Thursday, January 28, 2010

How I Became a Barefoot Runner

Barefoot running has been in the news a lot lately, and since I'm a barefoot runner, I field a lot of questions about it. Today there was a discussion on my favorite social news site, and I chimed in with a comment about Vibram shoes. One person wanted more details, so I wrote a big long post about it. As I wrote my characteristically verbose reply, I thought it would be a great blog entry. So here it is! (And here's the original context if you're curious.)

"I have seen this claim repeated ad-nauseum. Do you have any proof that Vibram's actually are just as healthy as barefoot running? Their website says it over and over but without any proof; they don't even have a video of someone running on a treadmill with them? If they make all these claims that vibrams are equivalent to barefoot running, why have they not proven it? It seems like a huge bait and switch - running barefoot or wearing minimal thinner-sole traditional running shoes have advantages, but no where have I seen concrete evidence that vibrams work as well as either. I have never heard of any runner using these long-term, or putting any sort of significant mileage on them. So I ask you, how often do you run in a given week? What sort of mileage have you put on your vibrams? How long have you been consistently running on them? How quickly do the soles break down? What injuries did you have before? What injuries have you had since? Why are vibrams any more effective than thin soled running shoes you have tried? Don't talk to me about "how you feel so much more connected" or whatever, I'm talking about tangible evidence. A thin-soled cheap running shoe, which has been shown to be beneficial through studies are usually a lot cheaper than than the $75 to $100 Vibram wants me to spend on their currently untested shoe. Furthermore, how fit were you before you started the vibram running regimen... Vibram's website says it's not problem that your feet hurt at first, no doubt because people do not immediately change their running style... Vibram's website doesn't give tips for fixing the stride, or how long you need to adjust before running, or how to avoid injury. From your experience can you please give some anecdotes?"

Wow. No pressure, eh? First off, I'm not much of a runner. I do it very casually, just a few times a month. For that reason, I probably won't be able to provide you with the empirical evidence you want. That being said, I do have some experience with leg injuries and how barefoot running (and running with Vibrams) affects those.


Here's my story... when I was 12, I was involved in a car incident where the tibia in my right ankle was ground off on the pavement. I spent the next few years in and out of surgery with various splints and braces on my leg to prevent my ankle from popping out of socket.

A couple years later I was into hiking and camping, and was helping out on a biology study in the wilderness. There's no sensation of hot or cold in my ankle anymore, so I didn't notice that I'd spent the entire day with my ankle pressed up against the engine block. Oops! 3rd degree burn, more surgery.

A couple years after that, I tried running for the first time. I didn't really like it, but I was trying out for the Rugby team at my high school. Didn't make it-- couldn't handle all the running!

I made the mistake of trying out for the cheerleading squad. Yes, there were male cheerleaders at my school. No, I didn't make the squad. I went down into the splits without warming up and shredded my right hamstring in front of the whole school during an assembly. My calf muscle was black and blue for weeks from the blood that seeped down from the injury. More physical therapy.

I spent two years after high school doing religious service, and during that time I put a lot of miles on my shoes. Toward the end, I developed severe pain in my right foot; it felt like a weird "clicking" in my 3rd and 4th toes on every step. The podiatrist made an insert. It did pretty much nothing.

Fast-forward about 5 years. I'd been fairly sedentary, so there were no new injuries and no aggravation of old ones. I felt a strong urge to start running, so I slogged out a mile or two 3x per week. Within short order, the heel of my right foot had started hurting. Stabbing pain in every step that made it difficult to walk, let alone run!


I went to a sports medicine doctor to see what I could do about the pain. He looked at my massively scarred ankle, took some x-rays, and said there was basically nothing he could do about it. Without an important part of my tibia and missing one of my tendons, it was a miracle I was standing on two feet, let alone walking. He wasn't about to dive into any treatment program with all that was wrong already.

I was on my own.

Changing my walk

Through one source or another I came across an article on fox walking that piqued my curiosity. Basically it's the toe-heel motion that's been in the news lately. It brought out my life-hacker tendencies, so I decided to try it out.

Learning to fox-walk is hard. I switched from QWERTY to Dvorak in less time than it took me to convert to fox-walking. Every step was a conscious effort. Each day was a new round of trying to not look like a complete idiot while putting one foot in front of the other. It sucked, but my heel pain had gone away almost completely after just the first few days.

Maybe my heel pain was gone now? I'd try "cow-walking" (what fox-walkers call the "normal" gait of everyone else) every now and then to see what happened. Heel pain returned within a few steps. Back to fox walking, and the pain was gone! Okay, so it wasn't that the problem had just gone away. My biomechanical change had actually fixed something!

During this transition period I pretty much stopped running. My calf muscles were screaming from just walking, so I didn't want to jinx things and overdo it. There were no additions to my fitness routine to compensate for this. I went to the office, coded in a beanbag for 8 hours, went home. Maybe a walk around the neighborhood, but nothing that anyone would consider a workout.

After a few months of this I started running again. Where before I was struggling to pound out 2 miles, now I could run 3-4 without much trouble. Within a couple of weeks I was running as far as I felt (maybe up to 5 miles?) before boredom set in and I'd go home.

Going barefoot

Our yard is fairly small, so a gas lawnmower was a ridiculous idea. Instead, we opted for a hand-pushed reel mower that does the job just fine. I like the feel of grass on my feet, and since the reel mower wasn't about to chop my toes off I was free to mow the lawn barefoot for the first time in my life. There were a couple of single mothers in the neighborhood that needed their lawns mown too, so I started doing theirs as part of my exercise.

Even going on soft lawns in my bare feet, there were sticks and weeds that were prickly and uncomfortable. But as time went on, my feet toughened up and I didn't mind it so much. I would even purposely walk on bark mulch to see if I could adapt to rougher terrain. That summer I transitioned into going barefoot whenever I could.

I'd actually gone barefoot one summer many years back when I hung out with a girl who was here studying from Zimbabwe. It was great fun, except for the time when I got kicked out IHOP. Social conventions got the best of me and I'd gone back to shoes. Now, I was rediscovering it all again with the added perspective of what it's like to fox-walk in shoes v. bare feet.

In bare feet, your body naturally transitions to fox-walking. I won't go into the details, since there have been plenty of studies in the news lately. What I discovered this time around is that, while you can produce the same movements in shoes, it's infinitely easier without them.

The tactile feedback from your toes lets you know when your foot hits the ground. With shoes on, everything is "muffled". It's hard to describe, but that's the best word I can think of. In shoes your foot is almost always in contact with a flat surface, and the only thing you can feel for is the pressure difference when your shoe contacts the ground. Without shoes, it comes naturally. It just does.


For the past couple of years I've gone barefoot whenever possible during the summer months. I don't run regularly, but when I do go out I go as far as I like and then come home. No shin splints. No heel pain. The limiting factor is pretty much how developed my calluses have come along that season. I enjoy running now, even if I don't get out and do it more than a few times a month. It's a pleasure every time I go out, and I always wonder why I don't do it more. Maybe this year I will.

My wife is a saint. She puts up with me and my eccentricities with nothing but love and patience. But last summer I went into the office one day during a break (I teach computer science) without shoes, and she was mortified. She made me promise to never do it again! About this time I read Born to Run (the book that's been responsible for all the hype), and had really enjoyed Barefoot Ted's appearance in the book. I really wanted to get a pair of DIY huaraches, but she didn't like the idea of me running around trying to look like a Roman. That, and I really couldn't wear those into work either.

Ted is, as far as I know, the first athlete to be sponsored by Vibram. He runs ultramarathons in Vibram Fivefingers. They look a little funky, but the KSO model has a mesh over the top that makes it look like they're a legitimate piece of footwear. We decided that these were the shoes for me.

We went to a running store to find the right pair, and I've loved them from the moment I put them on.

It's not exactly the same as barefoot, but it's a lot closer than any pair of ratty old tennis shoes or even sandals that I've worn before. The individual toe articulation makes a huge difference in being able to sense the terrain you're on. The soles are protective, but I can feel every piece of gravel under foot. Instead of "muffled", I'd say it's "softened".

The big thing for me is that I can wear them into work. My colleagues have been bemused. The students I teach are a bit bewildered at the nut-job teaching C#. Overall, the reaction has been positive with a large dose of "Whaaaaat?"

There is a down side to them. They smell. No, they stink. The stench from wearing those things will knock out a water buffalo at fifty paces. You can put them through with the rest of the laundry, but the next day they'll be back. It comes from not being able to wear regular socks and having your toes marinating in their own individually-wrapped bacterial incubators.

Just yesterday I ordered 7 pair of toe socks to cut down the smell. I can't describe how excited I am for them to arrive! I've been wearing regular shoes for the past week and it truly has been an I'm-not-kidding-this-is-tramuatizing experience! I miss my shoes!! I go barefoot at home and wear my Vibrams to the gym (where they require closed-toed shoes). Then every morning when I have to go to my closet and encase my feet in size-14 coffins it makes me sad and I die a little inside.


I don't have enough empirical evidence for your questions about Vibrams. I love going barefoot, but it's simply not possible in our society and my climate. I've never tried the Nike Free shoes, or any other kind of minimalist footwear. I have had cheap shoes that were thin-soled by virtue of owning them for 10 years. Running in those is preferable by far to the expensive running shoes I bought after I started fox-walking. My Vibrams? Hands-down, my favorite footwear of all time.

In shoes I still fox-run with the same toe-heel motion as when I go barefoot, but it feels like I'm slogging through molasses. The form never feels quite right. I do it anyways because it prevents my heel pain. It still comes up when I cow-walk, in case you're wondering... tested it out recently. Contrast that with the Vibrams, where I feel light. It feels barefoot. I feel like I want to run more and jump over things. It embarrasses people when I do jump over random things like chairs in the hallway. These things make me happy. :-)

Hope my perspective helps.

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