Barefoot/Minimalist Running

An article by Dave (the turtle) Wilkes

Growing up I rarely wore footwear (even for school), and when I did it was usually just flip-flops. The soles of my feet at the time were tough as nails. For example one of our favorite pastimes was to stand barefoot in the beach parking lot and watch the tourist. They would see us standing there barefoot and figure they did not need to put on their shoes. They would get out of their cars and almost immediately start doing the ‘hot foot dance’. We thought it was hilarious! One day we were playing football in the street. I stepped on a rock. It kind of hurt, but not enough to stop me from playing. It must have been at least an hour before we finished and since my heel was still hurting I sat down to take a look at it. Embedded in my heel was a piece of rock about ¼” across. It was embedded so far into my heel that I was unable to remove it and had to go to the doctor (who of course had my mom hold my leg down while he ripped it out…now that part HURT!). Whatever the terrain, lava rock as sharp as razor blades, corral, or thorny underbrush, I recall having absolutely no trouble negotiating my way across as nimble as a mountain goat.

Barefoot Fast forward a few decades and after years of wearing assorted footwear, my soles are still tougher than average, but nothing like they were. More importantly my feet are not as strong, flexible, or nimble as they were. I originally chalked it up to age…that was until I started reading about barefoot running.

I have tried to become a “runner” a number of times. Over the years I have run an annual 5K race, sometimes training first, most often not. But I have never been able to really get into running in such a way that I stick to it. In addition, I have experienced some injuries, making it even more difficult.

Recently I got the opportunity to review a pair of GOLITE trail running shoes [Read review here]. While researching the shoes I discovered minimalist/barefoot running. After reading some of the material (pro’s & con’s, plenty of controversy, and the ubiquitous internet “noise” and bickering) I realized the fundamental concepts made sense, at least to me. By not landing on the heel of the foot with each step, there should be less shock (claims that are of course supported by some research and doctors & discredited by others). And without the constraints imposed by most shoes, more of the muscles are utilized making the entire foot and lower leg stronger. Also, by not insulating the foot from the activity, the nerves are better able to do their job (the foot aperently has the second largest cluster of nerves in the body). I also realized that while growing up barefoot gave me an advantage, years of wearing shoes had to be overcome gradually before I could really reap the potential benefits.

On a side note, I had already been transitioning away from using heavy boots for hiking and into lighter footwear with very good results…so taking the next step into minimalist or even no footwear for running was not that huge a step.

As I mentioned above, I reviewed a pair of GOLITE shoes, they are kind of a middle ground between more traditional running shoes and minimalist shoes. As such they have no heal rise, and the soles are built upside down in that the soft part of the sole contacts the ground providing traction, while the hardest part is what the foot comes in contact with the foot, providing a more barefoot like experience. But unlike true minimalist shoes they are not all that much lighter than other running shoes. I really enjoyed testing those shoes and later realized they were the first step in a new journey for me (thank you and GOLITE for the opportunity to experience them).

The early stages of this journey have shown progress, but I was still plagued with pain in my Achilles tendons that could take a week or more to heal, as well as other injuries that hampered my progress and prevented me from enjoying the experience.  As a result I would start a running program, only to stop for one reason or another.

It turns out there were two more parts to this puzzle that I needed to discover.

I realized being 45 and 30-40lbs overweight was bad for my health as well as interfering with my ability to enjoy my outdoor adventures (am I a genius or what?). Therefore, I started to lose weight, and after losing about 20lbs I decided to try running in my Vibrum Fivefingers Sprint shoes. The difference was remarkable! The combination of being lighter and having virtually nothing on my feet made running freer and easier than I have ever experienced. Note: I have tried running in the past when I was lighter, with disappointing results.

I started out with a few short trial runs to see how my feet, bones, and joints would handle having no cushioning, including some softer surfaces (school track & grass) to help minimize the pounding I feared I would be experiencing. I quickly noticed two things. First, that despite a few runs in a single week, I had a little muscle pain (the normal pain of pushing muscles a little beyond what they are used to), but no bone, joint, or tendon pain. The second thing was that the same runs I have done before felt easier than ever. I started keeping track of my time and distance, and noticed that within about two months, my time to run 5K was quickly approaching my personal best (30min). The next thing I knew I returned home to discover I had run 5k in 29min without even trying!

And within a week later I had reached a new personal milestone… I have some friends and relatives who run (one overachiever I know actually ran a marathon in Antarctica). One thing that I have heard and read is when runners get over the initial ‘hill’ the running becomes enjoyable. This was a totally alien concept to me. When I run, I spend about the first one third of the run warming up and trying to ignore the parts of my body that are trying to convince me to go home and have a beer, then spend the rest of the run desperately anticipating getting to the end so I can stop (and maybe have that beer). But recently, after a particularly trying day, the kind of day it would be very easy to justify sitting in front of the TV rather than going out into the cold windy evening, I decided not only to go for my run, but to make it a bit harder (the last half entirely uphill). To my surprise, about a mile from home I realized I was grinning…it was a strange new sensation to be enjoying running! I have no idea what the people who saw me thought: 45F and windy, I am wearing bright red Vibram Fivefingers shoes, running shorts, a long-sleeved shirt with a fleece vest, gloves, a fleece hat, running down the road grinning like the Cheshire Cat. By the halfway point I started thinking about what I expected to be a long slog home, uphill all the way. Soon after starting up the hill, I realized it was not only not as painful as I expected, but I was actually enjoying it! So I picked up the pace a bit, and found that felt good to. By the time I got to where I was going to turn off for the final 2 blocks home (still grinning), I realized I did not want to stop. I finally reached the point where I was not bored, nor was I just anticipating the finish, but actually enjoying the sensation of running. Maybe it is just me, but that was HUGE!!! A major milestone for me! I cannot fully express what it did for my moral and self-image. I realized at almost 46 years old, I was actually in better shape than I was in boot camp (where running 1.5 miles in 15min was only attainable by pushing myself to the point of puking at the finish line).

So what is next? Good question.

I have only been running like this for a few months, so I believe I am at the beginning of a journey, I just don’t know how long it will be or where it will take me. It is like standing at the trailhead of an unfamiliar trail. There is the feeling of excitement mixed with some dread. What if I get lost? What if I don’t like this route? What if I get only a short way and find I must turn back?

However, what if it turns out to be the best trip I have ever been on?

Disclaimer: I am not promoting barefoot/minimalist running as something everyone should do or even as a good idea, but simply describing the totally subjective and not scientific experience of one individual. I have no tie to the products mentioned other than as specified in the text (I reviewed a pair of GOLITE shoes that I received free of charge, and I own a pair of Vibrum Fivefingers shoes that I purchased). Like psychic readings, the lottery, and congressional hearings; this is “intended for entrainment purposes only”.


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