How and why I started run barefoot.
Firstly I have not lost my marbles (some may disagree), I don’t actual run without shoes. There are some hard-core barefootest (if that isn’t a word it is now) that do run barefoot. However, I personally don’t think the streets of London are ideally suited to this activity. Therefore, I run what some people refer to as barefoot shoes (minimal is the correct term). These are becoming increasingly more popular, even around the club, and more and more manufactures and adding these types of shoes to their range.
Like most people who decide to start running I rummaged around in the back of the wardrobe found that pair of trainers in there that I brought for going to the gym, strapped them on and started pounding the pavements. After all running is not difficult it is just putting one foot in front of the other after all. Remembering back to my school days, as this was the last time I actual could remember having to run regularly, and basic physics I used a long stride. Kicking my legs out as far in front of me as I could and landing on the heel as surely the further I could travel with each stride the further I would get.
Things hurt, but that must be normal, as I was doing something I hadn’t done for 20+ years. I persisted, but things still hurt. Then went through the process of getting injured, blaming the shoes and then buying new shoes, running again and then getting injured again. After all running is just about putting one foot in front of the other after all, surely I can’t be getting that wrong?
During the times on the injury bench I would research running online. However, came up with the odd idea for someone that works in IT of visiting a bookshop to see what they had to offer. There I found a book called Chi Running – A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless Injury-Free Running. Chi Running sounds a bit “new age” but “Injury-Free” this has to be worth a look.
This for me was a light bulb moment. Running wasn’t just about putting one foot in front of the other. Body position, arm swing, core strength and most importantly how your foot landed where all important. So I studied the book and tried this new technic. Engaging the core, shortening the stride and landing mid-foot. However, couldn’t seem to get this technic right, even after watching the DVD and attending a course. The problem I found was landing mid-foot it was far too easy to end up back on your heels again.
Therefore, I tired landing more on the forefoot. This seemed to work better for me but there was still an issue, I would still sometimes end up landing mid-foot or on my heels. For once the problem was actual my shoes. There was too much heel and this was stopping my foot landing the way I wanted it too.
I had read about Newton shoes that where designed for a forefoot landing. However, I had avoided them as they were expensive, and I didn’t want them to prove to be another expensive mistake. However, with my first marathon a few months away I needed to address this shoe issue so I thought I would go and try a pair of Newton’s. They were a revelation they felt so much better so I brought a pair.
Things where going great, no injuries but things where not perfect. These shoes have lungs in the forefoot which return some of the energy, but this leave you feeling a bit disconnected from the ground, and this made it far too easy to go over on your ankle. They also allow you to hit the ground hard as the cushioning would cope with it.
It was around this time that Born To Run had been published as well as the research by Dr Lieberman, and running barefoot was getting a lot of publicity. Sounds strange but because of this a new shoes where coming to the market designed for running barefoot, minimal shoes. These had very thin soles and no internal structure to support your foot. Therefore, your foot could flex and move as if you were barefoot, yet still had some protection. However, these where difficult to find in the UK (and expensive) and getting the correct size in these is important, not too tight, not too loose.
I found a shop that sold the popular Vibram Five Finger shoes. These are unusual as they have separate toes so a bit like a glove for your feet. I brought a pair of these to try and after a few runs just could not get on with them. The separate toes just didn’t feel right so they were resigned to the back of the wardrobe.
It was at a yoga show I found a Vivobarefoot shoes. These looked like normal shoes but have no internal structure to them (e.g. an arch) and a thin puncher resistant sole. Walking around they felt great so as they were on a special offer I brought a pair of these.
I used them on a couple of short runs and they felt brilliant. You could feel exactly what was going on with your feet. However, there was an issue.
Since I was able to walk my feet have been in shoes that support and cushion them. Now they were able to move and flex as if I was barefoot it exposed a problem. My feet where weak, traditional shoes had supported and held my feet and without this support my feet would get tired quickly, not use to the doing this work. Just running short distance once or twice a week in these was not going to make a major difference to my foot strength.
Vivobarefoot did minimal shoes that look like normal shoes so a brought a few pairs and stopped wearing normal shoes. This increased the number of hours I was getting to build the strength back in my feet.
I started to build up the miles and hours in minimal shoes. To start with, as well as walking around in them all day, I would do the track sessions in them as the soft track gave a bit of extra cushioning. Then added short recovery runs as well.
I was training for an Ultra marathon (40 miles off road) and my trail shoes where causing an issue. They lacked the flexibility of the minimal shoes, and minimal off road shoe lacked the aggressive grip that would be required for running off road in Wales.
Inov-8 had just released there minimal shoe range and this included the Bare Grip 200’s. These where amazing like someone had glued rubber studs to your feet. However, on some short runs I was concerned as you could feel very stone, root, etc. and sometimes this hurt. Would my feet survive 40 miles off road? After training in these for months I was sure they could. They fact you could feel everything was proving to be an advantage as you could react faster.
Off road was great but on road was a different story. The hard surface was too hard on my feet, I needed to practise running lighter. This was not going to happen unless I used minimal shoes all the time. So I switched initially to a pair of minimal shoes with a bit more cushioning, before going to a thinner shoe. Since then I have run 2 marathons in them.
This whole process took around 2 years, around 6 months to move from my heels to the forefoot and then another 18 months to go from cushioned shoes to ones with only 3-5mm of rubber.
So what do I think are the benefits?
Firstly you can feel what is going on with your feet. How they come in contact with the ground, what they are landing on, etc. This makes you very aware of what your body is doing. If you heel strike it hurts so you natural start landing on the forefoot to give you a softer landing. You also start to run lighter.
When your foot comes in contact with the ground you can feel that doggy bit of paving, or tree root, etc. and react to deal with it.
You start to run lighter and running lighter can use less energy. I also have not suffered from any injury that has caused me to stop running for more than a week. I have had the odd niggle with my knee but this is a strength issue and the correct exercises have helped with this.
What are the risks?
Switching from your heels to your forefoot can put extra stress on the lower legs muscles (calves in particular).
If you don’t allow time to build up your foot strength and do too much too soon, then there is a risk of foot injuries including stress fractures. Similar it can take time to find out if the shoes you have chosen are right for you. They actual need to be fairly loose fitting so your foot can move and flex the way it wants to. Too tight and this can also cause foot injuries.
There is a chance you could stand on glass and cut your foot. However, as you are aware of the risk you tend to be more aware of this sort of thing and avoid stepping on them in the first place.