I can’t remember the first time I heard the term barefoot running, but I do remember what specifically prompted me to explore the idea. It was two years ago and I had just completed the New York City marathon (more on that subject another day). I was so sore the three days after, I had to use two hands on the railings just to get down a flight of stairs (and unfortunately, I live in a town home with two flights)! Even though my training program had “recovery” training sessions planned for a few days after the race, it wasn’t until about two weeks later that I felt comfortable getting back out there.
So, when I finally took the plunge to start running again, I decided to go on a very easy, very slow 30 minute jog. I got about 10 minutes in and had to turn around. My knees felt like they were going to fall off! Prior to the run, I felt fine, back to normal even. But the minute I turned walking into jogging the pain came rushing back, similar to, but not quite as intense as they felt the last few miles on race day. Because I was new to long distance running and because it was my first marathon, I thought this was relatively normal and hadn’t spent any time or consideration on how my running form might have contributed.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and the pictures from the marathon were online ready for viewing. I was super excited! That was quickly shattered when I looked at one picture and was horrified to notice I had a prominent heel strike. You could completely see the bottom of my leading foot, like it had sprung up to say, “hello.” After some investigating, I learned that that’s what caused much of the knee pain I often felt. As I read on, checking out several different sites and reading lots of opinions, I discovered correcting my form would significantly reduce my knee pain as well as make me stronger, faster, and an overall better runner. Yay! And, that’s how I was introduced to barefoot running.
Okay, so first, let’s get down to the real basics. What is barefoot running? Seems like an easy answer, right? Well, not necessarily. Wikipedia and barefoot advocates will tell you that barefoot running is simply running without shoes, of any kind. Retailers and marketers will tell you that barefoot running includes running with minimalist shoes (or shoes with almost no cushion or support). I consider myself to be a minimalist runner. Although I have and will continue to run completely barefoot on occasion, I prefer running with something on my feet.
As sacrilege as it will be, much of what I learned from minimalist running I think easily applies to anyone who’s looking to try either minimalist shoes or going completely bare. To me, it’s very similar. The principles can be applied to both, and just the fact that you’re out there giving it a try is so amazing that differentiating between the two is meaningless. If you really are looking to get into the nitty gritty of barefoot running and all its scientific research, benefits, etc, I highly recommend www.barefootrunning.com. Ken Bob is incredibly experienced and can help greatly.
Regardless of which technique you choose, here’s what I have learned:
The wonderful thing about running is that technically all you really need is a good pair of shoes (and if you run barefoot, you don’t even need that!!). It’s a relatively inexpensive sport. It’s not until you really become engrossed in the sport that you’ll start spending money on other things like clothes, hats, watches, etc. Shoes, however, are most important and should never be overlooked. If you start off with uncomfortable shoes, or with ones that do not fit your foot shape properly, you might as well just forget it because your experience will be ruined. Take the time to have your stride and foot analyzed at a running store. Try on the shoes in a couple different sizes, even if you’re certain you already know your size. And remember what works for me, may not work for you and vice versa.
I heart my Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS. They allow my toes to spread naturally, provide traction on slippery roads (it often rains here in the Caribbean), and give my feet minimal protection against rocks, glass and all the things you’d prefer not to step on. I’ve also run in Nike Free, other Vibram FiveFingers models, and conventional running shoes. As my feet and legs have gotten stronger, and I’ve gotten used to this new style of running, I’ve changed shoes and preferences, and you may find you end up doing the same.
For me, the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was moving away from a heel strike stride. Just like shoes, everyone’s stride will be slightly different based on your individual body type, but the mechanics are generally the same. So go study! Check out several different sites, techniques and try out a few of the tips and drills the experts have to offer. One of my favorite tools when I began was watching Dr. Mark Cucuzzella’s Principles of Natural Running. Don’t be intimidated at first, he’s fast! Use his techniques at your own pace!!! Another great video is Lee Saxby’s Learning the Skill of Barefoot Running. For the overhead squats exercise that he demonstrates, a great drill is to squat using a wall, which will help keep you from moving too far forward or back. Start off with a little distance between you and the wall. Then slowly squat as low as possible without hitting your head on the wall. As you improve, you’ll be able to get closer and closer until you can actually kiss it! Don’t worry, it takes practice=)
3. slow down
Transitioning to barefoot/minimalist running changed my stride, worked new muscles, and was essentially learning to run all over again. It was like I started from scratch! So please, please take it slow. This was the greatest thing I learned. Even if you’re running comfortably at long distances, start off small. This is a learning period, and the great thing about starting off slow and at shorter distances is that I was able to use that time to practice my technique and the different mechanics. Because this style of running lets you feel how and where your foot is making contact with the ground, you’ll be able to tweak your landing easily. It took me a couple weeks to really get it down, because I had never really paid such close attention to my body and how it was interacting with the ground. Conventional running shoes allowed me to run blind, so to speak, basically without ever thinking about it. Once I became more in tune with my body, I was able to improve my technique, run faster, and with greater ease.
I still get knee pain every once in a while, but it’s not after every run like it used to be, and it just means I need to focus on my stride again (maybe I had a bad day). It actually gives me an excuse to run barefoot, which helps me focus even more on what I’m doing. If you’ve never done it before, I highly recommend it, even for 10 minutes. It’s crazy fun!
I’d love to hear about your experiences with minimalist or barefoot running, and if you have any other tips to share that might be helpful.
Happy running and, if you’re about to give it a try, good luck running bare!