Saturday, July 3, 2010

Barefoot Running Report

I believe that moving away from exclusively using traditional running shoes has allowed me to increase mileage and eliminate the common overuse injuries that runners typically endure. I am ready to give some definitive conclusions about my "barefoot" running and transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running.

I have not found that I can run faster barefoot, in fact I run a minute or so slower per mile without running shoes, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't contributed to improving my ability to run faster. Pushing the limits of speed seem to require some of what shoes can do for a person; after all, the whole evolutionary premise that man evolved into a runner was not about being fast but rather about being able to go the distance in the persistent hunt. Doing something we were not meant to do (run fast) requires something we were not meant to wear: shoes. But there is more to life once you're not having to exhaust your dinner before you dine. Steel-toed shoes may be required on the construction site, ski boots help keep our feet warm and our feet attached to the skis, and some pointy high heels might make us attract a mate, and so likewise for stretching a double into a triple or delivering a 10K PR we may find that specialize footwear aids in those endeavors.

If you are interested in running farther, more frequently, and without pain from overuse injuries I am comfortable suggesting minimalist footwear. The idea being that you will strengthen your feet and other parts related to proper distance running and those parts will be allowed to work in harmony and not be forced into an unnatural relationship by wedges of gel that are supposed to correct something presumed wrong with you. Injuries of the non-overuse type such as torn cartilage, stress fractures, bone spurs, arthritis, etc. are not going to be resolved by taking off your shoes; these may require repair, treatment, and rest.

If you don't even walk around indoors without some form of footwear I would start by leaving the shoes off around the house. From there, I would suggest finding some nice relatively new asphalt. Concrete is actually rather abrasive and manicured lawns may be too cushioned and not require you to make the necessary changes in your stride to run barefoot. For some, a few hundred feet may be a good start, for others, maybe a mile. You certainly don't want to run to the point that you've worn a couple of toes raw.

Some conditioning has to occur on a few fronts. The skin has to become calloused on the bottoms of your feet, the pads of your feet need time to thicken as a response to the running, all the internal components of your feet need time to adjust and strengthen, and different muscles, particularly in your lower legs need time to build. Applying the 10% increase rule may be prudent. So let's say you run barefoot for a mile three times the first week, you could up that to 3.3 miles the following week even if you're running 30 miles a week in traditional running shoes, or maybe the barefoot running is all that you do if you haven't been running. If you have been running, the barefoot miles can be included in an overall mileage increase. I would also do any barefoot miles before a shod run, not after.

Many people have opted for minimalist foot coverage like the Vibram FiveFinger foot gloves. I like them but I have found that they have the same effect on my skin as boiling water has on a potato skin so I use them within limits. I also wear an inexpensive alternative; I have found that the sand and surf type outdoor slippers work quite well although they have less traction. You need to consider where you will typical run. I don't frequently encounter broken glass but we have a nasty nugget of nature where I live called a Goathead which is a hard spiky ball about the size of a kernel of corn guaranteed to puncture a mountain bike tire or stop a dog in its tracks.The path of the car tire on lightly-travelled neighborhood streets is usually adequately clear of debris.

If you've been pounding your heel in running shoes you will quickly discover that you will not want to do this barefoot. I have found that the outer edge of my forefoot strikes the ground first and then rolls to the inside as it lands with the heel lightly coming down as well; a large calloused pad has developed behind the four smaller toes. Allowing the toughening of the skin on your feet be a determining factor in your mileage build-up is a good guide. If you use some type of minimal footwear you will not be able to base your mileage increase on the toughness of your soles.

Over the eighteen weeks that I have been transitioning my weekly average has gone from 20 miles per week for the six week prior to kicking off the running shoes (32 miles for the prior eight month period) to 45 miles per week for the most recent six weeks of incorporating minimalist running. I still run about half my miles in traditional running shoes. My body seems to be able to handle it, possibly because of overall strengthening or because the mileage in them is tolerable in that it doesn't constitute overuse. The average weekly mileage in running shoes over the eighteen week period has been 21 miles per week while my overall mileage average has risen significantly; this most recent week I comfortably ran 70.2 miles. I have discovered that alternating between running "barefoot" and in running shoes is like running on two different pairs of legs. If I run ten miles one day in shoes when I go out the next day in the FiveFingers my legs feel as if I hadn't run the previous day.

Don't do speedwork barefoot and don't race a roadrace barefoot. Minimalist running is not about fast and hard. It's about avoiding injury and going the distance. It's also a great sensory experience; you wouldn't listen to music with earplugs in, or watch the sunset with your eyes closed, or smell the flowers with a clothes pin on your nose. Allow yourself to feel the planet.


  1. And you included the perfect pictures to make one want to feel the earth!

  2. WARNING: I'm currently dealing with a metatarsal stress fracture, so my definitive advice may not be worthy of following.

    Go even more gradually. Jumping to a 70 mile week on a 45 mile/week base probably isn't advisable either.