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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37 comments to I Tried It: Barefoot Running

  • Lisa
    March 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I am of the Super Stable Footwear camp, only because that is what my podiatrist told me. After he examined my feet and saw how badly they over-pronate, he said I should never wear flexible shoes. His advice to me was, “If you can pick a shoe up and fold it in half, don’t run it.”

    I do like Vibrams for other non-impact workouts, because I feel like it’s easier to balance. But, my one issue with Vibrams is the SMELL. Do you have a solution for Vibram Stench? I’ve found just washing doesn’t really kill the funk.

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      Ah yes…the Vibram FUNK. HAHAHA! I’ve found washing them makes it worse sometimes. I used to soak them in a water/vinegar solution first for 24 hours, and then wash them. Worked like a charm, but man it took me a long (SMELLY) time to arrive at that solution! :)

  • Home Sweet Sarah
    March 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Oh man, do I need new running or whatever shoes. So badly. Also, I used to work for a tribe in So. Cal and I remember them telling stories about the “runners” in the tribe who’d run for like 24 hours to deliver a message to a neighboring tribe. Crazy!

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm

      Right???? God the whole book is like that, full of stories of people just running FOR DAYS. I’m amazed at the capacity of the human body. But I would like to be amazed from the couch, you know…most of the time :)

  • Misty Jean
    March 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    I like my vibrams for short distance running (a mile or less) but I find I ache if I run farther. When running in my $130 sneakers I experience foot numbness that I don’t get on short runs with my vibrams. I also ordered a new pair of the inov8 road running shoes… I have yet to try them, but I’ll keep ya posted.

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm

      Oh do! I’m super curious about Inov8s. CrossFit has turned me into a bit of an athletic shoe whore. haha

  • Mariza Hardin
    March 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Holly!
    Fabulous post. I have been on the same journey as you have and proud to say I will be running my first full marathon this weekend! I’ve certainly have come a long way. I think another to consider as improving your running is Crossfit! I was amazed at how all the aches and pains started to go away the more I included crossfit into my training. With crossfit, you are strengthening all those great muscles that support your knees and hips and having that support, really decreases the injuries. I use to have really bad shin splints and knee issues, but started doing a crazy amount of squats, lunges, and rowing and found that those injuries went away and I was getting much faster and not feeling like a total idiot when I went out for a long run! :)
    Shoes def help but having strong legs and including cross training was what helped me the most! Keep up the running!

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Great point, Mariza!

      I did start CrossFitting right about the same time I did the barefoot switch so there is definitely something to be said for building up that muscle strength that really helps propel your running. It was surely one of the reasons I felt less pain. It’s kind of counter-intuitive — people think that it looks intense and like it would hinder training efforts but it is such an awesome overall body workout that you make strides with things (like running!) that you would never anticipate.

      I really love to run and would love to run a half or full marathon, but I am also a total CrossFit addict and doing it 4-5 days a week and also adding in tempo runs and long runs is A LOT of time commitment :) But I still love to run all the same and do it now (for pleasure!) One of these days I’ll do it though. Good luck on your marathon! YAY!

      • Mariza Hardin
        March 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm

        I used a Crossfit Endurance training model to prepare for my marathon. So NO long runs! Just crossfit WODs and a few interval, speed workout during the week that never lasted more than 20 mins. It was much easier on my schedule and found it to be more beneficial in my overall strength and speed! I would highly recommend it if you are looking to train for any endurance event.

        • Holly
          March 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

          Oh AWESOME! I have always been so curious about that. I should really look into it. The last time I trained for a half marathon (I’ve blogged about it in the archives) I ended up stopping because man there is only so much exercising you can do in a week, DAAAANG! :) I feel confident now that I could run a half without too much training because I am built for endurance, not for speed (haha!) but I would love to see check out the CrossFit endurance model. I am all over that! Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Lesley
    March 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    I started in Vibram Sprints in summer ’10. By the end of August, when I was considering which shoes to wear for the run leg of the Portland Triathlon, I physically *couldn’t* switch back to traditional running shoes. Same as you experienced–it was physically painful. Soon after, one rocky trail run/hike in the Sprints was excuse enough to pick up a pair of TrekSports, which I have worn on the trail up to 20k and on the road up to a half marathon. Love my VFFs!

    Last spring I bought the Brooks Green Silence for the sole purpose of having a shoe that I could use for non-competitive triathlon/duathlon without changing shoes between the bike and run. I didn’t get much racing in before pregnancy completely overhauled all of my fitness plans, so I’ll probably give them another try when I am allowed to start running again (one more week!!).

    This time, the reason for the Brooks will be the cold. Did anyone else have ice blocks for feet after wearing their VFFs to RTFTH 2010?? I ran the 10k, and I literally could not feel my feet the whole time. I’m flirting with the idea of training for CIM this year, and I just can’t imagine running the first half of a marathon with no feeling in my feet. 26.2 is scary enough, thanks.

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      Oddly enough, part of the reason I switched to the NBs was that I like wearing socks because my feet get cooooooooold! HA! So I like the feeling of the traditional shoe because of that, specifically. (Also not having Garrett call me a hippie is nice too. :)) I have never seen the Brooks Green Silence, I’ll have to check those out. We’ll have to chat about trail running soon lady, because I don’t know if I should just keep using what I’m using or what. (CIM — eep! That’s so exciting!)

  • A'Dell
    March 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    That’s so crazy that you ran in the old shoes and then hurt like hell!

    Born to Run has been on my list for awhile but then I keep forgetting that it exists so, thanks for the reminder.

    So, when you run do you run on pavement, grass, treadmill or what? I just keep thinking that running in barefoot type shoes on the sidewalk would be hurty. No?

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 2:23 pm

      I run mostly on pavement or on the decomposed granite (sp?) trails at local parks and no hurty…I swear! What’s interesting is that your foot strike changes when you have nothing on your feet because your brain realizes (and this is my very scientific analysis LOL) that if it keeps up the same strike power + motions that you were using in really padded shoes when you are barefoot you will annihilate your feet. So you sort of shift to a forefoot running posture where you strike on the padded cushy part of your foot. (Does that even make sense?) Anyway, it’s an adjustment, but it totally doesn’t hurt. I promise. It’s actually kind of fun to feel the difference.

  • PinkieBling
    March 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I need a pair of Vibrams and/or Minimus, and a pair of weight lifting shoes. Have you started scoping out the lifting shoes yet?

  • Holly
    March 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    I haven’t done ANY scoping mostly because they feel so specialized and I feel so dopey about it. I don’t know why. It’s stupid. I lift weights all the time, I should not feel stupid about finding the appropriate footwear…And YET…

    I’ll probably ask around at my box. I will report back when I do buy some though because I wonder just how well they work. Everyone seems to think they really help though, so who am I to doubt?? :)

  • bethanyrx
    March 14, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I love this story SO HARD. Looking back, I can see where reading Born to Run (and The Four Hour Body) were really the beginning of my journey toward Paleo and CrossFit. And sometimes I wear my Vibrams at the regular ol’ gym because I always seem to get a question about them, which gives me a chance to spread the barefoot love. :D

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 4:53 pm

      ha! Totally. The stares are kind of fun when you are in the right mood. I haven’t read the Four Hour Body but I do kind of want to. I have a weird fascination with Tim Ferris — most of the time he makes me roll my eyes so hard that I almost tip over, but then every once awhile he helps me stumble upon a nugget of wisdom that is really powerful. Anyway — it’s on my To Read list, for sure.

      • bethanyrx
        March 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm

        Yeah, I started out trying his “diet” and then realized that there would be husband MUTINY if we ate beans for every meal, or even every day (spoiler: it’s called the “Slow-Carb diet), so I started poking around for a more reasonable/flexible alternative. He’s not my favorite, but he does push the boundaries of his own body in the name of research, which is kind of fascinating to read about, though.

  • Boston
    March 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I LOVE my inov8’s!!!!!!!!!! LOVE THEM!! I’m not much of a runner so I got the 230’s (or some number similar) that are more CrossFit oriented. I love them. Did I say that already? They’re comfortable, minimal, & my O-lifting stability has improved. Not crazy about double unders in them, but that’s the same as any minimal shoe. Especially Vibrams- Ouch! Good blog Holly!

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      Wait…do you love them?? :)

      I think they will probably be my next fun shoe purchase…if I don’t just get crazy and get some oly shoes. Who knows, maybe I will BUY BOTH!

  • Roberts
    March 14, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    The efficiency is amazing and the i think the heel strike thing is very true, minimalist shoes just dont allow you to run with horrendous form without your body telling you you are.

    Are your VFFs KSOs or did you get Bikilas? Also, how was trail running? I have a 10k in April and I havent done a lick of trail running in mine. I have stepped on a rock a few times and its uncomfortable.

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      I bought these at REI: http://www.rei.com/product/805275/vibram-fivefingers-treksport-multisport-shoes-mens

      And I’m so happy that I bought them at REI
      1) because I used a 20% off coupon (Hi! I’m cheap!) and
      2) because a few months later I happened to kick a curb (Hi! I’m clumsy) and the side split right open.

      REI exchanged them for a brand new pair when I brought them in and asked about what I could to do to fix them, which I was BLOWN AWAY BY. That’s some Nordstrom style customer service right there.

      Anyway, I have not done a ton of trail running in them, but I have run in some nasty rock filled areas in my New Balances and haven’t had a problem.

  • Holly
    March 14, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Nordstrom during the Men’s Half Yearly Sale. Upside of having enormous feet, being able to buy men’s shoes at the Half Yearly Sale :)

  • R. Steve
    March 14, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Holly,

    Great post, and I’m proud to call you a fellow runner!

    I read about 3/4 of Born to Run. I’ve ran with and know many of the people in the book. In fact, Jennifer (the girl who got naked in the hotel lobby) and I ran about 30 miles of the Vermont 100, before she started getting sick and dropped back.

    I love the trails, and distinctly remember running with Barefoot Ted at the Leona Divide 50 miler. His feet were like hamburger at the finish – it didn’t make me want to try barefoot running (at least not on jagged rocky mountain trails). (On a side gossipy note, Scott Jurek also ran that day. Barefoot Ted had ridden down with Scott and his wife. Later, Scott’s wife would leave him for Ted.)

    I’ve ran a bunch of miles in regular shoes without injury. For me, I see no reason to change; however,that’s just me, I think that ANYTHING that inspires and makes you enjoy an activity is worth doing. Deanna and I also tend to buy $25 discount closeout shoes once we find something we like.

    Deanna wants a paleo gourmet club, and we should take you on a trail run some day – there’s nothing more inspirational!

    • Holly
      March 14, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      Steve, you are my favorite! I’m so lucky I get to work out with you! Inspirational AND full of suuuuuper entertaining gossip! :) Holy Moly.

      I’m definitely going to coral you guys into giving me the ins and outs of trail running. Last time I talked to Deanna about she mentioned something about particularly gnarly Poison Oak and I was like “Ahhhhh, right. Many things Grasshopper needs to learn.” I’m all ears.

      Let’s get this gourmet club STARTED!

  • Brittany
    March 14, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    This is so interesting, Holly! I ran cross country in high school, but my knees now hate me for it.

    I have never tried barefoot running, but I am seriously intrigued!

    I’ll keep you updated.

    Great post!

  • Holly
    March 14, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Definitely keep me posted! If you haven’t read Born to Run yet, do it! You will probably have a better appreciation for all the mechanical talk being a runner. But it is also just soapy and entertaining enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed by facts.

  • eryn
    March 14, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    I love the idea of barefoot running, but it also kind of scares, mostly because I have a lot of foot problems. I used to walk in Nike Frees and when I first got back into running after I had my son, I did briefly try barefoot running on the treadmill (until I got rug burn — ouch!).

    I’m torn about this issue because it makes so much sense to me to build up your foot muscles, but I think my podiatrists have scared me. I actually had a podiatrist tell me not to let my son run around barefoot either because it’s bad for his foot development. I haven’t followed her advice on my son, but since my feet are already screwed up, I’m worried I might do more damage by going barefoot.

    • Holly
      March 15, 2012 at 11:09 am

      Hey Eryn!

      I totally understand the trepidation — it’s so hard to decide when to deviate from conventional wisdom when doctors are involved. I have no great advice on that, you have experiment with what feels right for you. I just have my own experience to share.

      I don’t actually go barefoot-barefoot really ever because I mostly run outside, so I do find minimal footwear essential. That said, after wearing my vibrams for a couple months I tried the Nike Frees and for minimal footwear, they felt EXTREMELY padded to me. Like a regular sneaker, just with a slightly more flexible sole. If you do find yourself interested in experimenting, I would definitely try with a different shoe b/c to me the Nike Frees are comfy and fun, but not that minimal. (Again, just my opinion, FWIW! ;))

      Good luck figuring it all out!

  • Erin
    March 15, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve been running since 2009. From 2009-2011, I had two stress fractures in my left foot and numerous episodes of my back going out. I also had periods of major shoulder and neck discomfort. I switched to Vibrams in June (July?) 2011 and I have had ZERO injuries since then. My periodic back pain is GONE and it hasn’t gone out on me since I started wearing VFFs. I ran a 5K in downtown Omaha wearing my Vibrams and although the whole course was on pavement, I was just fine! I made the huge mistake of wearing my old Asics trainers to Zumba a few weeks ago. It felt like I was a KISS bandmember with those ginormous platform shoes. My back was aching for DAYS afterwards. Lesson learned!

    In the middle of Nebraska, I get asked about them ALL THE TIME. I seriously cannot go anywhere without people approaching me and asking questions. The number one question I get is, “what about arch support?” My response is, “MY BODY IS MY ARCH SUPPORT! IT’S STRONG AND CAPABLE!”

    • Holly
      March 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      Wow, that is an awesome story Erin! I feel the same way when people ask about arch support or whatever…your body DEFINITELY adapts when you are not wearing footwear, at least in my experience! :)

  • Robin
    March 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    As I was reading your post I kept thinking “there’s someone just like me out there”. I am a complete couch potato. Last year I went paleo and about 4 months into it I started having dreams about running. Not the kind where you are scared or moving in slo-mo but dreams of effortlessly running. I was like a gazelle. I suppose it was those dreams that put gave me the hairbrained idea to become a runner. I had been checking out Invisible Shoe (huaraches) and was curious about barefoot runners but I didn’t think I was that crazy. I eventually read BTR and that sealed the deal. I bought some huaraches and set out to become a runner. I had some problem initially because I had hurt my lower back rowing and compounded the issue (into my hip abdutors/adductos)when I first started running (in shoes). I had to learn how to stride properly (lots of blisters at first from overstriding). I finally decided to sit out for awhile (about 5 months) for my low back and hip to heal. I started back up (Feb. 1st) and while it’s been slow going I think I’m going to make it. My experience has been positive. I think it’s much easier on my legs and I feel like I could hold my pace for awhile if I was only in a little better shape. I take a lot of grief over my sandals but I’m sticking with them. I have my heart set on a pair of NB Minimus because I would like to have shoe option for this coming winter.

    • Holly
      March 17, 2012 at 11:02 pm

      Oh I’m so glad you are having a good experience, Robin! Keep it up. It took me a while to get used to everything too and little by little all of a sudden I just evolved into someone who feels like “Hell, I can do this!” Best of luck!

  • Wendy
    April 5, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Born to Run inspired me too! Well, that and the fact that running is unavoidable with CrossFit. I figured if I couldn’t avoid it I might as well lean into it, so I signed up for CFE classes last November. I first tried the Merrell Vibrams but had a lot of pain on the sides of my calves (not shins exactly), so my coach recommended switching to Altra Intuitions and I no longer have pain. Unfortunately the shoes weren’t entirely magical and I’m still slow, but I have high hopes! Thanks for your post!

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