Air Force Maj. Victor Palma runs the asphalt trails of Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. Palma has been running barefoot for 11 years. (Kevin Moloney)
Spc. Derek Broussard, an Army food inspector at the Pearl Harbor Commissary, ran the Honolulu Marathon in December barefoot, only four months after switching to barefoot-only training. His time: a respectable 4:27, eight minutes faster than the year before. (courtesy of Spc. Derek Broussard)
Maj. Victor Palma lives to run. Barely a day goes by when he's not racking up miles either on his home treadmill or on the Colorado roads snaking around Peterson Air Force Base.
He discovered the joy of running in high school, but painful shin splints soon put him on the sidelines.
"I slacked off and pretty much stopped running altogether," says Palma, a communications officer for Air Force Space Command. But then one day he found himself on the white talcum powder beaches of Pensacola, Fla., and just couldn't resist.
"On a whim, I took off my shoes and just started running, and I haven't looked back since."
That was 11 years ago, and he might as well just have left his running shoes on the beach.
"Running barefoot felt so natural, so free. It was just intoxicating," he says. Even better, the shin splints were gone. "Gradually, I worked my way from running barefoot on the beach to the pavement, asphalt and sidewalks. I run barefoot exclusively now."
And he's not alone
Palma is on the leading edge of a growing pack of runners who are baring their soles on roads, trails and tracks. It's more than a feel-good fitness fad; advocates say shod feet make for shoddy form. Converts insist they run faster, farther and — defying conventional wisdom — have fewer injuries, aches and pains.
"The human body is a marvel of engineering and perfectly capable of running without the aid - or really the restriction - of shoes," says Palma, a founding officer of the recently launched Barefoot Runners Society, which is organizing chapters across the country.
He says he has been a kind of quiet evangelist for barefoot running to the military.
"I may have contributed to the conversion of some folks," he confides. "In general, folks in uniform seem genuinely intrigued."
Of course, there are questions.
"It seems counterintuitive because we're led to believe you need that extra padding from running shoes," he says. "But that forces you to run in an unnatural form - running heel first. Even though you have padding, you're landing harder on the ground, sending shock waves up your legs and through your knees and into your back. That doesn't happen when you switch to forefoot landing, which is how you run when you're barefoot. You run very gently. You can feel the ground - you can sense it."
Back to basics
Of course, barefoot running is nothing new. The original marathon runners in ancient Greece ran shoeless. Yet 2,700 years later, the crowds in Rome snickered when an unknown African sheepherder's son named Abebe Bikila walked barefoot onto the Olympic stage in 1960. Waving off the shoes offered by officials, he wanted to run like he lived. The laughing stopped when Bikila took gold in the marathon, shattering the existing world record.
So what are those expensive shoes buying us, anyway?
Feeble feet and faulty form, says Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman.
"I've looked at thousands and thousands of feet, and I can tell you that barefoot runners have strong, healthy feet. Most people who wear shoes, not only are their feet smellier, but also they're pathetic. They're just atrophied," he says.
That's because shoes take the place of muscles.
"The reason you have to replace your shoes every 250 to 350 miles is that the shoe is taking over the job of acting like a spring, the job your muscles would normally do," Lieberman says. "Your muscles repair themselves, but the shoe can't."
In a recent study, published in the journal Nature, Lieberman found that while the vast majority of shoed runners strike with their heels first, barefoot runners tend to glide across the ground, touching down on the forefoot or midsection of the foot.
"We think until the 1970s everyone ran that way. We're pretty sure that no one heel-struck until the invention of the modern running shoe," he says.
In fact, without all the added support in running shoes, heel-striking is impossible for most.
"When you land with a heel strike, about 6 percent of your body comes to a dead stop in that instant," Lieberman says. "Each step sends a shockwave up your body. That can't be good for you. And you're doing it 1,000 times a mile. But when you land on your midsole or forefoot, only about 1 percent of your body comes to a dead stop, because you're converting all that energy into rotation at your ankle.
"The running shoe is a brilliant design for making heel-striking as safe and comfortable as you can make it, but even by conservative estimates, about a third of runners get injured every year," he says, "and there is no evidence that injury rate has decreased over the last 30 years."
Combat boots were killing Spc. Derek Broussard's feet. X-rays showed that he was losing cartilage in his toes even while arthritis was building up.
The pain got so bad, the infantryman-turned-food inspector at the Pearl Harbor commissary had to stop running for more than six months. Then, last fall, he remembered hearing about barefoot running and figured he'd give it a try. "I thought if cavemen could do it, I could on the nice pavement."
The first few weeks were a little uncomfortable as his feet adjusted and toughened up. But the pain was going away, too.
Joking with a buddy, he boasted that he could run the Honolulu Marathon barefoot.
He finished in a respectable 4 hours, 27 minutes — a full 8 minutes faster than he'd run it the year before with his shoes on. "It was wonderful. I only had four minor blisters," he says.
These days he's running from eight to 16 miles a day, all of it barefoot. "It's a whole new lifestyle for me. I love it. I go barefoot everywhere I can."
His command hasn't been as impressed, however. "I've gotten a lot of flak for running barefoot, I think because of the stigma. They think it's dangerous."
He was even threatened with nonjudicial punishment until he showed his leadership some of the recent research.
The beauty of baring all
Ben Ibey has enjoyed a better reception at his unit. A former Marine now serving as a petty officer second class in the Coast Guard Reserve in New Hampshire, Ibey says he was even allowed to run his last PT test barefoot. "And I beat everyone."
That's a long way from where he was a few years ago.
A competitive runner since he was 13 years old, Ibey had come within one heartbreaking second of qualifying for the Boston Marathon in 2007. But he was already starting to feel problems with his back and legs. When a ladder slid out from underneath him at work, it was like a bomb went off.
"I twisted my back in two spots, and I was unable to run without significant back pain, knee pain and hip pain," he says. "My left hip just wasted away, and my left leg atrophied. It was just a disaster."
He tried all kinds of treatments, adjustments to his running style and even yoga, but his condition just got worse.
Then he tried running barefoot. "Everything just kind of clicked into place," he says. "Prior to my injury, I had no idea how bad my running form really was." But running barefoot adjusted his form naturally.
In February, he ran a New Hampshire half-marathon barefoot in near-freezing weather. He was within about 10 minutes of matching his last score when he ran with shoes. Now his sights are set on Boston's big run again. He's planning to do it barefoot, too.
"The injury was actually a blessing," Ibey says, "because my running form has gone from being a train wreck to somewhat elegant."