Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why I got booted off the gym treadmill

"It's just policy. You have to wear shoes on all the equipment." 

AWR: "Why? What is the concern about running in socks instead of shoes?"

"Safety. It could be slippery. You could fall or something." 

AWR: "Of course I'm biased, but I challenge the idea that running without shoes is slippery or unsafe. Who do I talk to, to learn more about this policy?"

"Talk to the director," hands me a business card.

AWR: "So, if shoes are required, what qualifies as a shoe?"

"Just your official typical, basic athletic shoe," looking at me like I'm an idiot. 

AWR: Smiling, thinking that his policy is not founded on sound reason but instead on just what has been the norm that people probably haven't questioned until recently. Surely I can't be the only one who has had this happen to them at this gym? What would they think if I told them I've been running in my socks on their treadmills for the past 2+ years? HA!


The backstory:
A couple weeks ago I jumped on a treadmill in my socks to do my PT-recommended barefoot running as a warm up to lifting some weights. My plan was to just run 10 minutes in my socks then go lift. About 2 minutes in, I was politely but firmly told to cease & desist. I obliged and didn't argue (although all the other folks on the nearby treadmills thought I should have argued) but went ahead with my strength workout, showered, then approached the staff at the front desk on my way out the door instead (see fruitless conversation above).

I decided to first send an email (because I'm long-winded) and then follow up with a phone call:

Dear ###,

I have a question about running in socks on #GYM# treadmills. My physical therapist asked me to run 10-15 minutes, two times per week in socks on a treadmill or outdoors. The rationale is that it will help me to strengthen my feet and improve my foot strike, teaching me how to shorten my stride and land more softly on my mid/fore-foot. Then, I am to run in my regular shoes for the rest of the week while trying to maintain the feeling and style I obtain while running without shoes. I have been doing this for the past 2 years and it has helped me reduce injuries and actually feels really good to my feet. Since the proportion of my barefoot running is small (2-3 mi/week) compared to the rest of my shoed running time (20-25 mi/week), I have resisted spending $100 on "barefoot shoes."

Recently, I was told I could not run in my socks on the #GYM# treadmills. But, there was no clear rationale given other than it was just a policy. Natural or barefoot running is becoming more common and while most of us probably spend more time running outdoors than on treadmills, it's a nice option when running outside is not possible or safe.

I would challenge the idea that shoeless running indoors is unsafe, and question in what way it would be unsafe. Running in clean socks is not slippery or unsafe and in fact, I have a better sense of foot placement and sureness. There is no heavy equipment nearby that could fall and damage my unprotected feet (unlike in the free weight area where I regularly see people wearing Vibram 5-Fingers barefoot shoes).

If indeed "shoes" are required, what qualifies as a shoe? Are Vibram 5-Fingers acceptable? Or the sandal running shoes that are equivalent to a used tire tied onto the foot with webbing? I've recently seen some toe socks with rubber grip on the bottom (like my toddler's socks). Are these forms of shoes acceptable? Our approach to running and concept of running footwear is evolving and would like to see the #GYM# embrace these changes.

I would like to confirm that running shoeless is or is not allowed (even with a doctors note?) and would like to understand the reasoning behind it (other than that it's just unconventional). Also, I would like clear guidance on what forms of "barefoot" style running footwear would be acceptable if socks are not.

Please advise, as I would like to be able to complete all my physical therapy exercises at the ## gym.

Thank you for your time,


Thank you for your thorough email. Sounds like you have a plan for recovery, which is wonderful. We indeed as a #GYM# have a policy that a closed toed shoe is required on our fitness floors. You have brought up several valid and interesting points with regards to barefoot shoes, the natural health of running barefoot and other footwear you have seen on the fitness floors. At the #GYM# we do our best to ensure this policy is implemented for the safety and health of our members. With treadmills in particular there have been historical issues across the nation in a number of gyms relating to injury from not having shoes therefore we maintain this policy. 

If I may suggest with a physician's note your physical therapist would probably be very helpful in allowing you to use one of their treadmills during that small mileage portion you were referencing.

Thank you again for the email and let me know how it is going!


So in a nutshell, I can't use the gym treadmills for any barefoot work unless I wear barefoot shoe$. It's annoying and I don't understand the hazards, but whatever. I can suck it up and when I need to, take TWO pairs of shoes with me to the gym if I'm going to do a full run (one for barefoot time, one for the rest of my running time). OR, just do my sock-footed running at home. (Outside downtown is a pretty nasty, hazardous option considering all the human and seagull biological wastes (urine, crap), debris, oil/grease, etc. on the sidewalks & roads.)

Has this happened to any of you barefoot runners?
How would you respond in this situation? 


  1. Can't wait for their response. I'm glad you aren't running without anything covering your feet in the gym. I would never go truly barefoot anywhere at my gym. Yuck.

  2. Our Y even had a no Vibrams rule a few years ago and with all the flak from so many runners, they changed it - still no socks/bare feet, but Vibrams are OK. Since you're so good about barefoot running, maybe you should invest in a pair?

  3. The reply from the gym is very friendly and well-written, it's just a shame they don't give any good reason why running without shoes might be harmful. It's a bit of a pian for you. Couldn't you sign a disclaimer or something, to say you're doing it at your own risk? Seems over the top, but it might satisfy their 'policy'. Good luck!

    1. Yes, it was a nice reply. I just think it's a dumb policy because running on a treadmill IS a hazard unto itself, regardless of footwear. We are all using the equipment at our own risk already so I'm not sure how wearing no shoes makes a difference. I know i'm just being difficult though - I blame the pregnancy hormones :)

  4. i completely agree with you and I think the only 'reasonable' explanation the gym would have is that there are idiots in this world who are also "sue happy" and if one of them happens to see you do it then they want to try it and slip and fall and sue the gym. IN a sense they are 'covering their butts'. Hopefully you find some work around

    1. Yes, sue happy I suppose but anyone could sue even if they have shoes on because running on a treadmill can lead to accidents either way. Bah!

  5. interesting. glad you stood up for your point. I feel as though their policy is ridiculous-you sign a waiver using their equipment, it should be your responsibility if you get hurt-you pay to use the gym-it shouldn't matter. I guess I would get a note before I bought the shoes. I can't remember what size you are-if we are the same I will send you my vibrams (9.5).

    1. Very sweet! I am smaller size but I'm thinking my Altra's will be a close approximation when I need to run at the gym. I just really love the feeling of having nothing on my feet at all. I will just go barefoot when I'm at home.