Born To Run…Barefoot?
I know, it looks crazy. When I see someone running barefoot, my first thought is “fugitive”. However, that perception is changing, as running barefoot has become the “in” thing to do.
Stronger feet, fewer injuries, no blisters, and saving money all sound like pretty great reasons to give it a try. Healing my knees and hips are also high priorities and barefoot running, as counterintuitive as it seems, claims to fit the bill.
I’d never considered until I read about foot biomechanics that the joints serve alternating functions to keep the entire body safe and stable during movement. It makes perfect sense; the foot is for stability, the ankle for mobility, the knee for stability, and the hip for mobility.
Nothing in my years of fitness has gotten me so excited as barefoot running. Nothing. Even my beloved Pilates feels like old hat in comparison to the excitement of getting out there, free footed, and running the way my body was meant to run. It’s exhilarating!
A Death Trap, A Suicide Rap?
Glass, rocks, dog poop; all would seem to prohibit barefoot running. While I’ve never seen anyone in my subdivision take off shoeless, there are still ways to do it.
There are two popular options for starting. First, you can taper down to a more minimalist shoe, like the Vibram FiveFingers. Second, start walking a couple of miles barefoot to train yourself to look for obstacles. You can also combine the two, running short distances and then walking barefoot.
Most people don’t have feet strong enough to just dive into barefoot running. You’ll be sore, and then you’ll blame the barefoot/minimalist running as opposed to blaming your weak feet.
If you’re accustomed to being barefoot and are an experienced runner, start running 1/4 mile on a flat, debris-free surface. Some barefooters recommend even less. Work up to 1.5 miles barefoot before attempting other terrain.
When you’ve achieved 3 miles on different terrains, you’re ready to start experimenting with more distance, different surfaces, even speed drills. The thing that’s so important about barefoot running is to listen to your body.
In Pilates, we call it “body awareness”. When you develop this, you’ll know when to take a day off, when to change your stride, and when to push yourself further. The ultimate goal is to run as fast and as far as your body will allow on any given day.
That’s not weakness, it’s the ultimate advantage. Knowing your body gives you power, and that is, after all, one of the main goals of running.
Together We Could Break This Trap
“Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain.” – Christopher McDougall, author of Born To Run, as interviewed by Amazon.com.
Traditional running shoes totally screw the body’s proprioception. We were designed to feel the earth under us. When we mess with the neural signals that say, “Hey, the ground is changing beneath us”, we get injured. Did you run barefoot as a child? I did, and I didn’t get hurt.
Funny how now I can’t run three miles without my knees hurting. It’s because I’ve removed my body’s natural protection, which is my own ability to counterbalance. It’s crazy, when you think about it.
Running shoes elevate the heel, making it so that we can’t land on the forefoot. I’ve been admonished for years about how I “prance” when I run. I know now that this was my body’s attempt to save my knees. My body was trying to do the right thing even when I was giving it the wrong equipment.
It makes me want to scream, honestly. I’m so upset that I didn’t listen to myself and instead decided to listen to “experts”. Who is a better expert on me than me? So here’s the science.
The heel has thin skin, almost no fat pad, and a bone that hurts when you strike it. What have we done to compensate? Why padded the heel, of course! But this takes the impact off of the forefoot, which has fat and tough skin.
Forefoot striking also uses the arch in its natural capacity. It’s one of the strongest tendons in the body. When allowed to do its job, it absorbs shock and distributes it evenly throughout the body, instead of forcing the knees to bear the brunt of hundreds of pounds of foot force.
I Want to Know if Love Is Real
Not being ready to go totally barefoot, I decided to look into minimalist shoes. Far and away the most popular choice is the Vibram FiveFingers (VFF), as evidenced by the fact that it took me over three weeks to get my hands on a pair in the correct size.
I have bad knees and hips, and lower back pain as a result of both. Two friends of mine have started running in them, one a non-runner for her first forty years, and the other a relapsed runner due to chronic knee pain. She’s running in the VFFs like a kid frolicking in meadows.
The first order was backordered for five weeks (wish they’d told me that). I waited another week to get my order from Vibram, but they were too small. The third pair I finally found locally. They weren’t the color I wanted, but with my REI membership, I saved 20%.
Finally, after three weeks, I have the shoes. Vibram tells you they should fit like a glove, and that’s absolutely true. That’s how you know you’ve gotten the right size. The pair that was too small felt ok, but squeezed my toes after about ten minutes of wear.
First impressions: they’re like walking on air. The tab on the heel bites a bit if you’re sitting criss-cross applesauce. I’m barefoot most of the day because I’m home with the kiddos, and have relatively strong feet from Pilates and yoga, so wearing them out and about is comfortable from the get go.
I haven’t tried running in these yet. I intend to follow the plan I stated above to keep myself safe and pain-free (remember, I’m pregnant). They say it can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to acclimate, and I want to take the exact amount of time my body needs. That’s the whole point, after all!
Diabetics or others with foot problems will want to exercise extreme caution if they decide to wear VFFs. Barefoot running is NOT recommended for everyone. Please contact your health care provider if you consider barefoot running, even on a treadmill or on an indoor track.
If you have syndactyly (fused toes) or webbed toes, you won’t be able to wear Vibrams, but you may be able to run barefoot.
If you wear orthotics, you will not be able to wear them in VFFs. If you’re a vegan, be sure to stay away from the Trek, Moc and Performa styles, as they are made of kangaroo leather.
If you have a latex allergy, Vibram says that there may be latex in the bonding compound.
The Sprint style seems to run a size small. I fit a 40 in the KSO, but a 41 in the Sprint. I’m considering purchasing the Performa style for everyday wear because I think they’re pretty darn cute. I’d also like the KSO for inclement weather, since my tootsies get cold relatively easily.
Fit to the longest toe if you’ve got the whole Venus toe thing going on. This works best in the KSO style, as the Sprint is a bit more fitted.
It may take you a while to find the style you want in your size. You may want to check your local shoe stores, as trying on in-store is pretty important (at least in my experience).
These shoes get a LOT of attention. I wore them to church for a few hours last weekend and was totally sick of explaining them by the end. I’m thinking of having cards made with the pertinent information, especially when I wear them to Walt Disney World this summer. Seriously. I got them in black, so if you get a color, I imagine the stares are more significant.
I tried to get The General to try them, but he politely told me to bug off. I guess that’s a big “no” from him. Wimp. If you’d like more convincing, check out the Runner’s World barefoot running forums. There is a ton of useful information there!