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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Runner Finds Comfort in Bare Feet

May 30, 2011 01:56PM ● By Carrie Jackson

Although slow to catch on in the Chicago area, barefoot running has at least one supporter in Highland Park who’s trying to push it along. Owen McCall started running barefoot 10 years ago after getting fed up with yearly injuries. “I kept waiting for that right shoe to come out,” remembers McCall, “the one that would save me from injuries. Finally, I thought that maybe it was the shoes causing the problem all along.”

After researching natural movement, he concluded that a traditional running shoe obstructs the proper orientation of the foot to the ground. “Padding makes you unaware of the damage you’re doing, and blocks all the tactile feedback your feet give the body upon contact with the ground,” he explains. “It’s like trying to do brain surgery with boxing gloves on.”

The number one mistake McCall sees people make when they first start running barefoot is overtraining, which commonly shows up as a metatarsal stress fracture. “You’re using muscles in the foot that have never been used and allowing a flexibility that hasn’t been there before,” he explains. “If you start to feel pain in the top of the foot, it’s time to back off and take a week’s rest.”

He also sees barefoot runners starting off on sand or grass, but says those are just as bad as running in shoes, because they cushion your feet. “The most benign surface for beginners is an asphalt street, because it’s smooth and predictable, with enough texture for good sensory feedback,” says McCall. Later on, after the body has had time to adjust, it starts to crave more stimulation and trails with small rocks or mulch become good options.

Given Chicago’s varying environment and occasional weather extremes, adjusting to conditions is especially important for someone running without shoes. McCall cuts his running time in half over the winter, mostly due to the cold. He can comfortably run down to about freezing, and has run in temperatures as low as 20 degrees. However, everybody’s threshold is different and he says it’s essential to monitor the feet’s condition.

“If you lose feeling or develop purplish blood-filled blisters, those are signs that its too cold.” He also recommends slightly overdressing and starting out with a full meal on board. McCall doesn’t usually have a problem running in the summer, as long as he avoids peak sun times. “People should be concerned about hot pavement, but if you go out in the morning or evening you should be fine,” he says.

McCall has seen some growth in the past few years. He maintains a Meetup group that is 75 members strong and holds regularly scheduled runs and clinics. For McCall and a small but steady following, running barefoot is the only way to go. Although he has gotten some strange looks, McCall just laughs and takes it all in stride—one barefooted step at a time.

Contact Owen McCall at 847-432-6805, [email protected] or visit

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston freelance writer and blogger. Visit her at