Barefoot guru Hank Campbell insists that he is not opposed to running shoes.
"They have their place," said Campbell, one of Tampa Bay's top road runners. "But I think everybody could benefit from a little barefoot training in their training schedule."
Campbell, a St. Petersburg-based endurance sports coach, has the record to prove it. The 30-year-old was the top local runner at this year's Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K, and on March 6, just a week later, he won both the Belleair Classic 5K and 10K on the same day.
"I've been running barefoot for years," he said. "Any serious runner who tries it will see an improvement."
Running barefoot is nothing new. The athletes of antiquity ran sans shoes. And in the modern era, several shoeless superstars have made their mark on the sport.
The most famous perhaps was the legendary Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila, who in 1960 won the Olympic gold medal in Rome. Bikila set a new world record of 2:15:17 without the help of fancy running shoes.
Two decades later, another African, this one from the southern half of the continent, thrust barefoot running back in the public view. In 1984, a teenager named Zola Budd made history when she broke the existing 5,000-meter world record by more than 6 seconds — barefoot.
Interest in barefoot running was rekindled last year with the release of Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run. He spent time and ran with Mexico's Tarahumara Indians, who can run amazing distances at Olympic-caliber speeds without shoes.
Campbell has a few dozen committed disciples, most accomplished road racers or triathletes, who regularly attend his weekly training sessions at Jack Puryear Park in St. Petersburg.
"He has changed my whole running technique," said Jessica Koelsch, a 40-year-old adventure racer from St. Petersburg. "It seems like with less work I am a better runner."
When you run without shoes, the ball of your foot is the first thing to hit the ground. Throw on a pair of running shoes, and many runners land heel first, which barefoot proponents contend may lead to injuries.
"Running barefoot is all about form and technique," Campbell said. "When you run in shoes, your feet are not really in touch with the surface. Without shoes, you really focus on how you should run."
Many podiatrists preach caution when it comes to barefoot running. The modern world has many hazards — nails, screws, broken glass — that can seriously damage bare feet. But some orthopedic surgeons see a benefit to a regular barefoot regimen.
"There is literature out there that suggests that … running shoes may actually reduce performance," said Dr. Charles Finn, medical director of the Advanced Spine Center at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
But he cautioned that a barefoot regimen isn't something to adopt overnight. "It definitely is something that you should build up to gradually."