Just to let you know- this blog is no longer active. I'll be keeping up my 101 in 1001 list until its completion, but will not be writing new posts. You can read the post below if you want the long version. Thanks for the journey to all my friends in the blogosphere!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Running Barefoot

Caught your eye, didn't I? No, I haven't actually been running barefoot but I've spent a good deal of time (that I probably should be devoting to other matters right now) lately reading/thinking about it.

I probably spent more time than most barefoot as a child. As soon as it was suitably warm, we were allowed to play outside without our shoes and I can recall the feelings of many different textures beneath my feet: grass, rocks, mud, asphalt, and pretty much everything in between. I was frequently caught at the barn without my shoes on and you can imagine that wasn't always a great idea. Like the time I stepped on rusty barbed wire and my last tetanus shot was at a fuzzy undetermined date in the past. (My parents decided I'd probably be fine without the shot. I lived.) Or the time I was standing on a fence and a calf thought my foot would be tasty. (Calves are pretty harmless though; it's just a strange sensation to have your foot in a cow's mouth.)

My dad bragged about his barefoot running on his track team in the 70s and I marveled at the way my grandma could walk across hot gravel without anything between those pointy rocks and her feet. Being barefoot in the elements seemed like a way to prove your grit.

So, of course, I fell hard for the the new "barefoot running" trend of the Nike Frees when they came out in 2005. I was training for my first marathon, was in great shape, and raved about my light, flexible shoes that taught my feet muscles to be strong. I logged hundreds of miles in my first pair while studying abroad and one of my first purchases when I arrived home was my second pair.

Shortly thereafter, however, I started having problems with my knee. I desperately tried to train through it, but a month before my marathon, it was just getting worse. 17 miles into a long run, my knee hurt so badly all I could do was limp home and I had to admit defeat.

I was advised by a doctor with running experience (who may or may not also be my mom) to quit running for at least a month or two to let it heal. After my time off, I went to the running store to seek advice and the owner was horrified when I showed him my Nike Frees and described the training I'd done in them. He said they were definitely the cause of my injury and shoes like that should only be used for short muscle building workouts on a treadmill or track.

I banished the Nike Frees and the dream of near-barefoot running to the back of my closet and moved on with expensive, supportive running shoes. I haven't had any significant knee problems since and was able to go on and finally run that marathon last year.

So, you can imagine my horror when my when best friend and first long run partner caught the latest barefoot running craze: the Vibram Five Finger. I warned her and cautioned her and reminded her of my follies, but to no avail. She insisted these were different and even worth the stares you receive when you wear something that resembles reptile toe socks. I sighed and waited for the inevitable letdown or injury.

Well, she's been running in them for months now and is still loving her Vibrams. Injury free, which is wonderful, but I considered that some kind of lucky fluke of nature. Somewhere along the way, Sarah passed me her copy of "Born to Run" and implied there was some connection between the Vibrams and the book, but that it was mostly a story about running. I started the book months ago and would pick it up now and again, but it was a really slow story to get moving. I took the book to the beach yesterday though and have almost finished it today (like I said, I probably have other things to be focusing on right now, but I'm kind of a compulsive reader...once it gets good, I have a hard time stopping until the end.)

It turns out that "Born to Run" is not only a passionate story about running and its history, but a very compelling piece of propaganda for Sarah's point of view and this whole barefoot running thing. (I think she was well aware of that when she loaned it to me.) It's got me really, really wanting to ditch my shoes and just sprint off into the distance, despite my unfortunate falling out with near-barefoot running before.

The whole logic behind the barefoot running movement is that barefoot is natural, running is natural and running shoes are not. The rate of running injuries has increased dramatically since the advent of specialized running shoes and many competitive runners all over the world and throughout history train barefoot. There are some interesting ideas and research in the book and it's prompted me to explore around the internet on the topic too.

Anyway, have y'all read "Born to Run" or had any experience in the whole barefoot running department? I highly recommend the book even if you think trading in your padded shoes is crazy. I'm kind of on the fence about which side of the debate sounds crazier now, so, Sarah, consider this a win in your book. : )


  1. Hi!
    So I randomly stumbled upon your blog just now and I can't help but comment on this post!
    I'm an Athletic Training student at the University of Illinois. Just recently, we had an entire lecture focused on the mechanics of running barefoot!
    We watched a video on it and the lecture continued about how the entire mechanics of running barefoot vs. with shoes on.
    When you run barefoot, you naturally land on your toes rather than on your heels which is actually more efficient (without getting into too many details here) and causes less impact on your knees due to the torque that is created from your toes landing first rather than slamming your heel into the ground. (About 5x's your body weight radiates up your leg and is absorbed mostly by your knees when you wear shoes/let your heel strike first.)
    I decided to start running more on my toes, and although I feel kind of like an idiot, I find that I can run longer and my shin splints seem to be healing!
    Anyway, try those shoes! Or, try running on your toes, like your simulating running barefoot!
    Sorry for the long-winded comment and good luck!!

  2. Well...so glad to read this post and the comment by anonymous! I've seen a couple of people with these on short distance runs and there was an article in our local paper recently about them. My neighbor has just started running again following an injury--she went right out and bought a pair. She hasn't started up in them yet. I keep hearing mixed reviews regarding wearing them as a new runner. I've had a TERRIBLE time with my left calf (most likely scar tissue from an old injury)...and have been told YES get them and CERTAINLY DO NOT get them-no in betweens at all! I better not read Born to Run or I know what side I'll end up on for sure. Thanks for the great post! :D

  3. I've read a lot of the research, and the trick with barefoot running is that the research is still unclear.

    The research definitely supports the idea that barefoot running changes your gait. What it doesn't yet indicate is what effect (if any) those changes have on rates of injury. It could be that it reduces injury or it could be that it just changes the type of injuries.

    Now, I had problems for about a year with a nagging groin injury. So I tried barefoot running and I've been okay. But I've also had to ramp up my running very slowly, so maybe that's difference. It's hard to tell.

    We do know from the research that radically altering your gait can induce injury. If your current shoes are working for you, don't mess with it. Really. I say that as a barefoot runner who splits her time between being barefoot and running in Vibrams.

    I will say that I have come to really enjoy the way it feels to run barefoot. Not to sound all hippy about it, but I really do feel more connected to the ground. It's a sensory treat. It's so pleasant, I wear my Vibrams all the time.

    If you do it, ramp up really slowly. But think very carefully before doing it at all, in spite of all the hype.

  4. Glad you're enjoying "Born to Run!" It changed my life by motivating me to start running - last August. Since I was not a runner prior to the read, I decided to start barefoot. It's been a wonderful experience and now I do most everything without shoes. BTW vff's are not barefoot. Neither are nike frees. There is only one barefoot. Go for it!!

  5. Very interesting. I will have to add this book to my list. I love being barefoot in the summer.

  6. I'm actually a newbie runner and can't give a solid opinion...but, I did do some barefoot running on the beach a few times while on vacation and I LOVED it!

  7. I don't think I could give up my padded running shoes! I have weak ankles, and that may have something to do with it, but the idea of running barefoot just scares me. I'll give the book a read through and let you know my opinion! :)

  8. I have a friend who has Vibrams and he's very happy with them. I just make him promise not to wear them when we go out to restaurants. :) Claiming he's not a natural runner, he's had hip problems at 4 miles previously. He bought a pair of Vibrams and started running again about 3 months ago. No problems so far and he's keeping up with me just fine. Go figure. They look funny, but his feet/legs/hips don't hurt and I'm considering that at 50, they might be the answer to my aches and pains if I'm going to continue to log the miles that I want to.

  9. I think barefoot running is the way to go. Just as they talk about the born to run. It's not just the fact that you're running almost barefoot but it's what it does to your running stride and muscle involvement that makes such a huge difference. I use the Nike Frees and would never go back to big, bulky running shoes again.

    Interval Training Man

  10. I've been struggling with barefoot running for 4 months now. My foot is taking a lot of abuse. I feel they have atrophied to a point that they can't handle the stress of barefoot running. I know I need to take it slow, but having run for 30 years I may not know how. I'm learning you can't measure your distance in miles when starting off. You have to go by feet or yards. Start with 50 feet, 100 yards or whatever. If you're feet have been in sneaker casts for so long, they need a lot of TLC to before they can handle the stress. I'm very frustrated but not yet discouraged. I'll give it a year then decide. Good luck whatever you decide. Just know it is hard work.