The concept of running barefoot most likely conjures up images of the careless days of childhood; summer grass beneath your tiny feet as the sun melts away in a cool, calm evening. It may invoke imagery of the beach; countless sandy patrons lounging and playing in the sun, feet skyclad in all their glory. For those particularly creative, it may even send your mind back to a simpler time before shoes, where people didn’t have a choice to be barefoot, it was their default way of being.
It almost certainly does not remind anyone of this:
But this is where convenience, necessity, safety, and all other kinds of responsible adult things, forces me to run. There is a little bit of grass, some very gross swampy stuff, plenty of pollution from the very nearby Beltway, and broken glass enough to challenge an Indian street performer. The loop I run is just shy one one mile, making 3 circuits the ideal distance for my fitness needs. In a perfect world, I would have a nice neighborhood park with friendly neighbors walking their friendly dogs in front of their friendly homes to run around, but my park is full of overly noisy basketball playing teenagers who I assume wouldn’t take kindly to someone running in frog-man shoes.
The obvious question here is: “If you have to run in this area, and the area is not conducive to running barefoot (or in minimalist shoes) why not run in normal shoes?” That is a very good question, one that I might need to answer with a succinct, “idiocy and masochism” to prevent further prying.
Whatever my reasons, I run in Vibram FiveFingers. KomodoSports, to be exact. This is my second pair of Vibrams (my first pair were red Sprints), and I must say I enjoy the whole “footie sock” concept turned shoe. The workout can be intense, it teaches your leg muscles to function in an entirely new way, and if you’re lucky, might even help alleviate some pain that is caused by traditional running shoes.
All of the shoes we wear teach us to run “heel-toe”. Our heel is padded by the shoe, which hits the ground first, followed shortly after by our forefoot and toes. Years and years of this being “normal” has made this motion seem very, well…normal. If you study human gait (the motions we make while running) you’ll find that something like 70% of people in the first world run this way (if they are capable of running at all).
Notice I said first world. There are many humans still out there running (a lot of them for survival, not something as petty as “rock hard abs”) who run in an entirely different manner. They land first on the ball of their foot, then carefully bring their heel down behind it. This enables them to be very fast, have incredible endurance, and most importantly, suffer fewer running related injuries, even after dozens of miles of jogging across unforgiving terrain.
I find that a lot of people who ask me about my Vibrams are curious about barefoot running, but can’t seem to do it without hurting themselves. The following tips are meant as a guide for someone who is not an inhuman triathlete, but your normal desk working, modern American who just so happens to enjoy running.
1. Marathons are overrated
The most important piece of advice I can offer is: start small. Even if you are an established runner, used to 6, 8, 10, 20 miles at a time, running barefoot is a very different experience. I overestimated myself the first time I ran in my Vibram Sprints; a paltry 3 miles left me barely able to walk the next day. As you retrain your feet, don’t think you need to run huge distances right away. If you feel like you’re not getting a complete workout by cutting your distance; run some stairs or something that doesn’t involve so much repetitive foot striking.
If you’re not a runner at all, I really recommend getting your legs and lungs into shape wearing traditional shoes; your muscles may need the support, and I’d hate for you to fall over and hurt yourself…
2. Take your feet to kindergarten
This sound dumb. You know your feet, what they do, where they go, how they smell. Unfortunately, if you want to really run barefoot, you have to break years and years of running habits. You have to conciously tell your feet to not strike heel-toe, but instead land toe-heel. Simple on paper, hard as hell in practice.
After about 20 miles of practice, I figured out one of the best ways to retrain your feet. Instead of trying to run on your toes and never letting your heel strike the ground (like I did when I first started), imagine landing on the outside of your foot, and quickly rolling it inward so disperse the weight. It almost feels like you’re running on the outsides of your feet at first, but eventually you’ll figure it out.
3. SLOOOW DOOOWWWN
The worst thing you can do is sprint, especially if your feet aren’t trained yet. The faster you go, the less control you have over your feet, and the more likely you are to strike heel-toe, sending shocks of pain up the backs of your legs. This one is simple, start by doing slow, delibrate runs, for as much distance as you can before you get tired. When you don’t get sore from running a few miles, you can start running faster, eventually getting up to sprints.
4. Soft Supports
It is much, much, much easier to start running in Vibrams on dirt of grass. These tend to be more forgiving if you land wrong and put significantly less stress on your calves. Grass and dirt give when you run on them, so you may gas-out very short of your normal distance. Don’t feel too bad about it, the grass is your friend.
5. Listen to your feet (with your ears and your brain)
Pain is the body’s way of letting us know we’re idiots. Or that we’re doing something very wrong. If your feet hurt badly, stop running. Walk in your Vibrams to get your feet used to them. If you wear supported shoes at all others time, chances are your feet and ankles are going to be relatively weak. Stop wearing shoes around the house, or at the very least wear your Vibrams, to get the muscles around your feet and ankles to strengthen.
Also listen for the sounds your feet make when they hit the pavement. A loud, floppy noise means you are landing on your heel and slapping your toes down. Correct barefoot form is nearly silent (think ninjas!).
6. Emulate Cinderella
Your shoes must fit very well. Vibrams that are too small with cut off circulation and hurt your feet, Vibrams that are too big will slide around and possibly cause blisters. The measuring tool on the FiveFingers website is pretty accurate, but I suggest you go to a store (REI carries a bunch of models) and try them on before you buy. I measured a 40, but my Sprints were a 42 and my KomodoSports are a 41. If the shoes don’t fit, you’ll never get comfortable; if you never get comfortable, you’ll never get a good work out; if you don’t get a good work out…what’s the point?
7. Pride is mortal sin or something
So is gluttony, but I don’t think America got the memo. Either way, you have to be proud to wear your Vibrams. Yea, they’re a little weird looking (especially the ones that are 80 different VERY BRIGHT colors) but they comfortable as hell and good for posture and strength. If you’re going to be embarrassed wearing them, don’t buy them; see my note on being comfortable above.
8. Barefoot isn’t universal
If you try and try to run barefoot, but keep winding up with stress fractures and bruised-up feet; maybe this kind of running isn’t for you. Everyone’s body is different and there is no shame in stepping back and saying, “these are officially hackysack shoes from now on”.
If anyone has any questions specifically related to running, or learning to run, or anything really, feel free to comment on this post, and I’ll give you my thoughts.