These days “barefoot running” has become synonymous with wearing minimalist shoes. However this was not always the case. There are a handful of elite runners who made it to the top wearing nothing on their feet at all. Particularly during the 1960s there was a phase when barefoot running became very popular among elite runners. We thought it would be interesting to explore the greatest barefoot runners of all time.
Dates: 7th August 1932 - 25th October 1973
Achievements: Winner of two Olympic marathons
“Men of success meet with tragedy…I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy.” (Following his car accident in 1969)
Abebe Bikila was born on the same day as the 1932 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles and his birthday seemed to tie his fate irrevocably with that of long distance running. The son of a shepherd Bikila worked as a bodyguard to members of the Ethiopian Royal family before being spotted by trainer, Onni Niskanen.
Bikila was a last minute addition to the Ethiopian Olympic team replacing Wami Biratu who had fallen seriously ill. Unable to get trainers from Adidas (who were the official shoes sponsors of the 1960 Olympics) that fit him properly he decided to run the marathon barefoot, as he had trained like this in Ethiopia. “Oh well that’s one we can beat anyway” were the infamous words of New Zealand runner, Ray Puckett as he stood on the start line. Bikila sprinted to the finish line winning the marathon in record time.
Bikila repeated his win in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics setting a new Olympic record and returning home to a present from the President - a white Volkswagen Beetle. In 1969 Bikila was involved in a car crash that left him paralysed initially completely but after surgery just in his lower body. In 1972 Munich Olympics he watched as a guest of honour as his fellow countryman Mamo Wolde receive bronze in the marathon.
Bikila won the race in a world record time of 2:15:06. Bikila went to to become a national hero in Ethiopia with 75K people attending his funeral.
Dates: 26th May 1966 -
Nationality: South African
Achievements: Two time winner of World Cross Country Championships
“I felt more in touch with what was happening - I could actually feel the track.” (On running and training barefoot).
In 1984 Budd broke the women's World Record for 5000m at the age of 17 with a time of 15:01.83 although at the time (due to South Africa’s apartheid policy) the international Amateur Athletic’s Federation refused to ratify it as an official world record. Budd had to wait a year until she could claim the world record officially whilst running for Great Britain.
Born in Bloemfontein, Budd grew up in South Africa and is unusual in that she trained and raced barefoot. Controversy surrounded her 1984 Olympics when in the 3000m women’s final she collided with Mary Decker bringing her down and out of the race. Although initially disqualified for the incident she was later reinstated when officials examined the video footage. (Budd finished seventh appearing to consciously slow down after the collision).
Budd continued to compete for the UK and in 1985 and 1986 she won the World Cross Country Championships. After a loss to her long-term rival Decker at Crystal Palace in July 1985, Budd went on to break the UK and Commonwealth records for 1500m (3:59.96), 3000m (8:28.83) and the 5000m (14:48.07).
Dates: 25 February 1938 -
Achievements: Olympic Gold 1500m, Commonwealth Gold 800m, 1 mile
“The only tactics I admire are do-or-die.”
Herb Elliott was arguably the greatest middle distance runner of his generation, never losing a 1500 meter or mile race during a 4 year stretch (1957-61). The main difference between Elliot and most of the runners he competed with was that he trained barefoot.
Elliott held the world record for the mile and at the Rome Olympic Games, he won the gold medal in the 1,500 meters and bettered his own world record with a time of 3:35.6. Eliott himself credited his success to his famous but eccentric coach, Percy Cerrutty. The latter embraced a mind-body, holistic approach to training that was centred around barefoot runs on sand dunes, whilst discussing poetry and philosophy for mental stimulation and following a special hairshirt diet. As Eilliot ran up and down the sand dunes, Cerutty would shout “Faster – it’s only pain.”
Dates: 29 September 1935 -
Achievements: British 3 Miles Champion and European 5K Champion
“At sub-5:00 mile pace, the gain in efficiency with bare feet is 1 percent, which means a 100m advantage in a 10,000m. In actual racing, I found another advantage is that you can accelerate more quickly,”
Known as “Europe’s barefoot champion” athlete, coach and Runner’s World writer, Bruce Tulloh is interesting because his running career only really took off when he adapted to barefoot running.
Returning to the UK in 1955 from military service in Hong Kong, his times were hardly remarkable. As a 20 year old he had barely beaten 16 minutes for three miles.
However upon returning to the UK Tulloh joined Southampton AC, started running barefoot and increased his mileage.
Tulloh was part of scientific research into barefoot running in 1961 and became convinced of the benefits. He also wrote about barefoot running for the Observer in 1971 after spending a short spell in Mexico’s Copper Canyon with the Tarahumara Indians. He was amazed by how far and effortlessly they ran in their huaraches.
Tulloh retired in 1967 and ran across America in 64 days – although this time he wore shoes because he was concerned about road conditions.
Tulloh’s twin dughters were teenage running phenomena in the 1980s, setting age-best marks running for their club Swindon AC. They also ran barefoot.
If you know of any other great barefoot runners, we’d love to hear from you. Please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org