Saturday, July 23, 2016

Barefoot Running

Running has become a part of my life the past few years. I have run several long distance relay races, a couple half marathons, and even a full marathon. Doing these events has given me goals that push me past my previous conceptions of what I could do. They also help me get off the couch.

Like any other sport or physical event, injuries happen. Most runners go through several injuries in their life. Most of the time it's just aches and pains that plague them and make running less comfortable. Sometimes the injury will sideline the runner for months or even years at a time. I don't want to have injuries and aches and pains be a part of my running experience. Because of that I have taken up a somewhat radical approach to my training. I run barefoot. Not barefoot shoes. Literally just my bare skin.

But let's tell you the story of how I have got to this crazy habit.

In early spring of 2013 I was at a sporting goods store with some friends. We were preparing for a camping trip to Goblin Valley. One of my friends was looking for some durable hiking boots. While he was doing this I was browsing the clearance shoe isle. I ended up finding this super thin and light shoe. It had great grip on the bottom and I liked the design of it. It looked like it would give me great grip and control but yet be very light and be a minimal presence on my foot. For some reason this idea spoke to me. I then saw the boots my friend bought and they were just a massive brick. I couldn't understand how that would be more comfortable. I bought those clearance shoes. When I got home I looked up the shoes online to learn more about them. Since they were in the clearance section there wasn't much information about them at the store. I learned they were what is called a minimalist shoe. I started learning things about drop, heel strike, running forms, and even a crazy thing called barefoot running. It was all very fascinating to me. But I loved the shoes. They worked great on the hike we went on.

At this point I wasn't a runner. I would occasionally run a mile or two in old basketball shoes but that was it. It was also at this point in time that a co-worker of mine invited me to join a Ragnar team, a long distance relay race.

My co-worker and I started training during our lunch breaks. The first day we ran 4 miles. It seemed like an eternity. Over time I grew a bit more confident in my ability to run 4 or even 5 miles without completely hating every second of it. At Ragnar I had to run eight, seven, and five mile distances. While it was hard, I enjoyed the experience. In a matter of only a few months I ended up running distances I previously thought I would never do. This gave me confidence and sparked the question if I could do more. That race revealed the runner inside of me.

While racing and training for Ragnar I had two pairs of running shoes. The previously mentioned minimalist shoes and a pair of traditional Nike running shoes. All of my training was done in minimalist shoes but my 8 mile run would be all downhill. So I bought the traditional shoes to help absorb some of the punishment of the downhill. I have not run on those shoes since that run. It was painful.

The next year I worked up the courage to start training for a full marathon. During this time I grew more interested in conditioning and overall health as a runner. I started doing yoga, eating a little better, and reading more articles about runners experiences training for marathons. During this time I grew a little more fascinated with barefoot running. I became persuaded by the arguments that barefoot running reduced impact on the joints and was simply a more natural and healthy way to run. I was already emulating a toe strike running style, landing on the front of your foot instead the heel, in my minimalist shoes based on the articles I had been reading. But is barefoot running actually doable? Is barefoot running as easy as the advocates say it is or is it as painful and dangerous as the critics say it is?

So I went out a few times running in only my socks around the park. It was very doable and actually quite fun! I learned a few things first hand by doing it. I learned grass was very comfortable to run in except when an unexpected pine cone showed up. I learned that porous path around the park was a little rough on the feet, even in socks. But overall I enjoyed it and found it wasn't painful depending on the surface you ran on. What I liked the most is how it changed my running form. I was forced to run in a different way because barefoot forces you to run that way. You can't do a heel strike barefoot unless you want to have instant pain. Every step running barefoot required you to make adjustments as you literally felt everything you ran on.

But besides those couple of "sock" runs I never did it again. I still used the minimalist shoes for my marathon and still tried to emulate a barefoot running style but I never went barefoot again.

This year I started training again for a race and I was starting to do some higher miles (for me at least). I got up to 10 miles on a couple of occasions but my legs would be in so much pain by that point that I had to stop. Maybe I just moved up miles too quickly? But then my left outer knee and right hip would start giving me a lot of pain around mile 2 or 3. What the heck? I would have to stop and stretch and then start running again only to have to stop and stretch once the pain came back. It got to the point where I would have to stop and stretch every quarter mile. Something was wrong.

That's when barefoot running came back to mind. During the previous winter I read the book "Born to Run", the bible of barefoot running. I remembered in the book that humans could run insane distances and not have any injuries related to running. So why was I having after only a couple of miles? The author tells the personal story of being injured from running and thinking he would never run again. By the end of the book he is able to run ultra distances. Could I do the same?

The body was designed to run long distances. Why was my body resisting it so much? So I decided to go back to basics. In this case it meant taking off my shoes and running. I went out completely barefoot the next day and ran 4 miles. Not far. I didn't want to overdo it because I had heard transitioning to barefoot needs some breaking into. The great thing that happened was that those knee and hip pains I was feeling before were gone for those 4 miles. I never felt it! What the heck!?! This crazy idea of running barefoot actually worked! So I ran a few more times barefoot but then I stopped.

Why would I stop if it seemed to be working for me? Well for one simple reason. I didn't want to just run around the same park my whole life. I can't run barefoot on most streets. Where I live the streets are a porous asphalt with lots of loose rock and sometimes glass. I can't run on that. The sidewalk system often ends abruptly and there is simply no good path with smooth surfaces for me to run on for longer distances.

So in the end I still need shoes. I will still run barefoot but only in controlled settings. But when it comes to longer runs over multiple terrains I will need shoes. Now to find the shoes that give me the best barefoot feel but with the protection I need. I feel I might go through many different variations over the years.

My story is simply one data point out of many. I fully recognize that my one experience of having barefoot running work for me doesn't mean this is a proven science or technique. However, I think there is little to lose in trying it if you experience pain and injuries from running.

Good luck running!!

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