Kick Off Your Shoes!!
Barefoot running!!…huh?! When I first heard about it, I thought it was crazy…probably like most of you are thinking right now. Won’t it hurt my feet? What if I step on glass? Don’t I need my well cushioned, motion-controlled, high $$ trainers to prevent injury? Will I look like some homeless person running down the street? What will my running buddies think? Will I still be able to run high mileage or even a marathon if I switch over to bare feet?
Well, let me tell you. I recently switched over to barefoot running and I couldn’t be happier. I’m more excited about running right now than I’ve been in a very long time. And yet, I’m still only running about 3 miles a week and then only at an 11 min/mile pace. That’s right it’s a very SLOW transition. Doesn’t sound too appealing yet, huh? I had tried adopted the Chi Running technique a couple of years ago, which in some ways is similar, so barefoot seemed like the next logical step. And now, my feet and legs feel great and my chronic hip/hamstring/sciatica thing finally cleared up as well. I finally feel like I’m running the way my body was designed to run. And really, I’m not trying to convince you to do it, but rather just tell you about my experience.
Barefoot running requires much more than simply kicking off your shoes (as the title would suggest). It involves completely changing your running style which, depending on your current form, could be very drastic indeed. Most of us are heel strikers and over-striders when running shod (in shoes). When one switches to barefoot, you “automatically” begin landing on the ball of your foot first…and why, you ask…because it hurts like #@$% to land on your heel when you’re barefoot! By running in shoes for years, our heels (and feet) have been allowed to run sloppy without “feeling” the ground as we run. This causes us to over-stride which leads to all kinds of other problems and injuries to our knees, tendons, hips, backs, you name it. About two-thirds of all runners will be injured each year due to poor running form which, conventional wisdom leads us to believe, is simply an over-use injury to our already injury-prone musculoskeletal system. WRONG, when we pound the pavement, because we can, in overly padded shoes, we run with bad form and wind up hurting ourselves without knowing it, until it is too late. We need to learn to run more gently.
With all that said, my transition to barefoot running has been anything but smooth. I started off slowly enough (I thought) back in early May with some Vibram 5-Fingers (toe shoes) and very gradually alternated between Vibrams, barefoot, and regular trainers. But I quickly ended up learning two of the most important acronyms of barefooting: TMTS (Too Much Too Soon) and TOFP (Top Of Foot Pain). I went limping into my doctor’s office, and one expensive MRI later, I had a diagnosis of “Stress Response” in the 2nd metatarsal and was told no running for 6 weeks and walking only in “very stiff soled shoes.” I was dangerously close to believing that my initial gut reaction had been right…barefoot running is crazy and dangerous…but then, I did some research. Duh…maybe I should have done that BEFORE I injured myself. With my foot propped in the chair, I began to read “Born To Run” by Chris McDougall, and it changed my life. Needless to say, this was not only a great story, but it was a real eye-opener and led me to three other books and many great websites on barefoot running.
Q: So what was my big mistake?
A: I wasn’t running barefoot!
I was running with bad form, and too far, in shoes which offered minimal or no support, and at the same time insulated my feet from feeling the ground. This lack of feeling, allowed me to run almost completely up on the balls of my feet, without allowing my heel to gently “kiss” the ground before lift-off. The only right way to do this transition is by truly going barefoot…that’s right, NOTHING on your feet. If you run in Vibrams, or Nike Frees, or running sandals, then you are not, by definition, barefoot. This is known as minimalist running, which is fine (for some), but you first need to develop your form in just your bare feet. Then, and only then, if necessary, due to weather or other conditions, should you use the minimalist shoes. The soles of your feet are the two best coaches you could have and they will “talk” to you. They will hold you back and limit you from doing the wrong thing, if you “listen” to them. And lastly, you must ramp VERY, VERY slowly. Run only every other day in the beginning, and start with only a hundred yards or so.
I don’t have the space to lay out a training schedule here, but suffice it to say, you will significantly reduce your mileage and slow your speed in the beginning. And slow is an understatement…you must first learn to stand (on gravel and other surfaces), and then walk, and then run. My first week or so was spent standing in my gravel driveway before I even started walking. But honestly, I’m happy with my one mile a day, three times a week, at my 11 minute pace. All my time/pace/race goals are out the window right now, but I believe I will eventually meet and even surpass my previous fitness level. But for now, no goals…I’m just enjoying running like a kid again! And so, if you decide to give this a try, PLEASE don’t let this be the only article you read on barefoot running. There are several great books and websites out there (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want more info).
In the end, there is something really cool, and cathartic, about starting all over. And running…simply…the way God designed us to run…barefoot.