as the incessant chatter of the mind melted away. And my running transformed—from a run to a dance, a dance with nature, a dance with my surroundings, a dance to heal and a dance of joy.
Why on earth would anyone want to run barefoot?
Or an even more logical question: How could something we have for free—our bare feet—be better than cushioned athletic shoes that cost $150?
For many, it seems counterintuitive that running barefoot could be superior to running shod. After all, shoes are designed to protect our feet, and modern running shoes are created by experts working with cutting-edge science and technology to maximize our comfort and safety.
What’s seldom mentioned is that these increasingly expensive shoes have done nothing to reduce runner injuries. On the contrary, injuries—to Achilles tendons, tibias, knees and other essential body parts—have been going up over the years along with shoe prices. Just as surprising was a study that showed runners using shoes costing $95 and up had more than twice as many injuries as those wearing shoes costing $40 or less.
The truth is that running in shoes is high impact, heel-centric, promotes bad form, is relatively unstable and inflexible, tends to weaken rather than strengthen your feet and dampens your connection to the world around you.
In contrast, barefoot running is low-impact, toe-centric, promotes good form, enhances stability and adaptability, strengthens your feet in miraculous ways and provides delightful sensory and spiritual connections to the earth.
When you feel the ground, you unlock the hidden potential within. Wearing shoes demolishes that process. It’s not impossible to have good form with shoes on, but it’s harder and requires a lot more conscious effort.
In his bestselling book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall talks about running light. This is an essential skill for barefoot running. When we run light, we put less pressure on our joints and muscles, which allows us to run easier, longer, and with fewer injuries.
Indeed, a way to identify which runners have good form is to simply close your eyes and listen.
When I recently visited the running path at New York’s Central Park, I could pick out the bad runners because I heard them coming from a block away: Clomp! Clomp! Clomp! with their heavily-cushioned shoes striking hard, heel first, onto the paved ground.
The runners with the best form, however, barely made a sound.
When you go barefoot running, listen to the sound your feet make on impact. The more silent you are, the more likely that you’re staying on the balls of your feet … and achieving perfect strides.
The path to going barefoot must be a slow, gradual process, which is explained in my new book Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth.
Michael Sandler is a national fitness and running coach, as well as the cofounder of RunBare Company. Michael has coached world-class athletes to wins in cycling, running and triathlons for over 20 years at the local, national and international levels.
Among Michael’s personal athletic achievements are training for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics in both cycling and speed skating at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Jessica Lee, also an accomplished athlete, went on to found the nation’s largest barefoot running club in Boulder, followed by the co-founding of RunBare Company. Today she can be found running light and free again and kicking Michael’s butt in a sprint.
Together, Michael and Jessica enjoy starting each day with a barefoot sunrise hike and meditation before launching into the joyful work that lies ahead.