Barefoot Ted: Q&A with a run shoe pioneer

He’s a minimalist run shoe pioneer who played a key role in Born to Run. But what advice does Barefoot Ted have for triathletes looking to go barefoot? And is he really planning on racing an Ironman using 1890s equipment?


220: What’s your barefoot background, Ted?
When I started running most of us had no clue that we might already have the best-designed footwear ever on the bottom of our feet. Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run [in which Ted is one of the main characters], helps you realise what you can do with the tools you already have – your feet – and that it might be a good idea to play around with their foundational state first before you decide to fix, repair, or replace them.

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So when I found Vibram FiveFingers I’d already run a marathon barefoot. But what I wanted to do was expand my territory, be able to run at night, and maybe run a little more, let’s say, socially acceptably during the day! Running barefoot in modern western societies, particularly in urban areas, isn’t always the smartest thing, for a variety of reasons.

I was already researching the natural selection of footwear in human cultures and that’s why I went down to the Copper Canyon [group of six canyons in Sierra Madre, southwestern Chihuahua, Mexico]. I had come to the realisation that all over the world, from South Africa to Japan and even the Tarahumara [Copper Canyon’s indigenous people], sandals worked. They would have been the original footwear of humans, and maybe one of our very first inventions.

So, in the Canyon, I strapped sandals to my feet and ran. It was at that moment in the Canyon that I saw how we were going to move the product forward.

Once again, I’m at the forefront of barefoot running and have a company called Luna Sandals. I’m hoping Primal Lifestyle will distribute them when we can supply the demand, hopefully by 2013.

So are the sandals something you’ve developed with the Tarahumara?
I went to the Copper Canyon to investigate. These basic sandals are all over the world, the Tarahumara just happen to be the last people in North America using them as their primary vehicle.

In Japan, the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei do something remarkable. They run 50 miles a day for 100 days in the mountains of Kyoto, wearing a pair of three-ounce rice straw sandals.

So I ordered some. They expand your territory but at the same time they’re basically just a piece of portable ground; it’s almost like you’re running barefoot still. Your foot still splays and moves, you just don’t slip on sharp rocks. You can run a little faster downhill, you can run over terrain that would be little bit more difficult in bare feet. But you’re still vulnerable.

So many runners have disconnected their feet and head. They’re running in big padded shoes and they can’t feel what’s going on. They’re not listening to what’s going on as they’re moving.

"Regaining operation of the original equipment is beneficial to any athlete"

Some triathletes may be impatient to go barefoot straight away, but should there be a process to get your body used to it?
I’m dogmatically against being dogmatic; self-experimentation is important. It’s not a case of simply taking off your shoes. What it is about is re-evaluating what it is you want to do and how you want to do it.

Humans are already at the top of the food chain of beings that can move well long distance over a variety of terrains. You might want to tune into what that means. Human beings have an extraordinarily vulnerable foot, yet we’ve risen to the top of the food chain of beings that can move well long distance over a variety of terrains.

For someone who hasn’t run barefoot before, it’s like for their entire life they’ve been going to a gym wearing a back brace and arm braces. And then they finally show up at a gym where they say, “hey we don’t wear that.” Well, they can’t take off the gear they’ve been wearing all this time and go right back to what they’ve been doing. They need to literally learn how to hold themselves up again.

Either barefoot or in some FiveFingers, start to walk, move and experience different terrains, cambers and hills. Just learning how to move well in bare or minimally clad feet is a good first step. Then introduce small doses of running. Incrementally develop this capacity and determine for yourself where you need to go. It’s almost as if there are as many different paths as there are people.

Is it true you were going to do an Ironman using equipment from the 1890s?
I’m ready to do it. I did a lot of research and the capacities for long-distance swimming and running was part of that era. Riding 100-mile races was very common. I picked 1890 specifically, because that’s the year before the Penny Farthing had its last hurrah.

Dunlop developed a pneumatic tyre in 1889, so what was known as the safety bicycle, started to be ridden more. Before that solid rubber tyres, on such small wheels, made for a very jarring ride. People who rode the high-wheel bicycle considered people riding safety bicycles as absurd. ‘We’re not meant to ride goats, we ride horses!’

Unfortunately, most cyclists have never had the opportunity to ride a high-wheel bicycle. If they did, they’d practically never go back. It’s just such a delightful movement pattern; it’s much more enjoyable than riding a regular bicycle.

The Coeur d'Alene Ironman would be the perfect place for me to do it, because Idaho is a state that came into being in 1890. I really want to find some kind of sponsor. I’m getting my ducks in a line but I just haven’t pulled the trigger yet.

What’s your experience of triathlon?

We sponsor some runners and Ironman athletes; Anne Thilges races Ironmans in Lunas. There are people winning regular foot races in Lunas right now. One of the things I developed with the Lunas for triathletes was the ability to get the things on and off in a second.

Our feet sweat so much because that’s one of the places our bodies cool down. So if you’ve got them stuffed into a shoe you’re at a disadvantage if you’re in an environment where you need to cool down.

I think as more and more people realise they’re an incredibly valid option, we’ll find even more people running in them and doing well in Ironman.

Barefoot Ted was speaking at the Primal Lifestyle Barefoot Connections Conference at the Natural History Museum (

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