Some people who explore the benefits of barefoot running have no desire to compete in an organized race, while others look to barefoot running to improve their competition performance as well as prevent injury and enhance their running experience. These runners often ask should I, or even can I, compete barefoot?
There are certainly plenty of serious and experienced barefoot runners who leave their shoes behind, and not just Zola Budd storming around the track for an Olympic medal. Many runners may want to try to record a personal best time in their chosen event by leaving the shoes at home.
There’s no physical reason not to compete barefoot. If you can do it at home, you can do it in competition. But that’s the rule – if you only run two or three miles a week barefoot, then don’t line up at the start of a marathon without your shoes! Prepare your feet for the demands of the event, whatever they are – race day isn’t the time to try something new.
The same goes for speed. If you are running a shorter event, such as a 5K or less, test out your speed skills at home first. The measured pace you use to run barefoot, the pace that allows you to place your feet carefully and stay in touch with the surface underfoot, may not be the one that you use in the heat of a race. Test yourself at home; can you pick up the speed without losing your form? Without losing the awareness of the sensations from your feet? If the answer is no, then you need to practice at race pace at home a bit more.
On the plus side, many runners find their barefoot running form actually makes them faster – and even without consciously trying to run quicker, they can record a better time. If this is you, then congratulations – you have mastered barefoot running form, and you now use muscle memory to get the most from your strides!
There are plenty of competitive barefoot runners, and we see more and more with every event. Ultra and marathon runners do it, even trail runners. You may get some peculiar looks, but enjoy being different and see who’s looking at you when you cross the finish line!
A tougher question relates to rules. Does your chosen event permit barefoot running? The simple answer is some do, and some don’t, and the rules are constantly changing.
- Track runners. Even within this discipline the rules vary. High School track event rules are set state by state, but most states do not permit athletes to compete barefoot. College track events, covered by the NCAA, do permit barefoot running. And for the elite runners out there, USA Track and Field allows barefoot athletes to compete; although other countries may not so check the rules for each country you plan to compete in outside of the USA!
- Road runners. Road races are covered by a myriad of legislation – but the vast majority of events will set their own rules. In these cases, if it doesn’t say anything about barefoot running in the entry information, contact the event organizer to make sure. More and more events allow barefoot runners, but the organizer can also advise you if they don’t think the course is suitable, or if a minimalist shoe like the Vibram Five Fingers would be advisable.
- Trail runners. Like road races, most trail races are covered by one of many regulatory agencies (if they are connected with any at all), and whether or not you can go barefoot may be up to the race director. That said, trail conditions will be your biggest factor. Snow, rain and mud, rocks, and so on may limit your opportunities. The organizer can give you some advice on trail conditions, but unless you’ve run the course before you may want to wear shoes your first time out, or at least bring them with you in case conditions demand them.
- Triathletes. Sadly, for triathletes, the rule is clear. The ITU (and consequently most national triathlon organizations) simply to do not allow competitors to go barefoot after the swim outside of transitions. This may change; many triathletes see barefoot running as a real option to save valuable transition time. Just about all are barefoot in the swim, many will slip sockless into bike shoes (which may even already be clipped into the pedals, meaning a barefoot run out of and back into transition areas), and so leaving the shoes off for the run looks like it makes a lot of sense. Let’s hope that the rules change soon!
So, should you toe up at the start line with bare feet? The choice is yours (and the race director of course). While the barefoot running book goes into more details, remember that you should avoid racing barefoot if you haven’t practiced going at race pace without shoes at home, don’t push your distance or your speed beyond what you have done at home, and if the conditions on the day aren’t suitable for going barefoot, then bring your shoes and wear them anyway – there’s always another race!