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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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.  :)

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