I Tried It: Barefoot Running


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I don’t know when I concocted the fantasy in my mind of Becoming A Runner, but it was ages ago. It wasn’t because I thought it looked romantic, or because everyone on The Internet was doing it so I should try. Mostly I wanted to run because it looked hard. Awful, actually. And for some reason I have a sick fascination with doing hard things. Personality quirk, I guess. So I tried it, as I normally do, and it was AWFUL.

What was also overwhelming to hear about was all the potential gear and options and stretching requirements and overpronating vs. underpronating and supination and MY GOD, I just wanted to experience that feeling everyone talks about of “Runner’s High” and I never freaking got it — where on earth did one GET IT?

I did, however, experience stiff knees, shins that felt like they took a beating, Plantar Fasciitis that was almost debilitating and general displeasure when I thought about running. So, of course I did what many a lady is wont to do in a challenging situation and I bought new shoes. And then I bought a different pair. And then I was fitted specially for shoes at a fancy running store. And then I spent time running in front of strangers who were going to tell me how to run better. And then I ran around the inside of another running store looking like an ass. It goes without saying I also spared no expense because I was going to be A Runner. Yet I still did not experience pleasure while running.

And so after a while I stopped.

I was carrying a significant amount of extra weight at the time and just figured — well, running isn’t comfortable for people who are overweight. This isn’t a problem with my shoes, this is a problem with my ass — and that problem is that it needs to get smaller.

But I decided to try stopping one more thing before I completely gave up, and with my ass the same size as is always was, I decided to stop wearing “Running Shoes.”

Born to Run

What prompted me to do such a silly thing, and you probably saw this coming, was reading the book Born To Run at the end of 2010. I’ve mentioned it before and surely at this point if you have ears you have probably heard of it, but if you are someone who has even the tiniest desire to run, it is totally a worthwhile read. And since I’ve never really shared my story, I thought it was high time I did so.

So let’s get back to this book, shall we? Born To Run tells the story of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who are mysteriously the World’s BEST distance runners. I mean, their athletic feats are AMAZING, and they do it all running…barefoot. Like, Jesus-walking barefoot! For that alone it such a fascinating story. But the story goes even deeper into the history of the running shoe, the science of shoe technology and how common running shoes are made and marketed. So Interesting. Because the odds are that you have read it I won’t go on and on, but I will tell you it inspired me, and almost since the day I finished that book, I have been a “barefoot” running convert.

How I Started

The book was like a juicy article in a magazine but more inspiring. But I certainly rolled my eyes a bit at all these crazy claims. The Trend of Barefoot Running was being hotly debated, and I wasn’t sure which side I fell on. It all sounded a little extreme, but I was curious nonetheless. I’m not crazy, so I wasn’t just going to go out and start racing with nothing on my feet, no matter how natural and easy and Earth Mother-y it sounded in the book. But at the end of 2010 I did take the plunge and bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.

This was a tough purchase, you all. And I say that after having invested more than $1000 into my attempts at running at that point. They are $100 but more importantly, they are just about the ugliest shoes you can spend that amount of money on Also, people look at you like you are CRAZY when you wear them, which I didn’t love. Garrett called them my hippie finger shoes, my mom made fun of me. I mean, they were a tough sell!

But in the end: THEY WERE AWESOME.

Barefoot Evolution

Most sources recommend easing into minimal footwear because they stretch your calf muscles more than you are used to and engage the soleus muscle in a way that running in heavily padded shoes does not. So I did just that. And I certainly noticed a sore soleus muscle the first few weeks! But little by little I turned into a running machine. And a comfortable one, at that!

Since starting wearing minimal footwear in 2010, I haven’t had a running injury, experienced any pain associated with running, and most importantly I am completely devoid of Plantar Fasciitis even though I’ve INCREASED the amount of high impact exercise I do. My technique has improved without even trying and I honestly think it is mostly because your body has an intuitive sense about how to move itself safely. It is virtually impossible to have heel strike issues in barefoot shoes because your brain just WON’T let your body beat itself up over and over.

Now, quick disclaimer: This is not to say I am the world’s best runner, because I am not even close. Also, I’m not saying that this is right for you and you should run out and immediately do it. We are all different. But what I am saying is that at a time in my life where I thought I was too fat to have fun running, a stupid pair of hippie shoes turned me into something I never thought I would be: a confident runner. And to me, being someone who genuinely enjoys running is way more important than someone who is THE BEST at it. There is a freedom in knowing that you are just a pair of (minimal, of course!) shoes away from a great workout no matter where you are.

Currently

About a year ago I switched to running in a pair of New Balance Minimus M10s, for efficiency purposes because I also use them at CrossFit since I haven’t taken the plunge and bought a pair of weightlifting shoes. (I KNOW! I need to get on that!) And while I can’t say that I will never trade those in for something different, I can tell you that I wholeheartedly recommend them now. I still have love for my Vibrams, and always cheer people on if they are thinking about taking the plunge, but I like the way the New Balances look like actual sneakers, but have the Vibram sole. It’s a great compromise!

Some things to keep in mind for context: the longest distance I’ve ever run at once is less than a half marathon, and I generally run on asphalt or dirt, but not too heavy on the trails. So far, this is what works for me.

The craziest thing I can tell you is that I tried running in my old Running Store Sanctioned Professionally Fitted Very Lightly Worn Expensive Sneakers a few months back just for shits and giggles and my whole body hurt for a week. Knees, shins and feet…ugh, my feet! And that is AFTER losing 100 lbs.

Yes this is completely anecdotal and not scientific but I’ll just say I was ASTOUNDED.

Some Additional Resources

This video touches briefly about how the foot works while running and how a regular shoe helps/hinders your body. (Born to Run talks SO MUCH about this, it’s awesome!)
Why Run Bare?
Forefoot Striking & Training Tips

*****
So I’m not interested in striking up a huge debate on this issue, I just wanted to share my own experience. Whether you are For or Against Barefoot/Forefoot Running, I know you feel passionately. And that’s cool. We all have to do what works best for us, and this is what works best for me. For now.

But I’m curious — do you wear minimal footwear when you run? What has been your experience? Have you ever considered about it? Think it’s a bunch of hogwash? I love to hear varying perspectives.

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