A novice runner’s thoughts on barefoot running and minimalist shoes
Over the 2009 holidays, I gained weight, and then decided like many Americans to get on a fitness program as a New Year’s resolution. I avoided eating processed foods like oil and flour, and focused on eating whole, fresh foods without labels or faces, following the advice of health educator and 75 year-old, six-time Ironman triathlete Dr. Ruth Heidrich. I also followed the health advice of physician Dr. John McDougall.
I increased the intensity and times of my cross training. (I had been exercising for many years prior to this, but according to an article in AARP magazine, not often or long enough!) My husband had already been running for years and inspired me to run. Plus, after moving out of a sick house to our new green home and modifying my diet, I no longer had my chronic, soul draining respiratory illness. I was able to breathe regularly, unassisted after ending years of dependency on medications, and finally had the strength to try running.
Re-learning how to run
On my first day running on March 6 on Nimitz Way, in hilly Tilden park, Berkeley, I started running and walking in intervals. Though I started out slow, for the first time in my life, I was surprised to learn that I could run 1/4 mile without gasping for air and seeing stars! It was so exhilarating, like being let out of a prison for lungs.
Nimitz Trail Hill Climb by R. Georgi, via Flickr.com
I noticed a guy in the park running in”gorilla feet,” a term used by reviewers in reference to the dark-colored Vibram FiveFingers (VFF) shoes with articulated toes. I had never seen sport shoes like that before and was fascinated by them. Later, when I met up with my husband (who talked to the runner) and he explained to me that those were minimalist shoes.
Shopping for new running shoes
Since the shoes (New Balance trail running shoes) I had were years old, I headed to our nearest reputable store Transport for runners and also See Jane Run, a store for women. After trying on different shoes by companies such as Asics, Brooks, Nike, and New Balance suggested by the salespeople-runners, narrowing down the options, and running on treadmills in the stores in my selections, I selected $130 Nike Vomero shoes. They were the most comfortable on my feet of the ones I tried, non-binding shoes with a roomy toe box. My feet felt like they were on top of little mattresses.
I immediately regretted buying the Nikes. I wore them around the house, jogged up and down stairs. Though they were the most comfortable running shoes I tried on, I realized they were unnecessarily and excessively cushioned for my activities. My pampered feet were not getting a work out in these shoes. I returned them.
“My feet seemed to lack any connection, or kinesthetic awareness with the ground. Was it a good thing that my feet could barely feel any of the roots, ruts and rocks along the trail? Was this cushy desensitization helping or hurting me?”
— Bill Katovsky, from his forthcoming new book, Return to Fitness
I decided to do research about barefoot running and the park runner’s low profile Vibram VFF shoes to see if they were for me. I was surprised to find whole websites and blogs online focused on barefoot running and running in minimalist shoes. There were thorough articles in Wired, the New York Times, and National Geographic, which cited scientific studies and health benefits.
“…the promotion of high-tech shoes has led to poor running form and a rash of injuries… The scientific evidence supports the notion that humans evolved to be runners… when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal… A study…suggests that our feet evolved for running.”
— “The Human Body Is Built for Distance,” by Tara Parker Pope, the New York Times
The most interesting writers on the subject are Barefoot Ted, a tester of the Vibram KSO shoes, and author-journalist-runner Chris McDougall. McDougall struggled for over a year with plantar fasciitis and saw many specialists. Finally, he consulted with a barefoot running coach who advised him to run barefoot. “It was an imbalance, caused by running shoes… The second I lost the shoes, the plantar fasciitis vanished.” He tells his story in an interview on the Random House website.
After reading reviews about a bunch of minimalist shoes, I decided I was most interested in the Terra Plana Evo and Vibram FiveFingers. However, I ruled out the futuristic looking European Terra Plana Evo running shoes. They were out of my price range. I went with my husband to the REI store to try on a few Vibram FiveFingers models. (I went to REI because I had a gift card from there.) For beginners, it’s best to go to a store (other than REI) that specializes in running with: a wide range of running shoe options, an experienced sales staff who runs and can examine your feet, and a treadmill on which to try on your selections.
At REI, I tried on several models for various sports. I decided on the Vibram FiveFingers KSO model since I like running in Tilden park, which has unpaved trails. This model was sold out and there seemed to be a lot of demand that day (my neighbor was there too with his sister and friend who were looking at the shoes). Plus, strangers stopped to ask me about the VFFs and stared at my feet while I tried them on.
While I waited for my shoes (back ordered online), I started running in my O’Neill Superfreak tropical weight aqua shoes. I got this great idea from several runners online. A barefoot ultra runner, author, and instructor Jason Robillard, who ran hundreds of miles in Wal-Mart Aqua shoes, suggested getting a taste of running in minimalist shoes by running in aqua shoes before spending a wad of money on new ones. Unlike the cheapo Wal-Mart aqua shoes mentioned on the site, my aqua shoes had a roomier toe area for comfort. I bought these shoes for learning how to surf in Bali in 2008. They have an articulated big toe compartment, a wide toe area, and just one layer of rubber under the feet (designed to maximize one’s foot grip on the surfboard).
O'Neill Superfreak tropical split toe boots
Thin rubber sole
The experience: Day one wearing minimalist shoes
On March 25, day seven of running and day one using aqua shoes, I jogged slowly for 2.25 miles at the Berkeley Marina. The marina has a flat loop trail by the bay, with views of San Francisco. I noticed that I when I started running with my old form, striking the ground first with my heel (which was usually padded thickly on previous shoes), it hurt immediately. I adjusted my landing and started falling more toward the middle/ball of my foot each time. I ran more upright and had a pleasant, tingly feeling on my soles.
Strangely, it didn’t hurt. Running on the gravel off the paved walkways, my feet felt like they were getting acupuncture. I felt a pleasant warmth rising up from my soles through my spine and hands, which started sweating lightly. I felt much more connected to the earth, and more aware of my surroundings — especially since I had to look out for sharp rocks and glass to avoid cutting my thin shoes. Overall, I felt more connected to my feet, body and surroundings. It felt like I was re-connecting and re-learning my sense of my body in space.
“Do you run barefoot — this direct contact with Great Mother Earth meaning that electrical equilibrium is established between you and the planet.”
— Fred Rohe, The Zen of Running
Later, I noticed red splotches on the bottoms on feet. Ok, so I didn’t follow advice to run only 1/4 mile at a time in low profile shoes to transition into them, but my feet didn’t feel painful afterward. Perhaps this is because I had taken dance classes barefoot, and also worked out at home barefoot (with cardio kick, dance and yoga exercises). I hope to “work up” to running barefoot.
“It was so simple, yet such a jolt. It was this: everything I’d been taught about running was wrong. We treat running in the modern world the same way we treat childbirth – it’s going to hurt, and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly with minimal damage.”
— Chris McDougall, from an interview author of the best-selling book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”
Since I started running in my aqua shoes , I was able to run further and continuously, and truly enjoyed the workout my feet were experiencing. I worked my way up to running five miles in them and wore them on runs on nine separate days. My feet felt more alive, more energized than they had ever been in my adult life.
Coming up next: A review of Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes
Running barefoot reduces stress on feet, National Geographic
Shoeless feet hit the ground differently, a new study says
The Men Who Live Forever, Men’s Health
In the hills of Mexico, a tribe of Indians carries an ancient secret: a diet and fitness regimen that has allowed them to outrun death and disease. We set out to discover how the rest of us can catch up
Barefoot running debate by Chris McDougall
Note: An article by author Christopher McDougall, “author of ‘Born to Run,’ an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.”
The Human Body is Built for Distance, New York Times
Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants, New York Times
Barefoot running easier on feet than running in shoes, Harvard Science
Barefoot running, Runner’s World
Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?, Barefoot Runner
Much Ado About Minimalism: The science and practice of reducing your running shoes, Running Times
Growing Up Shod: The traits of good form blossom (or wilt) early, Running Times
Running and the Land: Runners and environmental leaders, a brief history, Running Times
On Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear, a Harvard University study
“This website has been developed to provide an evidence-based resource for those interested in the biomechanics of different foot strikes in endurance running and the applications to human endurance running prior to the modern running shoe.”
Barefoot Running, New York Times
“The Roving Runner strides along Central Park barefoot with Christopher McDougall, author of the best-selling book ‘Born to Run.”
Tarahumara Huarache Sandal Rocky Trail Running
Notes: A look at Barefoot Ted’s form while running briskly on fist-sized rocks, a hill, and sandals