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Why a Barefoot Runner Will Never Win a Trail Ultra

Posted by on Apr 9, 2012 | 18 Comments

A barefoot runner will never win a trail ultra*.  Ever.

How could I make such a bold proclamation?

Experience.

Since Shelly and I began traveling, we’ve had the opportunity to run a lot of trails around the country.  During that time, I’ve done a lot of experimentation using heart rate as a measure of effort.  The goal was to make my running form as efficient as possible.  An unintended benefit has been a glimpse at the limitations of running barefoot.

Currently, I do about 10-25% of my runs barefoot depending on the local topography.  The rest of the runs are completed wearing a variety of minimalist shoes (including a very occasional run in Hokas).  My pace varies from sub-six minute miles all the way up to about 30 minute miles.  The runs usually fall into two categories- tempo-ish runs where I run as hard as I can and Maffetone-ish runs where I try to keep my heart rate under 145 beats per minute.

I’ve found the 145 BPM pace is something I can maintain indefinitely as long as I stay adequately fueled.  If could run a race at that heartrate on the flats, uphill, and down hills, I would maximize my finish time.  This isn’t a problem in shoes, even the most minimal I own.  It’s barefoot that presents the problem.

On the barefoot Maff runs, I can usually maintain 145 BPM when going uphill and on level ground, even on pretty technical trails.  However, the moment I hit a downhill my heart rate drops to around 120.  It’s impossible to keep a fast pace because of the need to avoid rocks and other debris.  In short, I can’t maximize my pace because of the lack of protection.

If the race is shorter (sub-marathon), I would run at a higher heartrate, perhaps 165.  Through training, I know I can maintain this pace for these distances as long as I consume about 25 calories per mile.  At this 165 BPM the discrepancy between uphill/ flat-ground pace and downhill pace becomes even more pronounced.

This will always be a limiting factor for barefoot runners seeking to maximize potential.  I would confidently say we’ll never see a barefoot runner winning a trail ultra because of this.  The protection of footwear, no matter how minimal, provides just enough protection to allow a greater margin of error on downhills, which translates into a huge advantage.  Ideally, there will be an optimal level of protection for any given terrain, while still maintaining some proprioception in as lightweight of a shoe as possible.

I’ve talked about this issue at length before, including my experiences at the Grindstone 100 Miler.

Part of the problem is my affinity for barefoot running.  I want a barefoot runner to win an ultra.  I want to believe being barefoot is an advantage and will help someone win a rough trail ultra*.  However, I am aware of my own bias and need to remember these points.

What do you think?  Will we ever see a barefoot running winning a trail ultra?

*I’m defining “trail” as a course rated a “3” or higher on the Ultrarunning Magazine calendar. We’re not including a race run on a fire road, a grass path, or anything labeled an “urban park.”  If you can push a jogging stroller over the trail, it’s not a trail.  Unless you’re my friend Andy Grosvenor… he’s taken jogging strollers places most back country hikers would avoid.  ;-)

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18 Comments

  1. David Goulette
    April 10, 2012

    I am often hesitant to agree with any statement “Such-and-such can NEVER happen” or “Nobody can ever do [fill in the blank]” since we often cannot see all possibilities. But I think you are likely correct here especially in ultras with elite or sub elite contenders. In addition to the phisical advantages you mentioned, you also get a mental advantage when you can relax a bit and not have to have sharp focus on the ground in front of you at all times. The mental fatigue would likely be a significant factor in the longer races.

  2. Richard
    April 9, 2012

    I totally agree with you, Jason. I love running barefoot, but I love enjoying my runs a lot more, which on trails means footwear.

  3. Colin
    April 9, 2012

    Jason, I do think it is possible at Pineland Farms (rated 3 & 2), last year when I ran the 25K I dont recall anywhere I really had to slow myself down on downhills, as I was practicing Ken Bob’s bend the knees and let gravity take you technique. Now, I would not be the barefoot person to win said Ultra. Maybe this race doesn’t fit your criteria but in any case it is an exception to I thinkyour very apt rule. For me it is not about speed but longevity anyway.

  4. Anthony Sanders
    April 9, 2012

    As much as I think it would be awesome to see, I don’t think it will happen. Barefoot running has helped me so much but the drawbacks are definitely there once the terrain gets pretty rough. I love running in my Luna’s but even those are a little tricky on the downhill sections.

  5. Brian G
    April 9, 2012

    It all depends on the environmental conditions. All other things being equal, a shoe offers more protection against cuts, bruises, and other acute injuries from the ground than barefoot.

    But, like Rob says, if you cherry pick a race there is the chance that a barefooter could win. But that would be an anomaly. (Plus, slipping the elites with something to cause explosive diarrhea and vomiting half-way into the race could greatly improve your chances of winning.)

    While running barefoot and all that entails certainly seems to reduce one’s overall risk and rate of whole-body injury, it should not be viewed as necessarily improving your ability to run faster than when wearing shoes, all other things being equal.

    • Erik
      April 9, 2012

      Right Brian G, as with steroids and other performance enhancers, there’s usually a cost to gaining advantage. I could easily imagine in the not-too-distant future people enjoying the ‘purity’ of barefoot races. Those who race should begin encouraging organizers to include a barefoot classification now, and then see if it catches on. Maybe at first it will be filled with also-rans, but eventually, if it gains popularity, the lower echelon of the elite runners may find it advantageous to run barefoot and win rather than shod and place, and then, finally, barefoot races will become the most popular and the creme de la creme will unlace and bare their soles. A glorious future awaits us. It’s up to you racers to begin lobbying today.

  6. Miki
    April 9, 2012

    I think we’ll never see it.
    We were “build” to run from A to B with a maff pace. Not to get there as fast as we can. So, while running ultras is running from A to super far B… barefoots have nothing to do.. :S

    What do you think!?

    Adéu.

    (Excuse me for my english)

  7. Erik
    April 9, 2012

    Shoes are prosthetic devices. There’s no shame in admitting that the right shoes/equipment may improve performance in a certain skill-area, unless you’re a barefooter by ideology rather than preference. You just need a barefoot classification and a shod classification in any race, just like age/sex classifications. I think the Tour de France should also have doping and non-doping classifications. Maybe there should even be bounty and non-bounty football. Let people compete the way they want to, among their peers of preference. Don’t make stock-car racers compete with formula one drivers.

  8. John
    April 9, 2012

    Trisha has a point. A barefoot runner would win a race of all barefoot runners. I’m sure there will be one like that some day.

  9. Rob Y
    April 9, 2012

    While I’d agree a barefoot runner could never win a MAJOR trail ultra, surely there are more than enough events now that if one were to carefully cherry pick the event I think a barefooter could indeed win. It would take some focused training an preparation and you’d probably end up with totally destroyed feet but I think it could be done at a lesser known, non-marquee event. Think about an event that shares the same date at some bigger events in the area (or out of the area for that matter). If it’s an event that offers multiple distances you’ll have an even better chance. There are no gimmes but if one does their homework and with a little luck I’d say it’d be possible.

  10. Wiglaf
    April 9, 2012

    Clearly, you need this old chinese guy to teach you how to toughen and strengthen your feet. Plus get that chi working! ;-)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diX8Klgd37w

    Seriously, who knows what’s possible with the right kind of training? Some of those martial artist can do things that defy conventional explanations.

  11. Mark Lofquist
    April 9, 2012

    this means nothing in the real world, but Maff is short for Phil Maffetone, MAF is maximum aerobic function which is ‘invented’ by Phil Maff. In his Endurance Training book he mentions the letters matching his name are coincidence and the previous acronym was MAP (is that right?).

    I may be confusing that with the two ways cars measure air-flow (map-manifold abs pressure and maf- mass airflow).

  12. Trish Reeves
    April 9, 2012

    I guess there needs to be an all-barefoot trail race.

    • David Goulette
      April 10, 2012

      That is an interesting idea.

  13. chris
    April 9, 2012

    What about barefoot and on crack? That might do the trick!

    -Chris

  14. trissa
    April 9, 2012

    I wonder if someone that is native to the Tarahumara…or Kenyan tribes…would be able to win an ultra barefoot? How much does one ancestry…origin…DNA….factor in? If at all?

    • Jason
      April 9, 2012

      I think ancestry is a non-issue, but environment would be a factor. The Tarahumara do not run barefoot, so they’d be out. From the people I know that have actually trained with Kenyans in their training camps, they don’t run barefoot once they start serious training (one of the reasons for the camps).

  15. Kenneth
    April 9, 2012

    I have found much the same thing. I LOVE running barefoot. However, just as you state here, the downhills are the limiting factor. I can easily go twice as fast downhill when wearing shoes, than when barefoot.