I developed a risky addiction this summer: running barefoot on grass. Why risky? Because all sorts of nasty, dangerous things can hide in grass, only to be discovered when you step on them and start bleeding. It’s happened to me twice.
So why have I nonetheless been doing it three times a week for the past three months? Three reasons:
I found a large, secluded park surrounded by family homes where broken glass was not a big risk and all I really had to watch out for was dog poo, and I’ve been running laps around it all summer. It’s been my little bit of heaven, watching the sun rise over the houses earlier and earlier till my runs were in broad daylight, having my feet covered with damp cherry blossoms, watching the progress of the elderflowers, the mulberries, the ducklings on the nearby canal.
Over time I noticed that it was growing easier to run across the rocky path that bisected the park, and one day it occurred to me I might be able to make it home on the roads – just seven minutes — without putting my shoes on. And I did! The next week I thought I might try also running to the park without my shoes. And I made it! A week or so after that I wanted to go for a short run and not take the extra time to get to and from the park, so I just set out from my front door and ran 25 minutes on the road before my feet said “stop!” The next run was 35 minutes, and the one after that was 45. I had broken through.
And then I went back to my heavenly park, running very comfortably over the roads to get there. I stepped onto the grass with relish but about 20 steps in I felt something astonishing: my achilles tendons ever so subtly tightening up. After a half lap I realized my speed had dropped to a trot and running was more effortful than it had been on the roads. And all this brought home to me on a physical level the truth I already knew intellectually: grass is cushioning.
I still run on the grass, alternating it with the roads because even though my feet have toughened to an astonishing degree I need regular breaks from the bed-of-nails they call pavement here. But I change my expectations when I go to the grass. I know I’ll be slower for the same reasons that people are slower in cushioned, supportive shoes – because some of the impact is absorbed in the cushioning and not the elastic tissues of the body, and thus can’t be transformed into energy for the next step. And because when I push off in late stance, some of that energy is absorbed by the cushioning instead of sending me forward and slightly up. And because I have to stiffen myself a little bit more to have enough proprioceptive feedback to control my movement when I land on cushioning than when I land on a firm surface, costing me a little bit more energy as well and tightening all my joints.
The one thing I will never do, and I would discourage you from doing either, is running on the grass in cushioned shoes. That’s double cushioning, and it multiplies all the effects I’ve described above so that your niggles will niggle worse from the increased stiffness in your body and your ability to direct yourself properly in space will be very much compromised from effectively running in a marshmallow environment. Bare feet, super-minimalist shoes, or cleats or football shoes are the way to go. There’s a reason that sports played on grass don’t traditionally involve cushioned shoes!
I know that running in grass has actually made me a bit stronger than if I’d gone for runs of the same length and speed on roads, so I don’t worry about being a little bit slower on the softer surface – it isn’t hurting my fitness, more likely the opposite. And I do know after a grass run I’ll feel that wonderful well-being from electrical grounding that you actually can’t get on blacktop.
But these days I’m enjoying my road runs most of all, loving how relaxed I move and how fast I feel, and how free I am to run wherever I want.
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.