Saturday, November 12, 2011

My first foray into barefoot running

The long wait is over.  After three months of physical therapy, I decided I'm ready to start running again.  I wasn't planning on starting up quite yet because a month-long bout with bronchitis got in the way of my plans.  But this Monday when my lungs finally felt normal I decided to get back into the pool, and my ritual pre-swim weigh-in shocked me: 129.6 lbs!  Before getting sick I had been oscillating between 130 and 135, and during the last week of bronchitis I ate more junk than ever.  Combined with a solid month without a single hard, aerobic workout, I was sure that I had put on some weight.  But I guess I lost enough during the serious sick times that whatever I put on afterwards wasn't enough to cover it.

The only workouts I had managed to do while I was sick was my back extensions, and after gradually phasing in more aggressive yoga poses, my back actually felt really strong.  Combine that with my lowest weight in 6 months, now seemed like the perfect time to return to running.

But as a mulled all of this over, I wasn't happy with my shoes.  My last shoe switch was to a pair of construction-orange, 80's era Saucony's that I picked up used at Deseret Industries for 8 dollars.  Not a bad shoe- less cushioned than my previous pair which was a step in the right direction- but they still have a steep heel-drop which makes forefoot striking difficult.  They look totally rad, so I will still wear them around, but for training I feel like I needed something more...or something less?

A new running store opened up just blocks from my apartment, so I considered stopping in and getting something new, something perfect- lightweight, zero-heal drop, but with a rugged, grippy out-sole.  But how would it effect my form?  The best shoes are the ones that won't change your stride from how you would normally run barefoot...but what does barefoot running really feel like?  I've never done more than a few strides on the grass in the park without something on my feet.

So I decided to try running barefoot.  Not as an overall running-lifestyle change, but as an experiment.  If running barefoot is the most natural and the most natural way is the best, wouldn't that give me an idea for what running should be?  I've tried and failed enough at running lately that trying something new seemed worth it.

It's cold enough here in Utah that running unshod outdoors would just be too cold, so I headed to the BYU Indoor Track for phase one of this experiment.  I always feel the best after doing my back workouts, so I started with those to get me primed for the track.  (Normally I do them in my underwear in the privacy of my bedroom, because I like the feeling of being unconstrained during the twistiest of the yoga poses.  But I'm sure they'd frown on that in the Fieldhouse, so for fear of the Honor Code Police, I stuck with running shorts and a t-shirt.)  But I did ditch the shoes, because the child pose is hard on the ankles with shoes on.

After working through my usual circuit, I gingerly started trotting around the track.  It felt a little weird at first, like I was missing something.  It's also eerily quiet- your feet don't make much of a sound when your soft flesh is hitting the ground instead of a hard plastic outer-sole.  But I kind of liked it.  McDougall says over and over in "Born to Run" that without shoes your foot-strike naturally changes to the ideal way.  I don't know if what I was doing was the ideal, but my feet definitely wanted to do it a certain way.  When I've run in the past with shoes, I've felt like there was a myriad of ways to hit the ground, and I had to consciously pick which one to do.  But this felt like I didn't have to choose, like my feet were choosing for me and I was just going along for the ride.

After a little more than half a mile my ankles started to hurt a little, so I called it quits the day.  I must be flexing more in the ankles with my shoes off, which is why they felt a little over-worked.  I also might not be bending enough at the knees; when I broke my left knee-cap 5 years ago I started walking with straighter legs to avoid using that damaged tissue.  My knee has long since healed, but I still catch myself moving that way, especially on my left side, so maybe that is something that I still need to work on.  But wherever the stresses are on my body, as long as they are off of my L4-L5 disk I'm fine with that.  And this shoe-less running definitely feels softer, feels lower impact than any of the other way's I've moved before.  So I give it a tentative thumbs up.

Tentative because only time will tell how my body (and specifically my back) will react to this new motion.  That feedback will let me know if I am moving forward or backward, so I will listen carefully to see what it has to say.  I will keep doing short runs on the track every other day, and gradually increase the distance as my ankles permit.  If this works well I will definitely get new shoes soon so I can take my miles out of the stuffy confines of the indoor track, but I feel like this time without shoes will be informative, instructive, foundational.  With everything in my life I like to start from the base and work up.  And I don't think I can get any lower than the soles of my feet.


  1. Hmmm - I'll be interested to see how the barefoot option works out for you.

  2. Aha!! You sound so much like me about 2 months ago! Awesome, man!! You did the right thing by only doing half a mile. The muscles in your ankles, calves, and feet are learning and rediscovering life. They WILL be sore. It's so hard not to overdo it because at the moment, it kinda feels awesome! But the next day, OH BOY! You will feel it. I read up on a lot of advice so I wouldn't injure my ankles, etc. Try not to run everyday. Every other day, and only add distance every other time you run. Get that? It will feel like a snails pace for progress with distance, but I can attest, it really is best that way. I think your back will love it. Are you doing those 100 ups from that video on the article for the ny times you sent me? I've been meaning to....

  3. I tried the 100 ups, but I didn't feel like they did anything. But I only tried the "minor" phase, the "major" phase might be more effective. Do you run barefoot outside? How do you keep from cutting your feet or from getting super cold?

  4. Vibrams. That doesn't stop all the cold, though. But for now, it hasn't been too cold out yet....

  5. Ok, I got some toe socks,

    and yes, if it's wet outside, they eventually get a little wet too even through the FiveFingers. But nothing too noticable. My feet stay warm and all is well. How are your calves, by the way? I bet they are still feelin' it, if you're still working on adding distance...HAPPY THANKSGIVING!