Running barefoot… why in the world would anyone do that?
It is definitely a legitimate question and one that I asked myself (and to be honest I even asked a couple of times on some running forums before I made the jump) many times when there was “talk” of some runners running without shoes 3 years ago. I totally get it. I totally get the idea of it being very alien and something that many wouldn’t even consider. And the thing is.. unlike some barefoot runners that write… I humbly don’t care if no one else in the world ever runs barefoot. I am not trying to convince anyone to do it and (as some seem to) I definitely don’t think it is like some sort of almost “religion”.
There seems to be (among some barefoot runners) this sort of zealotry in their approach to it and I find that odd. I also have seen it written that some adopt this “barefoot lifestyle”… what the hell is that?! I’m sorry but that has to be one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard of. They just want to be barefoot all the time doing everything they need to do. I read Barefoot Ken Bob’s book “Barefoot Running: Step by Step” (and that is another thing.. barefooting doesn’t define me in a way that I feel the need to call myself “Barefoot Chris”… come on!) and he writes about this time when his new contract came up for his next assignment at the school he was working at.. that he had it written in the contract that he be allowed to always be barefoot at work. Really?! I mean seriously… really?! To each their own, but I have to be honest when I say that that really makes me laugh and I can no more identify with that “need” to constantly be barefoot than you can. Some also say that it always feels wonderful… there are times when it does feel great, but there are times (usually because of the conditions of the surface that you are running on) when it is really brutal.
All I am getting at is running barefoot has simply been for me a way to dramatically change and strengthen my feet and lower leg, virtually eliminate persistent running injuries and make running feel significantly more natural and (when it is good) better. Or put another way… I still really like a good pair of shoes (I am a big fan of the House of Gucci) and am basically only barefoot sometimes walking around the house and those times when I run barefoot.
So all that having been written… I do have a lot to say about this form of running and feel like I have a reasonable amount of experience to write from.
Supposedly (in talking with the few that are in this city) I am the first from St. Louis to run a full Marathon barefoot and at the same time became the first to run a Marathon barefoot in Death Valley.
To get to that point took a lot of learning, listening (to my body) and experimentation. I would like to share what I have learned with you so that you can take from it what makes sense for you.
This post will be about why and how I decided to run without shoes, what the transition was like (and what I feel it should be like for you if you decide to attempt it), and what has happened to my lower legs and feet. Future posts will be on other barefoot running topics (like how it affects your pace, what it feels like to run barefoot and etc.).
So let’s start at the start…
Two and a half years ago I was very close to giving up on running. I didn’t want to give it up.. I still really liked running but I was so sick of getting hurt every two to three months that I honestly didn’t really think it was worth it anymore. As much as running did for me (and I won’t even start the list here… each one of us that is a runner has his/her own list of the benefits that they get out of running.. suffice it to say it did and does a lot for me and I really didn’t want to give it up) I was truly sick of having to take 2 – 3 (or longer) weeks off, sometimes pay the expense of sports medicine physician visits, try to use the elliptical (or whatever other machine I could use without affecting my injury.. I hated most all of them) during the interim and just generally not be able to run without pain. So I really wasn’t sure what to do..
At the time, I was in the camp that this whole “minimalist” movement was a bit loony and actively questioned how it made any sense. If I was getting hurt in thickly padded shoes (that of course I told myself had millions of dollars of research behind them.. so they must know what they are doing) how much easier would I get hurt in thin super light shoes! It was (and for some still is) counterintuitive to think that less shoe (going to no shoe) would make it harder for me to get hurt.
But.. I was truly willing to give this running thing one last shot and I knew that the approach that I had been taking up to that point was not working. I read some articles about minimalist style running and also decided to pick up the book “Born to Run” (of course.. how many others have said that they tried to transition to minimalism from that book!). It was at that point that (even though I still thought it was kind of crazy) that I said to myself “Why not give it a shot?”. This was my last stand… and I didn’t think that it could do anymore harm than what I had been doing.
And before I forget.. what were the injuries that I was regularly getting? They were mostly all lower leg (a couple of times I got some knee swelling before transitioning.. but it was never a big issue)… calf strains, achilles strains, ankle strains, plantar fascitis and shin splints (damn those are terrible things!). I think that is about it.. it was enough! I remember hearing that achilles issues (once you got them) were extremely difficult to get rid of long term. I am thankful to say that isn’t necessarily true. Except for a couple of short lived stretches of the fascia on the bottom of my feet getting mildly strained (from a couple of particularly aggressive and fast workouts) I have been injury free since I started my transition in January 2011. That is not to say that I haven’t had some periods of serious soreness and odd aches and pains but I was always able to run pain free. I am still sometimes amazed at this and how barefoot running helped me in this way. This is one aspect that I am very thankful for.
So.. I started my own form of transitioning to a minimalist shoe (wasn’t thinking barefoot in the beginning). From the outset, I thought that the transition should be slow but I didn’t know how slow until I got into it. I was worried about running in the thinner shoes on a hard surface too early.. so I ran on this half mile looped trail near my house that is all wood mulch. It is a nice soft surface but isn’t the easiest (and definitely not the fastest) surface to run on.. you sort of sink into it.. but I thought that would be good while I transition. I didn’t know which minimalist shoes to start with so I went to a running store here and they convinced me to get a pair of the “monkey shoes” (my term for Vibram Five Fingers).
My first two weeks were a half mile in the monkey shoes on the mulch and then back into my trainers for the rest of my run. Then for two weeks I did a full mile on the loop and then got into my regular trainers. I remember thinking that when I got back into my trainers that running felt weird, but I wasn’t yet 100% convinced. It was at about 5 – 6 weeks (at that time doing 1.5 miles in the monkeys) that I started to get some weird tendon issues on the tops of my feet. The tendons that help you pull your toes up were hurting in a way that didn’t seem “right”. At the time I was in tune enough to attribute it to the monkeys and then thought about the possibility of going full barefoot. While I was never fond of the way the monkeys look, I feel like the fact that they force your toes apart (especially before your feet have significantly changed.. with your toes gently spreading.. from barefoot running) creates an unnatural pull on your feet and caused the tendon issues that I was having. So since I had transitioned for 6 weeks.. I thought I could try to transition to barefooting. It was quite a jump in my mind but full steam ahead.. “Why not” I thought?
So I read a lot about barefooting from some websites and just tried to take it slow. I am not going to go through every week of the first 6 months but I started by barefoot running on that same wooded mulch trail (once again concerned about the impact of a hard surface in the beginning.. although I am not convinced now that that is necessary) and started again at .5 miles for a week, then 1 mile and then was back up to 1.5 miles in a month (but this time being barefoot). There is a very small asphalt parking lot at this wooded mulch trail that you have to run through to get back on the loop of the trail. I will never forget stepping on one very small rock on the pad of my metatarsals (my forefoot) and screaming out from how much it stung. It’s funny.. now I run over bigger rocks on an average run and barely notice them. My pads were not transitioned. At the end of one run I then decided to get crazy and run for a bit on the sidewalk away from the trail. This was probably 2.5 months into my transition (monkey shoes and barefooting combined) and I was surprised how “not bad” it felt. I wouldn’t say it felt like running over pillows, but it wasn’t terrible and was amazing to me that I was doing it. I remember it feeling almost like I was doing the impossible.. I mean I still hear regularly (from veteran runners and non runners alike) “How can you do that?”. That is how I felt that day.. I really didn’t understand it myself.
One thing that I found out on my own (that I really haven’t found emphasized much at all in any books or forums) is that barefoot walking while you are transitioning allows you to transition much easier. I feel like this is a really important something to take away from this article (if you are thinking of trying barefoot running). If you have a dog, it is a great way to get this barefoot walking in. Just walk on the sidewalks or the parking lots in the park with your dog twice a day. It will do wonders to developing the pads of your feet. Just maybe 5 minutes at first, building up to 15 minutes or so as you can handle it. Start with smoother surfaces (like concrete) and working toward rougher asphalt. It will take a while before rough chip and seal ashpalt feels anything but unpleasant (I don’t think it has ever gotten to the point where the rougher asphalt has felt great). When you start trying this form of walking, it won’t feel particularly comfortable but the stimluation that it gives your pads will greatly aid them in becoming “barefoot feet”.. it grants you more barefoot time without having to be barefoot running. I would go so far as to say that even if you don’t ever run barefoot.. barefoot walking 3-4 days a week on the pavement will seriously toughen up your feet when you run in shoes.
So I basically just continued on the path of adding an extra half mile every two weeks or so until I was be able to run 3 miles barefoot without much issue. It was at this point when I felt like I could start to venture out a bit and then going from 3 to 5 miles didn’t take very long.
But (and you can ascertain this from the past few paragraphs) the initial transition is a long process. It has to be. One has to be very patient with working through the process. I have read in multiple barefoot running books (including Barefoot Ken Bob’s and Sandlers) that the transition takes 4 – 8 weeks. That is garbage! I wonder if they are saying that because they want to try and bring more runners into the “barefoot fold” or want to make their books more popular by not making it seem so challenging in the beginning… I don’t know.. but going from running in regular trainers (or from racing flats.. it doesn’t matter) to being able to run comfortably and safely barefoot takes 4 – 6 months. It is that simple. 4 – 6 months. Forget about running 5 – 6 miles barefoot 4 times a week after getting out of your shoes for 2 months. You might be able to (maybe… but highly doubtful) but you will feel that things aren’t right and you will get hurt. Having the patience to perform the transition is the hardest part.
I totally get a lot of runners not being willing to have the patience (even if they want to become barefoot runners). Here is something that I always say “If you don’t get hurt, if you continue to PR in different distances and feel comfortable in your shoes then I understand your not wanting to take the time out to work to go barefoot”. Just run and enjoy. I understand and like I wrote earlier am not trying to convince to run barefoot or not.
But if you are interested in taking the plunge for whatever reason and are willing to be patient enough to transition slowly, you will be rewarded with more injury resistant feet and legs and will get to experience the feeling of almost gliding over the road (that you can’t experience in shoes). When I wrote “when it is good, it is great” I meant it. I sometimes almost feel bad for shod runners that they never get to experience the feeling of almost floating over the road when running barefoot on a nice surface. It almost transcends running.. it almost isn’t running in the traditional sense… it is something different. I’m not going to talk about “getting connected back to the earth” or something like a lot of barefoot runners write because for me it isn’t about that.. it is about simply running effortlessly and without having shoes to overcome every step. But once again.. getting to the point where it feels that good (on a decent surface) takes a good amount of time.
One thing I wanted to bring up at this point is that I don’t think starting out on grass or dirt is a good option. You can run too far for where you are at in your transition because it feels so comfortable.. and this will bite you. The “unpleasantness” of the road will force you to stop earlier and at the same time will have the pad building effects that your feet need. That brings me to the subject of how your foot changes which I will describe in a bit, but before that I wanted to write about some of the things you will feel while you are transitioning.
Your lower legs are tight! That is all there is to it. They are tight from having their components (muscles and tendons) shortened from being in shoes that raise your heel significantly off the ground. Even if you never get hurt because of this, I do believe that it increases your injury potential in certain circumstances like running up and down very steep hills or training in track spikes as examples. When you force your calves and achilles to lengthen significantly whether from the grade of a hill or from the negative drop of a spike.. when they are shortened they won’t be able to fully exert all of the strength they contain and they also are at a greater risk of getting over stretched.
I will never forget how my lower legs felt during the “lengthening” process of my 6 month transition. They got incrementally tight at various spots because they were lengthening. I really needed to listen to this tightness because it was telling me to allow it and to take it slow. What was fascninating as well was that the tightness “moved”. It started in my upper calves, then progressed to my mid calf, then my lower calf, then high on my achilles, then midway down my achilles and then finally at the insertion of my achilles into my calcaneus. Then it was finally gone (after about 6 months) and I had concrete physiological evidence that my lower legs had lengthened to fully allowing the zero drop stride of a barefoot runner. The movements down my leg took 3-4 weeks each (a bit longer in my achilles) and if I had really tried to ramp up my barefoot mileage too quickly during these phases I am sure that I would have strained or tore something. You have to let the lengthening go at its pace!
But what was happening wasn’t just my lower leg components lengthening, my foot was changing too. This is one of the craziest aspects of becoming a full fledged barefoot runner is how your feet can actually change their structure. I was never flat footed, but my arch has significantly raised and strengthened which helps tremendously in allowing my body to absorb the impact of running (the arch is one of the strongest structures ever created… its the reason why some of the structures in Rome are still standing).
I have worked directly with a couple of runners who thought they were genetically destined to always have flat feet but developed arches from barefoot running. The overall thickness of the middle of my foot has increased a bit, there has been distance created between my big toes and my second toes (which allows for greater stability) and the fat in my foot pads has increased (giving me more natural “cushioning”). I have developed callousing on the pads of my feet but they aren’t rough thick callouses because the ashpalt acts like a pumice stone and every stride you take it is sort of buffing the bottoms of your feet. They aren’t powder soft like after a woman gets a pedicure but they aren’t rough either.. just protected. I have actually gained a centimeter in height! Crazy stuff.
I just described how my foot changed but I also need to describe some of the odd and at times a bit scary ways that your foot feels while you are building it up. I remember being really concerned about breaking bones in my foot (because of lack of cushioning for them) for a couple of months in the early going. I never did actually break anything but I got some strange soreness at times and that combined with the “logical reasoning” that you would break bones in your foot from landing 200+ lbs directly on it for miles, did lead to some days where I was a bit concerned about how my foot felt. I would get soreness in my plantar fascia as it was strengthening (plantar fascitis mostly comes from the fascia being weak from being under utilized in shoes.. strengthen the fascia!),
soreness in the pads of my metatarsals and also in the top of my foot above my metatarsals. The soreness above and below my metatarsals concerned me at first, but what I learned was (through research) is that generally if there is a fracture you will feel it on both the top and the bottom of your foot (all the way through). I always just felt it in one or the other. On the top it was the tendons being worked in new ways. On the bottom of my foot it was the padding around my metatarsal bones building up. But just because that pain wasn’t indicative of a serious injury, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have listened to it and I am glad that I did because I usually took an extra day off or so if it seemed particularly significant. My foot was telling me something. And this is one thing that I agree with Sandler’s Book “How to Run Light and Free”.. the fact that we do have 1,000,000 little coaches in our feet and when we start using them they are great at giving us feedback as to what their status is and how long they need to heal. Even today, after a particularly hard or long barefoot run my pads do feel sore and I am walking around gingerly but that feeling means that they are going to be stronger and more stress resistant the next day.
Wow.. I realize now that I could literally write a book on this subject of barefoot running (who knows.. maybe?…), so I will stop here and continue on in a future post. But before I forget… I want you to know I do still run in shoes when I want to. Sometimes I just like to run in my zero drop New Balance Minimus. As I wrote earlier.. I am not tied to barefoot running exclusively and I don’t necessarily think anyone should be.
Until then, if anyone wants specific help on getting started.. please leave a comment below or email me at the button at the top of the page. I am happy to help!!
Best of luck in your training! No matter what you put on your feet.