Encountering a barefoot trail runner in Hong Kong

Until recently, I thought I was the only barefoot runner in Hong Kong. Then, one day, as I was on the MacLeHose trail near Sai Kung, with Matthew, we encountered Yuan, a barefoot trail runner in Hong Kong. We had done some exploring previously around Tung Yeung Shan in the same area.

An experienced barefooter

Yuan has 4 years barefooting under his belt! At the time we encountered him, he was climbing on the MacLeHose trail near to Sai Kung. We were going down instead… The Mac LeHose trail crosses from Sai Kung to Tsuen Wan and is one of the most challenging trails in Hong Kong.

Yuan barefooter on the trail
Yuan on the trail when he first met us.

At the time, Yuan told us he was training for the HK100 race. However, later when he took part in the race, because he started too strong, he had to abandon the race around km 63. Still, that is 63 kms barefoot!

The strategy around barefoot trail running

Yuan encouraged me to use hiking poles when running, as it allows to put less weight on your feet and allows you to shift weight when running. This is important as a barefoot trail runner, as you will often land on “uncomfortable” areas.

Beyond that, as can be seen from the pics, Yuan runs very lightly, with as little supplies as possible, using mostly gels to sustain himself while on the trail. Obviously, his speed was quite different from mine, as I am still very careful as to where I land, to avoid hurting myself and losing balance (especially the latter).

I also did a bout of trail running on this path:

Ultra running barefoot

Yuan does ultra trail running as I mentioned (100 K was his target). While rare, this is not totally impossible, fundamentally, the physiological aspect of ultra running being the same whether you are a barefoot trail runner or not. The only issue might be with abrasion, but after 4 years running, I guess that becomes a non-issue.

Obviously, you don’t start ultra running from a day to another. It takes just the same building up as with shoes, just maybe longer as beyond your muscles and bones, you need to prepare also a whole set of different muscles in the feet.

Yuan is a perfect example of how to push your limits when barefooting.

First 10K barefoot race

It is one year I am running barefoot in Hong Kong. Last Sunday, I decided to join a competitive running 10 kilometers race. With this first 10K barefoot race, it was an occasion of pitting myself against other runners, although, of course, there was not much for me to put up against runners capable of completing 10 k in half an hour..

Shek Mun: a very nice running environment

Shek Mun, where the race took place, is located near Shatin. As such, the race course took us alongside the harbour for a lovely flat and easy race track. At the beginning, I was right at the back of the pack, so things did not get easier as the race began at a walking pace. Most people behind did not really expect to put up much of a performance, so the start was pretty slow. And so did start my first barefoot race, with about 1 minute passed getting to the start line…

Me and my bib number
Me, with my bib number.

With several hundreds participants, the race elongated itself nicely.

Pacing oneself

The big challenge in a race, is not wanting to go too fast too quick. My goal, in this respect, was to keep a reasonable rhythm during the first half of the race, then to gradually increase speed to finish fast(er).

My speed kept around 6.10 to 6.21 min/km for the first 5 kms, and my heart rate around 165/168 bpm (borderline to the intense range). After the fifth km, when we turned around, I started increasing my speed slowly and gradually, as some runners were starting to fall behind.

The start of the race and the moment the first runners are coming back…


No sprint, but constant acceleration

I kept running at a regular rhythm, trying to avoid sudden rushes or boosts, in order to keep my heart rate within control. I however increased my cadence and my relative speed, my best speed being 5.33 min/km, at which point, I was already maxing out on my heart rate.

I finally arrived to the end, having pushed my running to the fastest I could, short of sprinting.

Over the last few kilometers, many volunteers gave me the thumbs up. Strangely enough, not one runner talked to me. You would think that as with the majority of the population, this would elicit curiosity, but apparently, no.


No, I did not make it to the podium…

Not a podium
Some runners helped me with this illustrative picture…

Despite the picture above, no, I did not make it on the podium or anywhere near the 8th place… But it was a fun experience, not so much because of the “communal” experience, but rather because of the test for your own capacities. In a race, you must try and give your best and then some… And that’s what I tried to do.

I already registered for another 10k race in January, in order to keep the incentive for training. Hopefully, within the next six months, I can also run a 20 kms race…. But that’s another story!

Hiking home after the race…

After the barefoot race, I went back to Shatin to meet my local friend, Matthew. We had breakfast and then starting hiking back towards my home.

While it was initially dry, the rain intensified during our hike. Eventually, we got totally drenched, but being barefoot, we were as comfortable as ever. I ran some portions down on Jat’s incline, as it was also a way of keeping warm.

Barefoot hike on Jat's incline.
Capture of our barefoot hike on Jat’s incline.

We kept encountering people commenting on how they knew that hiking barefoot was good for health, but that they were too scared to try it themselves… So, being out there, hiking barefoot also encourages people to try it (at least you can hope so).

The interesting part is that, at the end of the day, I did not feel sore at all. I was tired, but it was quite a “good” tiredness. Running/hiking barefoot seems way less tiring than with shoes (probably because of the “massage effect”).


One year barefoot running and hiking

One year ago, in October 2017, at night, out of sheer despair, I cast aside my flip-flops and set off on my first steps barefoot running. Slightly painful though they were at the beginning, soon, these steps gave way to the elation of being able to run once again, about one year after having undergone an ACL reconstruction. Since then, over one year barefoot running and hiking, I kept pushing the envelope, among others barefoot hiking on Suicide Cliff.

Barefoot hike
Walking barefoot in Shoushan national park

Slow start vs strong start

It is traditional for barefoot running proponents to advocate a slow start, and this probably makes sense for most runners. I must say that since I have lived in Thailand, I generally do walk barefoot at home and use wooden sandals most of the time, otherwise.

When trying to resume running with shoes, the knee patella pain was too present to allow me any form of recovery. As a last resort, I switched to barefooting – and to be quite honest, always wanted to run barefoot.

As such, and rather counter-intuitively, my start was immediately with 1/2 hr runs and 4 to 5 kms each time. Though I was rather out of shape when I started, I did not suffer serious inconveniences when running. At the beginning, and mostly an effect of bad technique, I did have a few blisters. But beyond that, what I did was avoid running every day. I started by running twice to thrice a week, which gave time to the tendons to adapt. My feet, in themselves, did not suffer at all of the barefoot running, on the contrary.

Recently, I acquired a garmin smart watch. This allowed me to identify more precisely my running cadence, and it seems very close to the 180 steps per minute which are the optimal cadence at which barefoot running should be practiced.

Advantages of barefoot running

The advantages of barefoot running, beyond allowing me to get back to the point where I can run even with shoes, are numerous.

I realized when hiking barefoot lately, that my ankles and body muscles have grown stronger and can now ensure stability in all terrain, especially in the mountain. I did not have any injury, except a sensitivity once, to the Achilles tendon, which got solved simply by taking two consecutive days of rest.

barefoot running to Prague Castle
Barefoot running until Prague Castle

Running barefoot also helps gaining in self-confidence as it is something putting you under the spotlight. Only people with a relative confidence in themselves can do this exercise.

Another advantage of barefoot running is the comfort in which you feel even after several hours running/hiking barefoot. You don’t have shoes weighing you down or making your feet sweat.

The cons

Now the most obvious will be that gone are any pretense at passing unseen or discretion. Often people don’t look at the feet, but when they do, you can be guaranteed to see various levels of shock.

Look, for instance, at this video of my latest barefoot hike on Needle Hill:

Barefoot hike on Needle hill

People do tend to get surprised when they see someone walking or running barefoot. Some people may react aggressively, as somehow, the feet seem to have a special place in the human mind.

Sometimes, the problem is with “conviction-based” barefooters who tend to appear as aggressive in enforcing barefooting as Jehovah witnesses at your doorstep.

Your tendons and feet muscle will also be loaded much more than with shoes, and at least at the start, it is important to bear that in mind. Indeed, starting too quick may overstress those body parts and lead to overuse injury as well.

Barefoot run on the way down from Needle Hill



The other factor to bear in mind, is that you are inherently more vulnerable barefoot. As such, you generally run or hike slower (especially hiking in rough terrain). The counterpart to this being , of course, that you hike more leisurely and are more in phase with your environment.

After all, what better experience than being able to remember the feel of the terrain on a hike on top of the view or the general area?

Consistency

A key word in building up your resistance and capacity to run barefoot is to be consistent. Most of us cannot walk barefoot 24/7, so while we wear shoes, our feet lose some of the benefits of barefooting as well as become softer (which is not always a boon when practicing on rough terrain).

In addition, consistency will ensure that your tendons and other body parts remain trained to support the heavier load put on them by barefoot running. As for me, partly because it is fun, partly because it pushes the envelope on personal comfort, I do sometimes take the MTR barefoot after a hike. For example, see this timelapse:


The future

The future is probably not a generalization of barefoot running, but the development of a core of consistent barefooters who will serve as a reminder to the other runners  that barefooting can be good for health. Obviously, in Asian cultures, where some degree of barefooting has always historically existed, acceptation of barefooting is greater than in Western countries.

And then, obviously, there are areas such as San Francisco,  where barefoot running is basically impossible given the dirtiness and disastrous condition of the streets.

Nevertheless, never mind how gross or “painful” this may appear to you, try running or walking barefoot in the street. You will be amazed at the sensations and the incredible benefits this practice can bring. And if you need more references, I created a page solely for collecting references on barefoot walking and running.


A barefoot hike on Tai Mo Shan

Tai Mo Shan is the highest mountain in Hong Kong, culminating at 957 m. Despite being in Hong Kong for two years already, I had not visited Tai Mo Shan until recently. It must be said that it is a bit out of my way, and I already have the famous suicide cliff near to my place. I even went back there recently, but that will be the object of another post.

A photography meetup

I went up Tai Mo Shan with the members of a photography meetup, the PASM meetup. We went the day before the Typhoon Mangkhut hit the city, because prior to the typhoon, there is always some marvelous atmospheric effects in the sky.

Having missed the bus to Tai Mo Shan, we caught an Uber to be on the safe side. The side benefit of taking an uber was that the driver took us up about halfway up.

A windy start

Being on the side facing Yuen Long, we faced strong headwinds. An attempt to take off with my drone ended in a crash-landing that created some damage to the gimbal, although that damage was not immediately apparent.

Despite the wind, we managed to take some pictures on a rocky outcropping.

Bailey at Tai Mo Shan.
Bailey shooting pics on the protruding rock on Tai Mo Shan.

Climbing up

Although we had come halfway up on Tai Mo Shan, we still had halfway to walk, and so, we started climbing. Along the way, there is a viewpoint over the town of Tsuen Wan. While it is just the habitual cityscape of Hong Kong with high rises and some view of the sea (read: unremarkable), it was interesting to play with the drone around that area.


Bailey and Grace and Tsuen Wan
Bailey and Grace with Tsuen Wan in background

Of course, since the scene was there, I did take a dronie… Barefoot of course, as I was hiking the whole mountain barefoot.

Dronie on Tai Mo Shan
Dronie on Tai Mo Shan

The most fun was when another Mavic Pilot came down the mountain with his own drone, while he was actually riding a scooter. We then exchanged dronies capturing each other with our respective drones.

Two drone pilots in a dronie
Two drone pilots taking a dronie

The sunset over the mountain

Finally, after having climbed even higher, we came to an ideal position to see the setting sun. We were blessed with some angel lights shining through the clouds which made the sunset quite spectacular. Despite the proximity of the typhoon, and despite being on the exposed side of the mountain (again), there were no gusts, so the drone managed to be quite pliable.

sunset over Tai Mo Shan
The sunset over Tai Mo Shan.

Despite the lower dynamic range of the Mavic Pro, the picture is quite similar to the picture shot with the Nikon D 750.

View of the angel light through Nikon
A view of the angel light through my Nikon D750.

The reason for the absence of reddish sky is due to the wind which dispersed the pollutants which habitually diffract the blue part of the solar light. Habitually, Hong Kong and Bangkok are gifted with quite spectacular sunsets due to the high presence of pollutants in the sky. An approaching typhoon, obviously disperses these pollutants.

Going down

Once the sunset over, we started going down, also to get home on time to shelter from the typhoon. Nevertheless, that is when the sky started showing some spectacular hues.

Barefooting down the mountain
Bailey going down the mountain barefoot.

It was the occasion for me to shoot a pic of Bailey who, after a lot of prodding, finally decided to take off his shoes and start barefooting down the mountain.

Obviously, I took it to the next level, when I decided to jog down the mountain with my heavy backpack, still barefoot… But that is how a barefoot hike can be as much fun as a barefoot run!

Getting to Tai Mo Shan

We took it the easy way, as we hired an uber which took us up to halfway the mountain. Nevertheless, if you wish to climb Tai Mo Shan more “classically”, you must first head to the Tsuen Wan West MTR station. From there, you grab bus n° 50 and alight near the mountain. From there, it is impossible to get lost, as the path to the top is straight and paved until the end.

First barefoot “race”

So, after training, running and hiking barefoot, I decided to participate to one of Smartone’s (my mobile phone provider) fun races. The race seemed essentially geared around promoting the Apple Iwatch and its benefits for training. Nevertheless, it was a fun occasion of going out and running with Matthew, my HK friend. So, it was a first barefoot race, but “race” between brackets for it was not really a race.

Getting there

The race took place at Diamond Hill, which is just one MTR station from my place. The fun thing is that I have a shortcut to get to the sports ground, which involves some forest trail near my condo. So, I took the trail, and managed to run all the way to Diamond Hill, by which time I was already sweating as hell.

Knowing the forest trails near your home is fun, as they give me a number of shortcuts. I have another shortcut on the same path taking me right up Jat’s Incline, towards Kowloon Peak. This time, it was just to get on time to the sports ground. As I am pretty confident now with going around barefoot, I just ran from my home without shoes or slippers. This allowed me to keep it light and easy.

The Smartone event

For a race organized by a mobile phone company, the facilities they provided were a bit on the spartan side. In the matters of drinks, just one 18 L bottle of water was available.

Runners grouped around
Runners grouped around the meeting point at Diamond Hill

But then, of course, you could borrow an Iwatch and test it. I never saw something more unhandy for fitness. Both, the small screen, the lack of ergonomy and the erratic heart rate measurements were a total put-off.

Now, to the big elephant in the room: no issue at all with me running barefoot. People were just a bit astonished, but as most are runners, they understood the desire to be barefoot and to run barefoot. Some runners even came to enquire about my running barefoot. While on the tracks, I saw at least one other guy training barefoot. So, after the 2010 vogue and crash, now it seems barefoot running is either starting a comeback or keeping the true “believers”.

The race

Anyway, we were not there for the watch, but for the race! Initially scheduled at 19.00, it finally started only at 19.30… Thankfully, our group was the first to depart, and contrary to our fears, it was not a free for all race, it was rather a slow, paced jog. We did a 3.5 kms loop and came back at the starting point. As we were a bit bored with the pace, Matthew and me, we both sprinted to the finish line.

race bracelet
Race bracelet

All in all, a fun initiative and a perfect time together with a friend. Heat and discomfort due to the humidity can be taxing however when running. There was little to no breeze and most of the runners were in the same state as me, drenched with sweat.

Barefoot running in Prague

I was recently for business purposes in Prague, in Czech Republic (after transiting through Helsinki). As you may already know, I did some barefoot running while in Barcelona, and now try to keep running barefoot anytime I am abroad. While Prague certainly leads in the category of the most beautiful cities of the world, it is also a tough terrain for barefoot running. Barefoot running in Prague’s old city involves indeed running on disjointed pavements most of the time.

Barefoot acclimatizing

As you may know, I regularly run barefoot in Hong Kong and I also do hike barefoot. I also often do some quick runs to the mall barefoot, which gives me a quick exercise and the occasion of both, facing social awkwardness and using my bare feet in different contexts.

It is thus that while not being a full-time barefooter (work and social conditions do not allow it), I do try to do barefoot exercise as much as possible. This reinforces my leg muscles and my feet, and of course, also my social comfort being barefoot. But more importantly, it allows my feet to experience a variety of terrain, thus reinforcing skin and muscular structure of the feet.

The Old city

The old city of Prague is replete with historic buildings, and mainly old huge pavements. The sidewalks are filled with smaller cobbles, but are thus also an irregular surface for running. On my first run, I had the lovely surprise of encountering a barefooted statue of “harmony” on the banks of the Moldau. This was probably the best part, as running on the banks of the Moldau (or Vlatava as it is called in Czech), and the small gravel and sand did not cause any discomfort.

 

During the day, running in the old town is difficult due to the great number of tourists in the month of May. I thus started my runs generally towards 6 AM.

An idea of the tourists on Prague’s Charles bridge…

Prague's Charles bridge
Prague’s Charles bridge at tourist rush hour (Photo Anthony DELANOIX, from www.unsplash.com)

Anthony DELANOIX

 

If running in the morning took care of the tourists, the surface remained harsh to run upon. My first run took me right up to the Prague castle, which at 6.30 AM was deserted. Running that early allows you to use the warm morning light and it gave my picture quite a flavour of Tuscany. And no, I did not use any filter!

barefoot running to Prague Castle
Barefoot running until Prague Castle

Running in the city

For people who are paranoid about glass on the floor, I did not encounter any while running in Prague. Whether at the castle or in the city, there was no glass to harm my feet, nor other dangerous items. While I would not say Prague is as clean as Helsinki, it is reasonably clean.

However, running barefoot on disjointed pavement or huge coblestones requires some care, but I surprised myself by running about normally on that terrain. It did not cause any discomfort (testifying to months of barefooting and acclimatization of my feet).

Afterwards, however, my footpads were a bit sensitive, but I trust a few weeks of running on that terrain would have taken care of that too.

Social look on barefooting in Prague

With regards to the acceptation of barefooting, I saw a Czech lady barefooting in the park (and apparently, she did not carry any shoes with her), and a few English people also barefooting in the old city. However, despite encountering a number of runners, I did not see any who were running barefoot.

While I got some weird looks, just two openly negative reactions… A group of guys who saw me walking back to my hotel barefoot and started laughing loudly and openly after I passed them. And finally, the receptionist of the 5-star hotel where I was residing who told a customer : “yes, there are strange people”, after they saw me coming back barefoot.

Pushing back the comfort zone

When running barefoot, you must be ready to push back your comfort zone. Part of this implies being ready for and being unfazed with such reactions. I made the choice of a certain lifestyle and a given way of life and I am ready to accept the constraints that come with it. I also don’t mind being considered as weird or strange or “poor”. It is actually quite a luxury of having a decent lifestyle and being able to be careless about how you look.

Nevertheless, being a barefooter does not entail any philosophical or ethical consideration for me (not doing it because of “earthing” or whatever “hippie” feelings). It just is a lifestyle which helped me to overcome a physical issue and which has provided me a lot of satisfaction in various manners since I started it. I have the necessary self-confidence to put up with the abuse or curiosity. Running barefoot in various countries around the world allows us this comfort zone to be pushed back.

I would say however, that being shoeless and being able to run shoeless means that I need less things. In a way, this encourages minimalism and a more zen approach to life. It also increases tremendously self-confidence (ok, it must already be quite high to be able to do it).

Barefoot running anywhere

Contrary to popular fears, barefoot running in the city is not a solution for injuries provided you watch where you run and provided you take the time to condition your feet. Taking it slow initially is an essential requirement. Beyond the fear of injury, the most obvious issue you may be facing, would be the social awkwardness when running barefoot. People will stare or even comment or laugh at you. This is inevitable. For some reason, in Hong Kong, a lot of people run shirtless, but elicit no comment at all. Run barefoot and everybody stares or is uneasy. There is an almost freudian paradox in this aspect of society.

 

The Statue of Harmony

Statue of Harmony in Prague
The barefooted statue of “Harmony” in Prague.

This statue on the banks of the Moldau, actually refers to Sri Chinmoy, an Indian sect leader who was active in the USA in the 1960’s. While you may wonder why such a statue was placed in Prague, it made for an interesting encounter in the morning.

Nevertheless, as a matter of fact, that particular day, I felt that running barefoot also allowed me to reach my own personal harmony.

Celebrating spring with two barefoot hikes

Since I came back from Canada, I slowly resumed my barefoot running. This week, I also resumed barefoot hiking. Ok, not in very challenging conditions, but I wanted to celebrate spring with two barefoot hikes. Right now; temperatures are very moderate (a high of 19° C), so a perfect time to undertake hiking. My first goal was to scale Tung Yeung Shan.

Tung Yeung Shan

Tung Yeung Shan is much less well known than its more illustrious neighbor, Kowloon peak, but it deserves interest all the same. Mainly known by Hongkongers, it offers a very lovely view on the Marina Cove of Sai Kung.

Getting there involves, for the first part, to pass in front of the entrance of the path to Suicide cliff and to choose to disregard it. You then continue on Fei Ngo Shan road, straight, until the road arrives to an embranchment towards a camping ground (just before a hairpin curve taking you to the Kowloon Peak observation point). That is where you turn right. You walk down, a few hundreds of meters and you can start to climb Tung Yeung Shan very easily, as the first half of the trail is made of stairs. The second part is rocky and involves some scrambling, but nothing really serious.

Barefooting a mountain

It goes without saying that I was barefoot from the start of my hike and of course, barefoot still on Tung Yeung Shan. Actually, when climbing, bare feet offer an excellent adherence to the nooks of the terrain. In my previous visit to this area, I had stopped after the first volley of stairs.

When going down, bare feet did not have issues. The terrain was also covered with leaves, hence making it a bit slippery. Nevertheless, with bare feet, adhesion was optimal (I know I would have been losing traction with shoes). I also encountered fellows from a Hong Kong Hiking Meetup. Comments were all appreciative (and several commented that it made feet strong!).

Tung Yeung Shan
Going down on Tung Yeung shan

Of course, I don’t only climb mountains for the sport now. I also drag around my drone, but it took some testing before I made it fly, as there was quite some strong winds up there in altitude.

Drone shots

I did say that Tung Yeung Shan has a marvelous viewpoint on Sai Kung. Well, here were three youngsters who were trying their best to get a selfie with the backdrop of Sai Kung. I did offer them their picture, of course, as it probably beated hands down their selfie stick pic.

Tung Yeung Shan
Three young Hongkongese take a selfie on the background of Sai Kung

I followed their example, and here is my dronie with Sai Kung in the background.

Dronie on Tung Yeung Shan
A dronie with Sai Kung in the background

Tung Yeung Shan offers a lovely viewpoint for a number of interesting landmarks, such as the Metereological observatory of Tate’s Cairn.

Tate's cairn
The meteorological observatory on Tate’s Cairn

Of course, the day after, I would go closer.

The return was unremarkable, except that instead of going the full circle around Kowloon Peak, I elected to go back down the same way I came.

After this hike, the feet were quite a bit tender (mainly because of the asphalt), but with some care, they were ready for the next adventure. In a way, the feet feel “oversollicited” nervously with a barefoot hike (and that’s maybe where it is different from barefoot running, as the interaction with the ground is quite different).

When leaving, I hqd the occasion of shooting an interesting encounter between a paraglider and a plane (obviously at very different altitudes).

Encounter in altitude
A plane encounters a paraglider near Tung Yeung Shan

 

Hike on Jat’s Incline

The following day, my feet having recovered, I decided to go on Jat’s incline (as my condo faces that road) and take a closer look to the Meteorological observatory. I decided to leave on sunset, and on the whole I did good time in climbing the three kilometers of Jat’s incline, until the viewing point.

It must be said that the roads leading to Jat’s incline are covered in stones mixed in the asphalt. They literally kill your feet when you are a beginner (about the same material was present in Shoushan national park). I am getting accustomed to this material, and so, on the return, I even jogged back down Jat’s Incline.

Jat's incline
Stones in the cement, on Jat’s incline.

 

My drone took off on a higher portion of the road, simply to give it as close a view of the observatory as possible. In the background, you can see the city of  Shatin, in the New Territories.

The meteorological observatory of Tate's Cairn in Sunset
The meteorological observatory of Tate’s Cairn in Sunset

I then went back down to the observation point, to shoot another set of pics. This viewpoint is a pretty famous spot for awaiting the sunset.

Viewpoint on Jat's incline
Many people drive to the viewpoint, just to admire the sunset.

This place also provided a safe operation area from which to launch the drone. And then, of course, the most fun part was probably taking another “dronie”.

Dronie on Jat's incline
A dronie on the viewpoint of Jat’s Incline

Later, I went down, on Shatin’s pass road, but I realized that the whole mountains, from Kowloon Peak to Shatin’s pass, were literally covered in electrical poles.

Shatin's pass road
In the distance, you can see how many electrical poles there are on the side of the mountain.

Of course, flying a drone over electric poles should never be done for two reasons. Firstly, in case of contact with the electric wires, you may cause a major incident knocking out power over a vast area. Secondly, the high-voltage electricity generates a magnetic field which may affect your gps and the internal compass of the drone, hence causing a loss of control (and a loss of the drone, obviously).

Running barefoot, a healthy activity

On the return, I did run down the mountain. Despite the ground being rough (as shown above), and the occasional stone in the darkness, it was a lovely experience. It goes also to show that barefoot running really does strengthen your feet on the long run. My feet don’t hurt and they feel rejuvenated the day after. For those who wonder if I have heavy calluses by now, the answer is negative. The skin is soft, and if my feet are always as sensitive (they will always be), but the mechanism of adaptation have changed as my feet automatically shift weight if they land on something painful. Sometimes a tiny pebble nestles in my feet, but I just need to brush it off.

A test with a positive conclusion

The goal in doing a barefoot hike two days consecutively was to test my adaptation and my resilience, and so far the result is positive. After having started to run barefoot a few months ago, the results have been quite positive on my overall form and strength. When hiking, not having rigid soles under your feet is an incredible advantage. When running, you cqn feel truly light running barefoot. Of course, in part, these were not really challenging hikes, as they mainly took place on asphalt, but it is still quite a climb upwards and a really fun moment.

 

Running barefoot

Some of the readers of this blog may know from following my instagram or other posts that I run barefoot. As originally explained, this arises from a physical constraint. Indeed, I underwent an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction in September 2016. Since then, unfortunately, my knee has taken quite a long time to recover – partly also because I have not been as rigorous as I should have been with exercises to strengthen my knee.

Barefoot running to… resume running!

In the end, after reading some online posts about the benefits of running barefoot for knee pain, I decided to give it a try. After all, my single attempts at running with shoes since my operation saw me stopping as my knee was hurting. Although the knee first felt the impact, past the first two laps (around 500 m), once the knee was warmed up, it became incredibly comfortable to run barefoot.

I took it easy at the start, running for 1/2 hr and not really focusing on time. To my surprise, I was running fast. In fact, running barefoot, you are somehow obliged to run faster if you wish to keep an optimum form. Despite this, at the beginning, there were some small issues, such as blisters and skin abrasion. From online forums, the general opinion is that it indicates bad form rather than anything else. Over time, blisters became something of the past.

Exploring the world barefoot

A logical extension of running barefoot was to start hiking barefoot. Indeed, I had already done several hikes in Hong Kong, with shoes. On the occasion of my trip to Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, I made a barefoot hike in Shoushan national park. While my skin was still tender, the variety of surfaces, and meeting other Taiwanese barefoot hikers was an excellent experience.

Barefoot hike
Walking barefoot in Shoushan national park

I didn’t have much the occasion of running barefoot in Kaohsiung, mainly because I was biking a lot (barefoot, of course) and was traveling across the city to visit the various sites. Nevertheless, on my return to Hong Kong, I continued running barefoot.

On average, I run around 30 to 45 mins, averaging 5 to 6 kms. I managed to run by 8° to 10° C (while cold, as long as you cover up the top, it is fine, but it can be draining).

 

Barefoot running abroad

Running barefoot on a daily basis is pretty easy for me, as I do it in a park just in front of my condo, where the terrain is pretty much safe and level. In general, barefoot hiking is done on hiking trails, and, as such, always gives rise to comments or interrogations (often positive!). But as I grew in my training and level of proficiency, I was not shy about running barefoot abroad too. My best memory of this was running at 6AM by 12° C in Barcelona on the Paseig de Gracia, the main avenue of Barcelona.

Casa Battlo, barefoot running
Here, before the Casa Battlo of Gaudi.

Obviously, at 6 am, not a lot of other people around, so no big deal to face in terms of comments etc.

 

Running in difficult conditions

Another challenge which I had to face since running barefoot was that the weather quickly changed to winter. Temperatures of 8-10° C were common in Hong Kong, and while the cold is manageable even barefoot, when it gets wet and cold, then it gets tough. Feet and toes in particular tend to get colder with the water, and low-intensity running does not create enough warmth to keep you comfortable. Nevertheless, I managed to run several times with 10° or approaching temperatures. Below, a video of my running in the rain.

Running in the rain has been probably one of the most exhilarating experiences, as it is absolutely lovely to be splashing in the puddles.

Barefoot in the rain
Running barefoot in the rain and splashing in the puddles

 

Health advantages

The one, most direct benefit for me, has been to be resuming running painlessly, and as a side effect, to be able to strengthen my legs’ muscles. There are a lot of talks of the benefits of “earthing” among the barefooting community, but I don’t believe in these theories. I just do it because a). it allowed me to resume running; b). it is fun and healthy to do.

Running barefoot does demand the use of a different set of muscles and so, your feet and your calves and feet muscles end up dramatically reinforced as a result. The other advantage is that your sense of proprioception also develops and you feel more stable on your feet. Finally, on wet terrain, as recently, I did not slip at all, although I know that with my trail running shoes I would be guaranteed to have a straight fall on some slippery sections (granite pavement).

 

How to start running barefoot?

Maybe, after reading this article, you wish to start running barefoot too? It can do a lot of good, it can also be discouraging when starting. You will face a lack of understanding from other shod runners, social discomfort (depending on the place), your family may disapprove and finally, it may hurt (a bit!) at the very beginning. The best way is to focus on the positive aspects, namely the increased sensory feedback when walking, then running barefoot. At the beginning, walking on a twig in the park would cause discomfort, now, the feet have adapted to the feeling and just mold around the twig.

It will depend from person to person, but two general advice come out: firstly, to take it easy and not overdo it at the start; secondly, to learn to run forefoot. At the beginning at least, while your running form is not yet perfected, and when you are still learning, you will probably have blisters or higher abrasion of the skin. You must obviously avoid running too frequently or as heavily as before, at least for a period of time. Eventually, you will be able gradually to increase your distance. It must be however said that few people run marathons barefoot, if any. Indeed, the repetitive abrasion on the ground (especially cement) ends up using even the hardest bare feet.

Later, running will become more and more easy. And as you progress, you will not want to look back to the days you ran with shoes.

 

Where to find more information?

One main reference website is “Run Forefoot“. Written by a neurobiologist, Bretta Riches, it contains a good deal of arguments with scientific backing on the technique of barefoot running. Another main online (and current) resource is the reddit “barefoot running“. This latter forum is more based on practical experience by barefoot runners (although many write about minimal shoes versus “real” barefoot running. Nevertheless, the advice can be useful for novices, and those seeking to learn from the experience of others. Finally, if you are interested in barefoot hiking, the reddit “barefoot hiking” can be also useful (but mostly filled with the accounts of those who did it, like me, rather than advice). My own personal advice is to do at least once or twice the path shod before going for a barefoot hike.

If you did start barefoot running or hiking, drop me a word either in the comments or by mail, I would be glad to hear from your experience!

 

 

Kowloon Peak barefoot!

While I often climb Kowloon peak and suicide cliff in particular, so far I always did it with hiking boots or trail running shoes. As a few weeks ago, I started running barefoot, I decided this time to run/hike to the top of Kowloon peak barefoot.

Barefoot on Kowloon peak
At the top, enjoying the magnificent view over Kowloon.

Why running barefoot?

Firstly a few words of explanation for what might seem an unconventional decision at first. I have had an ACL surgical reconstruction about one year ago (ruptured the ACL with karate). Rehabilitation has been overall good, except that I would continue having pain at the patella tendon when attempting to run with shoes. I had a period of barefoot running when I lived in Paris and was much younger (because shoes were hurting my toenails).

Here, as I was growing frustrated with being unable to revert to a more engaged fitness lifestyle, I decided to try running barefoot in the park in front of my apartment. Incredibly (but not astonishingly, given the biomechanics of barefoot running), I didn’t feel any pain in the knee. It is true that the running track in my park, is pretty absorbing and hence rather forgiving for the joints. It also helps that many parks in Hong Kong have reflexology paths.

After I started running barefoot, other areas of the body have improved too, from calves to ankles which have also been reinforced. I have, on average, covered around 5 kms per session, with about 1/2 hr running and feel much better physically. The feeling of freedom is also impressive. I added burpees and jumping jacks to my training routines, and, of course, do a lot of squats. On the other hand, the calves and ankles were extremely sollicited. As I took it nice and easy though, I did not suffer too much with those muscles.

The logical development was to attempt running on longer distances and a logical target was my favorite mountain, Kowloon Peak.

Kowloon Peak barefoot… but only on road!

The day before this hike, I took a stroll to the 10,000 Buddhas monastery with trail running shoes, and I emerged out of it, quite exhausted in my legs and feet. I was looking to release the tension.

Obviously, for a first time, I was not going to attempt suicide cliff barefoot, so I opted to take the road which climbs up to the Kowloon Peak observation point. Overall, the road is quite flat, but there are a lot of gravel in places, so it can be uncomfortable in places when running. As my cardio is not yet up to par, I walked on the steepest sections, but it was still lovely.

The level of sensory feedback from the feet is quite different. I am not a hippie and I am very far from the pseudo-naturalism of some barefoot running/hiking proponents or stories of “earthing”. Return to nature is not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, it was a nice experience (try feeling the warm asphalt under your feet in autumn). Sometimes, you have to feel free to do things differently.

As for the impact on the body, strangely enough, the impact is much less than with shoes as long as you run with the forefront of your feet (and not landing on your heels). I must say I felt quite light on my feet (if you recall, had a pair of falls on my last hike, due to ankles buckling – but I was also carrying 15 kgs gear!).

 

Walking the line
Walking the line barefoot and feeling the warm floor beneath.

Views along the way

Kowloon Peak offers a number of interesting view points, especially on Sai Kung. On this period of the year, silver grass start showing, so that makes a quite lovely foreground for pictures. As I was focused on running, I did not take much photographic gear with me, using only my Iphone for these pics.

Silver fern
A lovely view of Sai Kung with silver fern in the foreground.

At the Kowloon peak observation platform, you can sometimes take some nice nostalgic pictures of onlookers while they embrace the view before them.

A lady looks on Sai Kung from the Kowloon peak observation point
Kowloon Peak observation point

 

Reactions from others

Of course, running/hiking barefoot is an activity a bit extreme/marginal, so you will inevitably elicit reactions from the people you cross (and God knows there are a LOT of hikers on Kowloon Peak on a Sunday!). Hongkongese are quite conservative re. footwear, but they are accustomed to walking barefoot at home. Some reactions are of surprise, others can inquire if you are ok (a lady asked me if I was ok, when she saw me walking barefoot). One older guy even gave me a thumbs up.

A smile and confident demeanor will solve those little situations. After all, you do what you like. Obviously, barefoot running is not for you if you cannot feel free to be “different”. It also requires quite some confidence in yourself.

Wild Encounters

Three wild boards
Wild boars forage on Jat’s Incline

I guess this passage will come across as cliché when it comes to running “close to nature”… But I did encounter some wild boars on Jat’s Incline. I stopped by to take a picture and then resumed running. While many accounts talk of the danger of these animals charging you, I left them alone and they didn’t care about me running past.

So, if you ever encounter wild boars, just give them a wild berth. In this case, it was three specimens with a juvenile. Trying to caress these animals, feeding them or getting too close might lead them to feel threatened and to charge, so please never try anything like that.

Hiking barefoot?

As I mentioned earlier, this time, I hiked/ran on a flat road. While there were inconveniences such as gravel and stones, it was not climbing up on suicide cliff in any way. I have not yet done something like that, as my main focus when hiking is safety.

However, from past hikes, I can confirm two points. Firstly, I did find that having hiking boots with a rigid sole was rather an inconvenience when hiking on a mountain. The lack of flexibility of the sole does not adapt well to climb on rough terrain. I do climb better with my trail running shoes which have a much more flexible sole, so I guess bare feet are even better. Secondly, I did see an older guy going down the suicide cliff route with flip-flops (which is more dangerous for tripping/slipping), so that seems feasible even if it sounds a bit crazy.

Finally, I live in a tropical country, where the floor is often populated by insects or other animals, and you certainly don’t want to be caught by a snake barefoot, but most of the time, snakes will just slither away, as long as you don’t walk on their tail.

So, the issue is still open to debate in my mind. I will certainly try hiking the Dragon’s back barefoot (I saw people tackling the trail in flip-flops) before taking on more challenging trails.

This brings me to my conclusion: never attempt to start hiking barefoot on trails that you don’t know! At the very least, you should have done a couple of reconnaissance hikes shod and should be aware of both, the terrain and the configuration of the hike. Finally, you MUST bring along some shoes/flip-flops and some first aid. This will help protect against mishaps or cross difficult passages.

 

Some more references on running/hiking barefoot:

For more about minimalistic running (no, I don’t advocate those Vibrams or other “minimalistic” shoes), here are a few resources:

Running World article on barefoot running (a measured view on the phenomenon)

Biomechanics of barefoot running

Sports science on barefoot running (a scientific study)

And as it is interesting to show both angles of a discussion, this article warning against barefoot running:

Why barefoot running isn’t best for most runners Quite obviously, barefoot running is not made for everyone, as it requires changing a lot in your posture and approach.

Finally, on the slightly different subject of barefoot hiking:

Should you hike barefoot An interesting nuanced approach to the question.

Pros and cons of hiking barefoot Another nuanced article.

Society for barefoot living And finally, to conclude this series a link to the website from the “Society for barefoot living” which features webinars with catchy titles such as “shoes: the silent killer”. Sorry, I couldn’t help but laugh at that one.

All about grounding And finally, to top it all, an article debunking that myth of “earthing”.