A barefoot runner will never win a trail ultra*. Ever.
How could I make such a bold proclamation?
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.