Bare Necessities

Econ prof and runner Julian Romero thinks on his feet

It’s was a long winter in Indiana, and just about anywhere else in the U.S. But for Julian Romero, assistant professor of economics, it wasn’t the snow that bothered him. It was the salt.

In addition to researching game theory, Romero spends a lot of time running barefoot. “The first time I went out and experienced salt, I was running over the pedestrian bridge [between Lafayette and West Lafayette]. It starts to burn your feet. It’s a really bad sensation.”

Julian Romero

Julian Romero, assistant professor of economics, shows off a dirty foot after running the 2013 Boston Marathon. Pretending to be disgusted is Olympic runner Ross Murray, who Romero met by chance after the race. (Photo provided)

A former baseball player, Romero ran the San Francisco Marathon in 2006 wearing shoes, but at the urging of his brother, he decided to try running barefoot. “I heard a lot of things about running being bad for your knees. I probably weighed about 10 pounds more. I was still big like a baseball player, and that made me especially careful.”

When he first tried running barefoot, Romero was studying at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, just northeast of Los Angeles, “so, really nice weather,” he says. “It is the best place you could probably go for running barefoot. The sidewalks are always clear. The temperatures are always nice.”

He ran his second marathon barefoot, and since then has run 14,000 miles sans shoes. “When I first moved here, I was pretty gung ho about toughening up my feet so I could run in the cold,” he says. The first time I ran and there was salt, there was no way I can do that. The salt burns your feet.”

As a concession to the salt, Romero does wear the “barefoot” shoes with thin soles and individual compartments for each toe, but he says, “Running in those is not even a close substitute to running barefoot. Running barefoot gives you feedback from your feet.”

There’s no question he’s saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars by rejecting running shoes. You think that would appeal to an economist, but it’s the physical benefits that got him hooked.

“I feel like it’s a much safer way to run. It’s very hard to get an injury when you’re running barefoot all the time,” Romero says. Plus, you don’t have to worry about bringing your shoes when traveling to a race. “It’s pretty convenient. It’s one less thing to have on your checklist.”

He can run barefoot in temperatures down to the low 20s, if it’s sunny and the roads are salt-free. And his feet need no special attention, even after running a complete marathon barefoot.

“Originally, I was doing a bit more," he says. "We have white carpet and I was pumicing my feet a lot in the beginning. Now I really don’t do anything special.

“Even the bottom of my feet don’t look bad after a marathon, they’re just black from the road. If you walk on wet concrete for a bit, it cleans them off. It’s almost like pumice.”

Although there is the possibility of getting cut when you run barefoot, “I think the benefits far, far outweigh the costs. After running 14,000 miles barefoot, I've probably stepped on glass maybe five times,” he says. “The type of glass you have to worry about are very, very small pieces.”

Sharp rocks can be uncomfortable. “Your foot learns to minimize, and cups around the obstacle,” Romero says. “You really learn how to get better with the coordination and the feedback. Pretty much all pavement is perfect. Anything that is natural is usually fine. The only surface that is uncomfortable is crushed stone.”

His girlfriend is a recent convert and completed her first barefoot marathon in March.

“It’s just been so great. I feel like it adds another dimension to your running,” Romero says. “I try not to preach about it too much, but if someone shows interest I try to tell them about all the benefits. Running barefoot is the best way to run.”