10 Spiritual Lessons from Running Barefoot.

Via Angela Raines
on Sep 2, 2010
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Are your shoes making you an [email protected]?

Do you jump out of bed at 5 A.M., ready to hit the road for your daily run? I’m sorry, I hate you. And I say that with deepest admiration and envy. Most days, I’d rather pay my taxes than go for a run. I mean, I’ll do it, but you’d better provide a pre-torture coffee and promises of post-torture brunch before I’ll even consider it.

In high school, I joined the cross country team, but only because it was the only sport that didn’t involve a ball (hand-eye coordination is thoroughly beyond me). That and it somehow seemed like the most solitary of all the team sports — even if I sucked, it didn’t seem like I’d really be letting the team down — or at the very least, it wouldn’t be too hilariously humiliating. Since then, I’ve often shaken my head in disbelief, watching people running in the park. Why would you do such a thing on purpose? It just seems so unnatural.

For some reason, though, despite all my cynical disdain for running, I can’t shake this strange desire to do it, anyway. I’ve always secretly envied the freedom, exuberance, and lightness that many runners exude. I’d love to burst out the door for my daily run, pound the pavement, clear my head, and return ebullient and victorious.

It was this strange fantasy that led me to pick up Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, last year. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Even I, a total nonrunning schlub, was captivated.  There were stories of crazy college kids running through the woods listening to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and a mysterious tribe in Mexico who run ultramarathons for fun and McDougall’s own fascinating quest to find out if running is truly natural and healthy or not. I finished the book in two days, inspired to run like never before.

McDougall presents a convincing case for the idea that, over the course of our evolution, we humans survived by running animals to death in hunting packs. Compared to other animals, the theory goes, we’re weak, slow, and pretty defenseless — but since we cool ourselves by sweating, not panting, we can continue breathing even when we’re overheated. This gives us a major advantage in distance running, and allowed us to hunt animals before we developed tools.

But that wasn’t the only strange, new idea I found in Born to Run. Based on his research and personal experience, McDougall argues that:

1.  The marathon, far from being the pinnacle of human achievement, is really just the beginning when it comes to our endurance prowess.
2.  Expensive running shoes lead to the very problems they’re supposed to correct, and the healthiest way to run is as close to barefoot as possible.
3.  Somehow, kindheartedness and the ability to run long distances are intimately related.

I’d love to tell you that I finished the book, threw away my shoes, and instantly became a better, faster version of me. Well, that didn’t exactly happen. But I did get a running buddy and we ran together for a few months. And it actually was great. There was a fair amount of pre-run crankiness and during-run kvetching, but the post-run glow over omelettes was bright enough that I started to think there was something to this whole running and kindheartedness connection.

Since I moved to Boulder this month, though, I’ve been a little lost (read: lazy) without my running buddy. But when I saw Christopher McDougall was speaking at Boulder Book Store last week, that running exuberance was piqued, if ever so tentatively. By the time I arrived, there were no chairs left (I guess since I walked and didn’t run?), but that meant that I got to sit cross-legged on the floor, inches away from the author’s very own, bare and slightly grimey, feet. It was awesome.

McDougall’s just as engaging a speaker as he is a writer, and the heart of his message came through even more clearly in person: the enterprise of running, particularly barefoot running, is about much more than exercise, fun, or even exhilaration. It’s about being a better person. As I sat there, contemplating Christopher McDougall’s toes, I was struck by how many of his principles for better running paralleled common spiritual lessons. If you’re into cross-training, then, this list is for you.

Top ten ways to become a better runner and a better person. Simultaneously.

1.  Get naked. Big, padded, expensive running shoes often cause more problems than they solve.  We run best when we let our bodies operate in as natural a condition as possible.  It’s all too often that we let our remedies become our maladies.  Starting from a more natural, authentic place is usually the best way to go, in your exercise routine, love life, or spiritual pursuits.
2.  Have fun. The Tarahumara, a tribe of legendary ultramarathoners, smile huge during the hardest parts of the race. We all do our best when we’re having fun. Notice and nurture what you enjoy, and pour a little whimsy into the hardest parts of your day.
3.  Get devotional: The Hopi and Navajo do ritual running as a prayer to give their own strength to those in need. What greatness could you achieve if you were devoting yourself to something greater, if you weren’t doing it all for your own ego?
4.  Get compassionate: While marathoners are often cutthroat, ultramarathoners, who run four times that distance, are shockingly generous, often helping eachother along the way. We seem to actually perform better when we’re cooperatively, not combatively, competitive. Compassion is far better fuel than greed.
5.  Get egalitarian:  While men trounce us ladies in sprints, longer distances completely equalize this difference. Aging also impacts distance running far less than it does most other sports. According to the theory that we evolved in running packs, it was important that women and elders kept up with the group on a hunt. Elders were given particular respect since they had the know-how to track animals, something that takes the better part of a lifetime to master. We post-moderns cherish the ideal of equality and respect for all — isn’t it stunning to consider that this respect might be an ancient birthright, that even helped us survive as a species?
6.  Speak your mind: Communication was essential between members of the hunting pack to ensure they were tracking the right animal. Our ability to relate to each other is nothing without our willingness to communicate. What can you contribute to your tribe by speaking up?
7.  Get imaginative:  There comes a point in tracking an animal, McDougall claims, where following isn’t enough, and you must begin anticipating its next move. This need for anticipation might well have led to our greatest gift of all, imagination. Our ability to look across a plain and envision a city, our ability to listen to silence and hear poetry, is what makes us quintessentially human. This capacity drives all creativity, and propels us into an ever more complex future. Celebrate your imagination, and use it wisely.
8. Get free: It’s awfully hard to run long distances weighted down by physical possessions — or emotional baggage, for that matter. Running light is the way to go, for your finish time and your soul.
9.  Get Zen: Jenn Shelton, one of Born to Run‘s most colorful characters, explains why she started running ultramarathons:
I thought, man, if you could run 100 miles, you’d be in this Zen state. You’d be the [email protected]#king Buddha. Bringing peace and a smile to the world. In my case, it didn’t work.  I’m the same old punk ass as ever. But there’s always this hope that it’ll turn you into the person you want to be. You know, like a better, more peaceful person. And when I’m out on a long run, the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going ‘bleh bleh bleh bleh.’ Everything just quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow.
I’ve found a certain clarity during runs when I can get myself to stop resisting the pain and just be. It’s raw and real and just as meditative as anything I’ve experienced in a zendo [meditation hall].

10.  Get fearless: We’ve developped a strange phobia about running over the last few decades that McDougall finds preposterous. Running, he claims, “gets the machine operating the way it should be. End the baloney, the hysteria about running, that it’s dangerous — ‘Don’t do too much! Don’t take your shoes off!’ — Regain the use of your legs, get the engine off the block and running how it should be, and your whole bodymind will run more smoothly.” I don’t kow about you, but I make my biggest mistakes when I let fear paralyze or hypnotize me, and I’m at my best when I’m living courageously, heart at full throttle.

So, it sounds like running might make us better people, and being better people just might make us better runners. Too good to be true? Maybe. But as long as I get coffee before and an omelette afterwards, I just might give it a go.


About Angela Raines

Angela Raines hails from "America's most dangerous city," St. Louis, MO. She recently moved to Boulder, CO (as one does) to write, do yoga, and sit. So far, this has worked out beyond her wildest dreams. She completed an editorial internship at Elephant Journal and still writes for them when Waylon reminds her. She landed a job at the company of her dreams, Integral Life, and is currently putting her third-person writing skills to work in her own online writing business, Conscious Copywriting. Her main teachers are Jun Po Roshi and Ken Wilber. She is an enthusiast of all things yogic, contemplative, and chocolate.


32 Responses to “10 Spiritual Lessons from Running Barefoot.”

  1. Sioux says:

    Wow! This is really inspiring. I've heard discussion lately that some of the "running shoes" are actually creating more problems for people than they are preventing . . . maybe we should reconsider the whole shoe thing after all. I'm going to start by reconsidering the whole running thing. Great article, Angela!!

  2. elephantjournal says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for that! ~angela

  3. Bill Ash says:

    Nice job, Angela. People keep telling me about this book, but you've inspired me to go get a copy! Thank you!

  4. Steven says:

    If you want the closest thing to barefoot, but with some protection from things you could step on (or in!)… or to have restaurants let you in the door… check out http://www.InvisibleShoe.com. DIY plans for making running sandals, plus kits and custom-made huaraches-style sandals.

  5. lindsayyoga says:

    As a yoga teacher and mother, I truly believe in the intelligence of the human body. I love this quote from Christopher McDougall: "We treat running in the modern world the same way we treat childbirth—it’s going to hurt, and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly with minimal damage."

    I am new to running and currently taking a break because my ankles have been killing me! I am totally going barefoot. Thank you for this inspirational post!

  6. Anne says:

    Just finished Born to Run and I loved it! Although I'm already down to minimalist shoes…I'm now doing at least one run a week barefoot (still on the treadmill for now). Thanks for this!

  7. […] at home with sandbags, dips, handstands, pull ups and (shoeless) hill sprints rather than pay the moneychangers in the temples full of treadmills with […]

  8. […] of respect and love for this man, and as I plopped down on the floor in front of the front row (which seems to be the way I roll these days), I pinched […]

  9. birdwithspark says:

    I love this so much! Thank you!

  10. Joe Kunzler says:

    My daughter ( 9 ) and I (45) did a 5 mile race barefoot and the tough streets of akron ohio. Ive been running barefoot for about two mnonths. I know longer have pains in my feet and no longer have runners knee.

  11. AngelaRaines says:

    Love that quote, Lindsay! You'll have to let us know how your barefoot experiment goes!

  12. AngelaRaines says:

    Thanks, Doug!

  13. AngelaRaines says:

    Isn't it an enjoyable read? What minimalist shoes do you wear? I love my Vibram five fingers…

  14. AngelaRaines says:

    Thank YOU!

  15. AngelaRaines says:

    Wow, that's awesome, Joe! And you didn't find that the asphalt was hard on you?

  16. […] than the forty endless minutes on the mill, mocking us with all its whirls and beeps. (And maybe ditch the running shoes, […]

  17. […] soon as everyone was seated, barefoot servers came down the rows and tossed heavy tin trays and spoons in front of everyone. I inspected […]

  18. GeofMalone says:

    WARNING!!! – If you have never run barefoot before, ESPECIALLY if you're a runner, start off easy. Start with a bit of walking barefoot then some walk/runs, over a period of about 6-8 weeks. If youre a runner already do the above and do youre longer runs in progressively thinner shoes (racing flats, Dunlop Volley's for the Aussies out there), cheaper shoes ones like 20 bucks.

    Also to borrow from parkour, "run silent". This helps to set up a good technique using the natural impact absorbtion of your lower limb musculature. Its also pretty cool to be running and barely able to hear yourself.

    Why? By running in heavily supported shoes for so long the intrinsic muscles of our feet that are used to absorb impact are effectively in anorexic condition, they are wasted away. Thus if you have been a runner for a while, the rest of your body can run further barefoot, than you're feet can. So progress up gradually, its frustratingly slow but worth it, so you wont get injured.

    Other than that, get out there kids!!!

  19. […] little resemblance to the woman who is actively present, and happy to be doing yoga, rock climbing, running in the foothill 5k races. Everything is possible; we have only to conceive of it. And I have come […]

  20. […] more by me, check out my thoughts on Christian yoga, the complete protein myth, running barefoot, and Jews. Angela Raines hails from "America's most dangerous city," St. Louis, MO. She recently […]

  21. Howie says:

    I've always hated running. It is the main reason why I like swimming and cycling. It hurt my knees, my back and gave me shin splints. Predictably, running is my weakest stage in the triathlon. I might have to try this method though.

  22. Amy says:

    there is always the 'controversial' vibram fivefingers to get you started paring down to no shoes

  23. Maria says:

    This is a great article, very interesting, and I'm going to buy the book but………
    I would really really like to know scientifically and medically if going barefoot is better – I know when you're a more proficient runner, there is very little heel strike, compared to a beginner,so in that case the transition to barefoot may be easier. But for a beginner – the impact on the joints would be immense. I know its the same if one is wearing shoes, but at least there is a cushiony barrier between one's heel and the pavement?

    Are there any physios or orthopedic specicialists out there who can comment?

  24. Jes says:

    Great post, Angela! @Maria, read what Harvard's Barefoot Professor has found in his research (http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/4BiomechanicsofFootStrike.html) about the difference in impact between shod and barefoot running – you might be pleasantly surprised 😉

    Also, for a great way to acclimate to running barefoot, try training (for strength, flexibility, cardio, and balance) barefoot in a controlled environment. http://willpowermethod.com We've been training barefoot and loving it for a decade!

  25. elephantjournal says:

    FB: Running barefoot is supposedly more profound, and safer long-term: it changes how you run. ~ ed.

    Isaiah Arney I always felt shoes were more of a hindrance than anything and have prefered walking/running barefoot. Which is why I believe I should be surrounded by a nice sandy beach and beautiful ocean

    Lili Escovedo Not for me, I love that my running shoes protect my feet and are designed to help curb my natural tendency to pronate, which protect my knees and back!

    Guiding Signs 101 That's funny i just started running barefoot about a week ago and was wondering if i was making the right choice.

  26. David Borden says:

    Thanks!!! I really enjoyed this. (I've also read the book) I am a high school cross country coach ( and 25k trail runner) and would like to share this with my team. Cheers!!

  27. elephantjournal says:

    Pam Blair Stepping on a rock or piece of glass while barefoot would make me an [email protected] :). Also, it is not true that it is healthier for everyone to run barefoot than in shoes. For the biomechanically efficient, this is generally true. We don't all have the same bone structure. Some of us truly do need the support, cushion, and guidance of shoes when we run. Personally, I also need a heel lift because one leg is longer than the other, and I need a shoe to put that lift in.

    Get Skinny, Go Vegan. I love my five fingers!

    Jason Alan Griffin I changed the structure of my foot from biomechanically inefficient to a place where I found more efficiency, and finally (AFTER TWO DECADES OF PAIN) found relief in my feet. It took about a month of wearing these shoes, but now I swear by them. Don't accept your feet how they are. They will change and adapt if you give them the opportunity.

    Dave Grady The idea that most people need shoes, while the perfect people can run barefoot is bass ackwards. Evolution has created a vast majority of us to be able to run and walk barefoot perfectly fine with perfectly minimal covering. It's primarily marketing-oriented minds that seem to require shoes.

    Karen Terra Just bought my first pair of Vibrams.

  28. yogamom says:

    I really enjoyed this article! I would simply add one caution — while we were from an evolutionary standpoint intended to run barefoot, we were not intended to run on concrete or asphalt. Our feet were meant to run on earth, which is more forgiving on bones and joints. I wish success to all who try it, but since I make my living with my body and cannot afford an injury, I'll continue to wear shoes while running — unless I find a nice, safe, unpaved trail free of thorns, broken glass, sharp rocks, etc

  29. elephantjournal says:

    Lisa: Well, when I ran as a kid, I was always barefoot. The more I learn about our evolutionary bodies the more I wonder how much we screw it up with decoration. If I decide to run again, I think I my go 'barefoot' again 🙂

    Meganakisaurous Rex I'd be barefoot all of the time, if other people weren't disgusting and kept themselves clean and the environment clean.

    Jason Alan Griffin via elephantjournal.com
    I'm so excited I can run again. I'd completely given up on it due to pain that always resulted. But I changed the structure of my foot from bio-mechanically inefficient to a place where I found more efficiency, and finally (AFTER TWO DECADES OF PAIN) found relief in my feet. It took about a month of wearing these shoes, but now I swear by them. Don't accept your feet how they are. They will change and adapt if you give them the opportunity.

  30. Loren says:

    Last year I decided to start running after almost 15 years (I used to run in high school). It was great to get my body fit and moving again and I trained for and completed a half marathon. Then my friend leant me Born to Run. It was inspiring and so much of it “just clicked” and since I live in Africa where I either run on Tarmac or thorns the vibrams option was best for me. Its taken me 6 months to rebuild the muscles in my feet and ankles. I know many people transition faster, but it’s taken me longer. I will run my next half marathon in my vibrams. I have learned many of the same things already mentioned above and I really loved this article. What I wanted to add was that running has become a heightened state of consciousness for me. Really considering in that split second where to place my foot brings clarity and awareness to the already beautiful experience of being outside and in nature. In fact, on a recent holiday in NZ my friend and I ran up to Franz Joseph glacier. The path was very stony and other hikers thought us mad, especially when they saw our “frog shoes” but I remember every part of that run and I never put a foot wrong, my feet found all the right places to land. For me this consciousness is the best part of running more bare. As an added bonus my yoga has improved as my balance on one foot and my grip on the earth is so much better since I grew those foot muscles back.