One day, I stepped on the scale, failed to put on some pants and got winded playing with my kids and thought, "Something's gotta change..." (Okay, maybe it wasn't one day, maybe it was over a few). My first love was road bicycle riding, but I have a nutty schedule (not a big fan of riding at night) and San Antonio isn't the most bike friendly city. I finally realized, the most efficient, flexible exercise for me was going to be running.
However, running and I had a checkered past. I ran as a kid, but didn't do much more until the Army made me. I fought injuries (shin splints, hip pain, knee pain) for years and spent untold sums on increasingly complex (and heavy) shoes. Brooks Beast, anyone? I continued to ensconce my feet in cushy shoes and began to develop weird pains when I walked, especially at work. During a typical shift, I usually walk about three miles. I started to develop this really weird hip flexor pain. Anyway, I started to wonder if perhaps my shoes were the problem. I came across an article written by Dr. Mark Cucuzzella listing the advantages of barefoot running. After reviewing a myriad of sites (I'll cover my sources in my next article on barefoot running, "How to get started barefoot running"), I decided to dip the proverbial toe in the barefoot pool.
After reading the story of "Barefoot" Ken Bob Saxton, in which he details how he spends virtually ALL his time barefoot, I made what I thought was a key decision: start by transitioning all my footwear to minimalist so I could walk "barefoot" before I started to run. Barefoot Ken Bob urges those who try barefoot to do so as often as possible throughout the day, not just when exercising. He's such a strong believer in the barefoot movement that when he was being recruited for a new job, one stipulation was that he be allowed at work without shoes.
After a lifetime in soft, supportive shoes, our feet have become weak and need some time to adjust and strengthen in order to enjoy barefoot bliss. As I really can't wander around my job barefoot, I needed the next best thing: minimalist shoes. As I have largish feet (size 14B) I went with some Merrell Trail Gloves and started wearing them as much as possible. I grabbed some dressy minimalist shoes, also from Merrell, and stopped wearing any shoes at had any sort of padding.
I did not run for nearly six months. While initially my feet were a little sore, over the next several weeks, the pain in my knees, hips and back slowly started to fade. I felt connected to the surfaces I stood on and was able to perceive nuanced changes in the surfaces upon which we walk. I could feel the subtle irregularities in the floor, the small cracks and dips in the sidewalk and I felt my feet and legs automatically adjust. I propose that because my feet could feel what they were walking on, the pressure and proprioceptors in my feet and legs were finally able to do their job and maintain my body in a functional, less painful alignment. Several weeks in, my shoes got wet and I had to go back to my cushy shoes during a shift at work. It was like walking on marshmallows. I could feel the instability return to my feet, ankles and knees. I got sore in all the wrong places. It was a remarkable control trial for my little experiment.
After about six months, I decided to start running. Why so long? It really had little to do with any purposeful intention other than raw procrastination. Regardless, I decided to start running barefoot. As I was, at the time, not running at all, I decided to go with the ole run / walk method. I strapped on my trusty Trail Gloves and started walking. The first week, I just walked about 3 miles, three times a week. The second week, I stopped 1/4 mile from my house and took my shoes off and ran home barefoot. Before I go any further, there is a technique to running without shoes that you need to focus on -- so don't just go out an try this -- read about proper form in my next article in this series before you put your shoes by the wayside. The third week, I added 1/4 mile to my run (so I ran 1/2 mile) and continued adding mileage over subsequent weeks. In three months, I was running 3 miles, three times a week without a stitch of shoe on my feet. It felt great.
Why didn't I just run in my minimalist Trail Gloves? Well, Barefoot Bob, Dr. Cucuzzella and other experts recommend learning the proper form while unshod and then, if desired, transition back to shoes once your new, barefoot running stride is perfected. I experimented with leaving my shoes on early in my training, but found that I immediately lost my fore-foot landing barefoot form in favor of a heel strike stride. I guess the sensation of any shoe on my foot fooled my brain into bad form.
That year, I continued to run, but then my wife challenged me to run the Disneyworld Half Marathon, so I picked up on my mileage. Ultimately, I ran a 10K completely barefoot. Got a lot of comments and stares on that run. However, shortly afterwards I got ambitious and decided to add some speed work and add more mileage, without giving my body time to recover. I ended up with a stress fracture in my foot. I don't think it was because of my lack of shoes, rather a lack of a good training plan. I healed after about four weeks. During my down time, I contemplated my next move. I really did enjoy running with no shoes and it really didn't hurt as much. But my wife hated it. She really wanted something on my feet. I also realized that during every run I would inevitably step on some small, sharp piece of debris. I never cut the bottom of my foot, but for whatever reason, I always seemed to hit the exact same place and could be rather painful.. I decided to try the most minimalist shoes I could find. I grabbed a pair of Merrell Vapor Gloves.
These beauties weighed about 3oz each and the stack height (from the sole of my foot to the ground) was 5.5mm with zero drop (the heel and toe are the same height -- most running shoes have a 14mm or so drop). I could still easily feel those small pebbles, cracks in the sidewalk and the variations in the ground, but without the pain of having little sharp objects poking the underside of my foot.
I put about 500 miles on those shoes, including two half marathons. They finally wore out last week and I immediately pulled out a pair of Vapor Gloves I bought on sale last year.
Running barefoot / minimalist has absolutely changed my life. I enjoy running. It doesn't hurt. I don't injure myself like I did in shoes. Is it for everyone? No. The 'net is replete with stories of folks who tried barefoot and minimalist and got hurt. My advice: if you're happy with your current running performance, stick with what you've got. If you are getting injured and are tired of plantar fasciitis, knee pain, ankle pain, shin splints or whatever, consider giving barefoot / minimalist a shot.
How to get started? That's the next article...
Are you are barefoot or minimalist runner? You thinking about it? Leave a comment below!