There are as many reasons for running as there are days in the year, years in my life. But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint. So, too, are you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be.
- George Sheehan

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Barefoot Running Research

There still is not a lot of definitive scientific research out there today to support whether shod or barefoot running is really better in the long run.  Thus, neither side can stand up and say for sure that shod or barefoot is better than the other.  What I can show, though, are some research studies dealing with various topics within the barefoot running world.  The most famous is the research done by Dr. Lieberman at Harvard University.  His study reveals some surprising and very encouraging stats regarding foot strikes, impact forces, etc between shod and barefoot runners.  I encourage you to flip through his extensive website to learn more, as there is just so much interesting information to cover in a single blog post:

This video sums up Dr. Lieberman's research and provides some good visuals:

A recent study by the University of Massachusetts made a few of the following conclusions:
  • Midsole cushioning in shoes doesn't do as much as people think it does
  • There seems to be little difference between minimalist shoes (in the case of the study, shoes with 4mm drop, so not Merrells or Vibram FiveFingers) and highly cushioned running shoes in terms of shock absorption (unfortunately, test subjects landed on their heels in both types of shoes)
  • Barefoot runners had lower impact forces than both the "minimalist" shoes and highly cushioned shoes
Unfortunately, there were issues with this study.  The runners were not experienced barefoot runners, so they did not apply a midfoot strike in their minimalist shoes.  The "minimalist" shoes used were not as minimalist as they could have been.  But despite the flaws, the study does support the fact that barefoot running seems to be lower impact than shod running.  And it also supports the idea that minimalist runners really should learn to run barefoot first, and then apply this different style of running to their minimalist shoes in order to lower the stress on their legs and feet.

Is barefoot truly better than shod running?  Like the article said, scientifically speaking, we still don't know.  It works for me though, and that's all I care about.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Great run!

I'm out of town for work at the moment and in a new area.  I've been trying to scope out a decent barefoot running route for a few days now, but was worried given the old concrete sidewalks in the area.  They're very rough, torn up and cracked, and over all not pleasant to run on.  I tried last week, but ended up only making maybe two miles before I had to put my Vibram FiveFingers on and call it a day.  But today I finally put some of my local observation to use and found a good route with concrete ranging from great to fair condition.  All in all, it made up for a one-hour run and it felt awesome!

...probably because a year ago I couldn't fathom running for an hour straight.  Now it just sort of happens, and I love it.

I got a lot of inquisitive stares from fellow runners and the drivers as they went by on the road.  I also got stopped by the police!  I've heard of this happening to other barefoot runners, but I hadn't experienced it yet.  The guy was completely nice about it; he seemed concerned that something had happened to me (because who in their right mind would run without shoes on?).  But I quickly cleared it up, we both had a laugh, and he continued on.  I guess I'm a "real" barefoot runner now that I got the attention of the police.  ;-)

One female runner I passed on the latter half of the run made me chuckle to I was running toward her, I saw she was staring at me from the other side of the road.  And unlike most runners, she couldn't keep a poker face.  There was a look of confusion, then absolute disgust on her face as she passed, trying not to look at me.  I saw her laugh to herself as she went by too.  I noticed her long, awkward stride, tired expression, and her hunched over frame, and the only thing I could think of was "Well at least I don't look completely miserable in my running, Lady!" 

I might look like a crazy homeless athlete, but at least I'm now going along happy and actually enjoying myself.  Running looks like such a chore to some other people.

I also think the most important part of this for me is that running is now fun.  It's all fascinating to me, yes, but I also have a good time out there.  I came up on some parts of the sidewalk under trees, so there was a lot of "tree debris" like acorns, leaves, etc I had to avoid.  I felt like these were mini-obstacle courses in a sense, and I loved it.  I was smiling as I was bouncing around on the sidewalk, choosing my steps carefully and stepping lightly.  And I thought, "I bet most runners never have this experience."   You shod runners are probably thinking, "Hell no we don't have that experience!"  But I rather think you're missing out.  Having to occasionally dance around stuff like that adds so much more to my run.  The different terrain (concrete vs. asphalt, road markings, etc) all add a whole new dimension and spice to what might otherwise be nothing but a metronome type of run.  It's an interaction with your environment that I think a lot of people are missing out on.  It's just a really cool experience.

And no, I'm not a tree hugger.  I just had a fitness test on Monday where I wore my flats, and every step felt the same.  Boring!  I think I am just the ADHD of runners.

Want to Run in Minimalist Shoes? Run Barefoot First.

I honestly think that minimalist running (shoes such as the Vibram FiveFingers, Merrell Barefoot line, Terra Planna Evos, etc) would work for the majority of people, but the problem (again) is the time it can sometimes take to get there. I see some people jump into a pair of Vibrams and end up hurting themselves two weeks later because they just either don't know to take it super conservatively, or aren't patient/disciplined enough to do it. I love my Vibrams (the four pairs I own ought to prove that!), but the biggest problem I have with them is that they are not truly like running barefoot. I found out the hard way that they deprive you of the important sensory feedback you get from your feet, and allow you to do too much, too soon. When I go barefoot, I know when to stop because my feet tell me to; usually it's the skin on the bottom of my foot telling me it's had enough. That is well before the internal structures of my foot become fatigued. That's why I now believe barefooting is actually safer, especially for someone new to minimalist running. It provides an excellent base to work off of later.

So now if I know of someone interested in trying Vibrams, I always advocate going a month or two barefoot first. I've found that ending regular runs (in shoes) by doing the last few minutes barefoot is a good way to ease into it. It'll teach people proper barefoot form to apply in their Vibrams, and start conditioning their feet for the workload. I didn't do that when I first started wearing Vibrams, and as a result I wasn't educated well into form and wound up with a few minor injuries. Wouldn't have happened if I had just been patient and done some barefoot running first. 

"Barefoot Running Shoes"... NOT The Same as Barefoot Running!

With the popularity of minimalist shoes such as the Vibram FiveFingers, and new lines of so-called "barefoot running shoes" such as the Merrell Trail/Pace Gloves and the New Balance Minimus, there is a trend of comparing these pieces of footwear to actually being barefoot.  I am guilty of this too.  When I was running exclusively in Vibrams, I would often say I was running barefoot.  But that was before I started running truly barefoot.  So as a true barefoot runner and as someone who owns several pairs of Vibrams and racing flats, let me say this:

Running in "barefoot shoes" is NOT the same as running barefoot!

It's easy for folks in these minimalist shoes to say they're running barefoot - there is little/no support in these shoes, they're flat and very flexible.  Essentially they're just a glove for the foot to keep it protected.  However, this does not equate to running actually barefoot.  So much of running barefoot is based on the feedback one gets from skin contact with the ground.  It influences form, cadence, and impact.  These minimalist shoes don't allow for that feedback.  Sure, barefoot technique is very important in minimalist shoes because of the lack of cushion, but the two are not the same.  I can say that because I have done (and still do) both.

Bottom line: shoes are shoes.  Wearing even the most minimalistic shoe and saying you're a "barefoot runner" is misleading.

Dispelling Some Barefoot Running Myths

There is great debate in the running community whether running in shoes or running barefoot is better.  I'm not going to bother with this argument right now, because I believe it is different for everyone.  For me, being completely barefoot is the best option.  For others, that's not the case.  I always tell people that if they're happy and healthy running in their running shoes, then don't change.  Classic "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," situation.  For me, I was constantly broken running in shoes, so I had to change.  But I do want to shed some light on some misconceptions most shod runners tend to have when it comes to running barefoot.  Due to the increasing number of articles on barefoot running, there are so-called running experts (who have probably spent most of their lives in running shoes) who are spreading some incorrect information about barefoot running.  This is all based on my personal experiences.

"Barefoot running MIGHT be beneficial, but ONLY on surfaces like grass or sand.  People weren't meant to run barefoot on hard surfaces."
Not so.  Barefoot runners today compete in marathons, even ultra marathons over man-made surfaces such as asphalt and concrete without injury.  Sure, grass and sand are great "comfort" surfaces, but they have their own issues.  Grass, like sand, is soft and doesn't provide good feedback.  This muffled feedback prevents the runner from fine tuning their form.  Incorrect form can lead to injury.  Concrete provides instant feedback, and as a result, the form is easier to correct.  Also, grass hides what lies within it.  Non-barefoot runners are too concerned with stepping on the all-present shattered glass (something I have yet to see while running barefoot), but grass can easily hide such a danger, as well as rocks and other debris.  Grass can also hide uneven ground, which might also lead to injury.  One can easily see any debris or dangers ahead on concrete, though.  For me, running on clean concrete provides the smoothest, safest, and most comfortable run while barefoot.  I couldn't run on concrete in any type of shoe without shin splints (running shoes) or foot pain (minimalist shoes like Vibrams), but I can go for miles and miles on concrete while barefoot.  Go figure.

"You have to be biomechanically perfect to run barefoot.  Everyone else needs shoes!"
Also not the case.  I actually think it's the opposite.  I think people who naturally have good biomechanics and good running form are the most successful in shoes.  I have terrible running mechanics in shoes because I can't feel the ground beneath me.  I run totally goofy in shoes, and THAT is why I get injured in them.  The raised heel, millimeters upon millimeters of EVA foam, rubber, gel, and whatever crap is in the shoe...all that throws my stride off.  The improper mechanics from that bad stride is what eventually gets me in trouble.  That feedback I receive while barefoot keeps me honest and my body automatically knows what to do.  Barefoot running isn't for everyone, but I do think the majority of people would definitely benefit from even a little bit of barefoot training. 

"I over/under pronate, therefore I need special shoes."
Sometimes I wonder how much of that statement is inspired by misguided doctors or shoe stores pushing  a product.  People insisting on motion control shoes, stability shoes, preventing overpronation and all that other stuff...I can hardly believe it.  There is no one correct way to run, even barefoot.  There are principles to follow, but even then, no two people will run exactly the same.  People will strike the ground in different ways, and yes, landing on the outside of the foot is natural for some, and isn't something that necessarily has to be forceably correctly through motion control shoes.  I sometimes land on the outside of my foot while barefoot, and it's perfectly natural.

"It's too dangerous.  I'd be too worried about stepping on glass."
That's one of the first things I hear from anyone when barefoot running comes up.  I have been running barefoot for nearly a year, and I have yet to see broken glass.  It's out there somewhere, sure, but it's far from the nuisance that everyone else seems to think it is.  Small rocks are a bigger problem, but again, on concrete, any debris is very easy to see and avoid.

"Barefoot runners are out to change everyone else into barefoot runners too."
Barefoot runners are not out to burn your damn shoes.  I don't care what you wear, as long as you're happy.  So just don't hate on me for choosing NOT to wear shoes.  Going barefoot doesn't make me a better runner than you, so don't act like wearing shoes makes you a better runner than me.

That's all for now.  I'm sure I'll have more.

Barefoot Background: Why I decided to ditch my running shoes

Welcome to Barefooting It - my personal blog about my journey with barefoot running.  There are many, MANY other barefoot running blogs out there, most by runners with many more miles on them than myself.  But I have been asked so often about my own experiences with barefoot running that I decided to go ahead and establish a blog.  I also need something to share my great experiences with, so this media shall be it.

So why did I start running barefoot?  A year ago I wouldn't have been caught dead running with no shoes on.  I thought it was dangerous, completely unnecessary, and perfectly crazy.  I won't lie - I didn't think much of barefoot runners because of those reasons.  But at the same time, I knew I couldn't really speak because at the time I was struggling to just run two miles.  Eventually I discovered barefoot running and found out that it is the best option for me to keep me running further, longer, and with less injury.

I used to run all the time as a kid.  I remember having a racing club in the third grade, where all my friends and I challenged each other to races around the playground over several predetermined "tracks."  But somewhere between elementary school and high school, I lost that desire to run.  Fast forward to high school, where we had a running course for several weeks in the dead of winter.  All the running (after not running in years) over frozen ground destroyed my shins.  That was the last time I had any prolonged running regimen.

I've always been the athletic type, having ridden horses competitively since I was seven years old (later I rode professionally).  I also played ice hockey on a regular basis.  I was fit, but by no means "running fit."  In 2009, I moved and decided to start a new career.  I also decided to start working out, as I was no longer riding up to nine horses a day.  So I started the Couch-To-5k program in my cheap running shoes.  After running into my old nemesis, shin splints, I remembered why I had given up on running years ago.  On the advice of several runner friends, I went to a local running store and got fitted for some expensive running shoes.  I rested, then tried the same program again.  I suffered for weeks trying to run through the pain of shin splints, only to have to stop, rest, and try again a couple of weeks later.  Doctors and sports therapists were no help.  I was getting nowhere!

Introduction to Minimalist Shoes and Vibram FiveFingers
I struggled all through 2009 trying to just start a running program.  I could barely run a mile without getting fatigued or sore, and anything over that was going to lay me up for at least a couple of days.  I was desperate.  Then someone recommended I try the funky Vibram FiveFingers for running. They explained how they eventually overcame their shin splint issues through shoes such as VFFs and the Huarache sandals.   So I tried a pair of Vibram KSOs and immediately fell in love with this new concept of barefoot/minimalist running.  I understood the mechanics of barefoot and how it differed from running in typical running shoes, but I did not yet want to run barefoot.  The VFFs seemed like the perfect solution.  But not for too much longer.

Transitioning to Completely Barefoot
Unfortunately, I still struggled for months.  Were the VFFs better for me than running shoes?  Absolutely, and by a large margin.  My shin splints had completely disappeared.  But I still had minor injuries due to bad form.  I had to run as if I were barefoot, but I had never actually run barefoot.  My body didn't know what to do or how to do it.  I strained my calves, Achilles, and got sore in the metatarsal region of the foot (the dreaded "top of foot pain" or TOFP).  Yes, I could run up to four miles now, but I was still hitting road blocks.  I was still frustrated.  So eventually I ended up switching to racing flats (nice, nearly flat shoes with only a 4mm drop, with thin and flexible sole) instead.  It was right about then I decided to try going a little barefoot for the heck of it.  Much to my surprise, I loved it!  I loved the feeling of the ground and how that feedback affected my form right away. My body instantly knew what to do, and immediately my whole perspective on running changed. I wanted to go out and run now, it wasn't some chore I had to accomplish.

Gradually the distances I ran barefoot increased. Initially, I did short stints barefoot at the end of my runs (the majority was done in my flats), then I started splitting my easy three mile runs between the two. Eventually, and just because I was feeling good that day, I did the majority of one run barefoot much to the chagrin of the local traffic. It seemed that once I went over two miles barefoot, that my form dialed in and I was good to go. I went three miles barefoot a few times, then edged up to four. Held at four, then finally edged up to almost five.  Eventually I did five miles, then six miles, completely barefoot, and completely happy. They were great milestones for me, because this time a year ago, I could not even fathom going five miles (let alone six), or even wanting to try.  I was struggling so badly to do a mile and a half, but six miles was fun and almost effortless.

I'm not fast barefoot. If I have to run for time, then I put on my Mizuno Wave Universe 3 racing flats (pictured at right) and go. But if I just want to go out for a jog and don't care how fast or how far I go, then I am certainly barefoot. I just find it so fascinating that someone like myself, who once thought it impossible to run comfortably, and was recommended for orthotics, could make a transition to barefoot running and be successful. The body is an incredible machine. I was a student of anatomy and physiology in high school and college, so how the body operates is a captivating subject for me. My barefoot runs are interesting, because as I go along, I can't help but wonder at how well it all works. I find that when I start to tire, that I just have to step back mentally and remember that I was out there running on CONCRETE, barefoot (something that non-BFR's say is impossible), and was totally fine. Then I don't feel nearly as tired because it just seems like a small miracle for me.

So that's why I run barefoot.  Because I feel great and it allows me to run longer distances injury free.   Much more to come in this blog.  :)