When I first heard about barefoot running I was in disbelief. Could it really be better for you? Can letting your feet pound the pavement (with limited or zero protection) actually reduce injuries? Would running barefoot actually change my running method naturally? It was hard to believe, but at the same time the longer I watched Christopher McDougall’s TED talk and read forum posts, the more it just made sense.
Obviously we are aware that people run barefoot, not every country is teaming with shoe stores with a massive selection to choose from. Even as kids, a lot of us surely spent time running around our yards barefoot playing games; so why was it so hard to believe that people would run long distances barefoot? The first time I saw someone in a pair of VFFs was actually on a television show, and they just used it as another way to illustrate how odd the character was.
Around the time that I actually became aware of barefoot running as a legitimate thing I was already starting to lose a lot of weight. I was eating healthier and repeatedly failing to commit to P90X (that’s another blog post altogether), but I was being a lot more active physically. The last time I had actually tried to run in a serious way was the year before with Jono, his wife Ellie, and a few others. It was a lot better to run with people, but I started to develop shin splints (at least that’s what I assumed they were) and it made it almost unbearable to run on any incline at all. So I was hesitant to start running again, especially on my own. After reading so much about how barefoot running completely eliminated runner’s knee and shin splints in people who took up the practice, I was excited about trying to get out there and start running again.
First things first, I had to see if my running style would really change by itself just by running without shoes on. So, one night after reading a few more forum posts, I stretched a bit and walked outside to the sidewalk and tried my best not to think about how I was running. To my surprise I immediately started running with a toe-strike form. That was it; I had to really try a real run this way to see if all the hype was worth it. There was no way that I could run on the sidewalks around my neighborhood without shoes though. My feet, like most people's, are not hardened to the rough surfaces. So my next step was to get a pair of VFFs. Buying VFFs is a process all in itself better left for another post, like Jono’s. So my Bikilas came in the mail and I slipped them on, ready to give it a go.
Hydrated, stretched, run mapped out to a mile, and iPod in hand, I hit the road running. The first thing I have to say I noticed about running this way was how fast I felt like I was going. When I used to run with a heel-toe method it was much easier, when I got winded, for my speed to slow and my jog to be just as slow, if not slower, than my normal walking speed. With the VFFs on, however, I felt like I was constantly propelling myself forward at a really good rate. Since this was my first run in a long time I got winded quickly (remember, I’m a fat nerd!) and instinctively my body tried to switch to a heel-toe method, and immediately it felt wrong and actually hurt a bit. I couldn’t believe how much normal running shoes absorbed the impact on your heel, and how it distributed that impact to the rest of your body. It didn’t take me any time at all to lose the heel-toe method entirely while running.
All in all, I really have to say that I all my questions were answered after my first few runs in my VFFs. I felt zero pain in my shins or knees, and my feet felt better than they ever had in traditional running sneakers. I have wide feet so the binding action of a traditional running shoe, especially after spending all summer in sandals, really makes my feet feel sore. Being the nerd that I am, I was a skeptic at first, but just diving right in proved the ideas behind barefoot running to be true.
I’m just looking for clarity on your last two sentences. So, by the tenets of barefoot style running, is toe running is better for you because we aren’t supposed to experience heel impacts? Running in my sneakers is bad because it encourages me to run that way and those impacts are damaging to me? Or make me run less well?
The extra padding on the heel of your running shoes “allow” you to be able to heel strike, without experiencing too much immediate pain. I think the notion is that more injuries occur because we have taken to heel striking, and our bodies weren’t designed for it. The constant impact on our heels sends the direct force up our legs into our back and spine, rather then being negated by are toes and arch.
Back when the new shoe was developed, the concept that by padding the heel to the point that you could actually heel strike without immediate pain, allowed us to lengthen our stride. People figured with a longer stride, the faster you could go.
There were a couple of research articles published that measured the amount of impact your feet have when they hit the ground. It was shown that people that heel-strike hit the ground harder then people that toe-strike barefoot. In the book Born to Run, the author equates it to a gymnastics landing, the softer the mat, the harder the athlete has to hit the ground to stick the landing. By padding our heels, we hit the ground harder to balance.
Brian, I had the same experience when Jono and I were just starting out with our VFFs. I felt like I was running a lot faster and farther and it was awesome! However, I decided to sprint (someone had made me frustrated, so I decided to run out my anger—a logical decision at the time) and the next morning, my calves hated me. Because it takes so long for your body to (re)adjust to minimalist/barefoot running, it can get frustrating when all you want to do is run like you have been running in the past. But I paid the price. It took three or four days before I could sit down and stand up without pain in my calves. Needless to say, I am no longer trying to sprint for miles. I am just excited for when my legs are ready for it.
Thanks for these posts! They are entertaining and informative! 😉
This was exactly my biggest problem starting out with the VFFs that I only just recently kicked. Every time that I would go out for a run I would set a minimum of one mile for myself (sounds familiar right?) and every time I would come home feeling great but calves fairly tight. I stretched as much as I could for the rest of the night but for between 2-4 days I was in pain, just like you, from the simplest action of standing up. The worst part of it for me is that my last class for 4 days out of my week is on the third floor. You’d think going up the stairs was the worst part but it was actually going down that gave me a worse response. I’ve taken to running on a treadmill and setting time limits instead of distance limits and I can now run for 30 minutes without my calves crippling me the next day.
Thanks for your comments, really great to know that *anyone* is reading these other than Jono and myself. 🙂