What’s This Whole Barefoot Running Thing All About?

This is the first in a series of posts about my experience with minimalist running.

Two months ago,  I bought a pair of Vibram Five Finger shoes:

They are crazy ugly and make my feet look like flippers…but after running in them for about six weeks I’m going farther and faster than ever before.  Yes, I get a lot of funny looks – once another runner on my favorite trail actually called them ‘knucklehead shoes’ – but they have changed my life for the better and opened up a whole new world to me – so I’m sticking by them!

It all started earlier this year when my friend Abby, one of the UnDieting Divas, started using them as a last-ditch effort to run without pain and found that many of her running-related complaints completely disappeared.  Intrigued, I started to consider whether they would work for me.  My left hip was always achy, even after a short run with lots of stretching, and I was beginning to wonder if running was not really my thing.  But would these shoes, with their complete lack of cushioning or support, be appropriate for someone carrying a lot of extra weight, or would they be a recipe for injury?

A few months went by, and I continued slowly building mileage in my favorite Brooks running shoes – but I kept thinking about Abby and her pain-free runs.  However, with the SheRox Triathlon rapidly approaching, it didn’t seem wise to change my routine so I decided to stay the course and perhaps give them a try later in the summer.

Meanwhile, I read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. If you’re a runner, or someone who wants to start running, or just enjoy a good story, please give this book a read!  I can’t summarize the story nearly as well as the Amazon write-up, so I’m just going to quote it here:

Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.

This book was so inspirational on so many levels – but the part I enjoyed most was the history of running in America, the evolution of the modern running shoe, and the reasons why a large sector of the running population is reverting to barefoot or minimalist running.  I completed the SheRox Triathlon and decided it was time to find out for myself whether this whole ‘barefoot running’ movement was just a passing fad, or whether it was something that could really work for me.

My first run in the Vibrams was very tentative.  I had my music on very low volume since it was early and still dark, and I wanted to be sure to hear any zombies that might be lurking behind the treeline.  Without heavy sneakers on, my footfalls sounded so quiet and stealthy, like a cat stalking prey.  It’s hard to explain the feeling of walking down the street in minimalist shoes – it’s almost like I’d just escaped from something, or that I was breaking the rules and getting away with it!  Anyway, it was a wonderful feeling and after a few minutes of walking, I broke into a trot and was delighted to find that it felt great!  I could really feel the surface of the road under my feet – not in a painful way, but more in a ‘hey, that’s a new sensation’ sort of way.  Again, it’s hard to describe but it was a delicious feeling.  My first workout consisted of a few 5-minute intervals of easy jogging interspersed with 2 minutes of walking.  A couple days later, I tried it again, and bumped up the intervals to 7 minutes.  I kept it there for a few more workouts, and slowly eliminated the walking bits until after a couple weeks I was easily doing 3 miles with no breaks!

So far, about 6 weeks in, I’ve had no pain or discomfort aside from the muscles in my feet and lower legs being very, very tired and a bit sore at times.  Think about it – your feet are normally clad in shoes that absorb impact and provide significant stabilization.  So the numerous muscles in your feet, which are there to help keep you upright, don’t have to do much work on a regular basis.  They become weak over time and need to be redeveloped to be able to manage the new demands of operating without assistance.  To help increase the strength of my feet, calves and ankles, I’ve actually started doing my weight training workouts with Rena in bare feet, which has made a noticeable difference.

Vibram Five Fingers shoes are just one example of the new minimalist/barefoot running trend. There are dozens of choices for minimalist shoes out there and quite a few resources to get started.  Two weeks ago, Ken and I met a legend in the barefoot running world…stay tuned for my next post about that experience!

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3 Responses to What’s This Whole Barefoot Running Thing All About?

  1. Joel says:

    I can relate to your story very closely–with one difference: I wear Wave Universe 3 on road runs, not FiveFingers, so I don’t get as many funny looks (Wave Universe 3 weigh half of what FiveFingers KSOs weigh, incidentally). But I did have similar nagging pains in my running prior to switching to barefoot and minimalist footwear, and was similarly inspired by Born To Run. =) A couple weeks ago I wrote about my barefoot experience on my website: Why I Run Barefoot.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Joel! Loved your post & blog, will be checking back often! My husband and I met Barefoot Ted 2 weeks ago in Seattle – I’ll be writing about that soon. He was really fun and we learned a lot – even got to see the original huaraches he made during the race. Very cool.

  2. Brigitta Perez says:

    Hi Joel!
    Thanks for posting your experience with FiveFingers. I am getting the same shoes from Santa. ( even same color). I am looking forward trying them out! Will post my experience on my blog. Just starting to blog. Will send you a link if you like.
    Thanks again for posting!

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