Friday, May 14, 2010

Running Barefoot

After the enjoyable time I had at the Sun Run in my Vibram Fivefingers KSOs, and a successful and 7k run two days later, I was feeling pretty confident: not too sore, no blisters, pace increasing. I figured I've hit my goal and have transitioned to barefoot style running fairly well. But it is a slippery slope. If minimalist running in the VFFs have made my running more enjoyable, why not take it a step further and actually run barefoot?

The thing that is interesting to me is the reaction people have when you tell them you are going to run barefoot.  People are genuinely shocked that anyone would even consider it. It does seem a foreign thought at first. But when you think about it, we've been evolving for millions of years, and have only had shoes for a tiny fraction of that time. A common reaction when I point that out is "but we didn't evolve to run on pavement." While technically true, I have to call bullshit on that. Most of the world is a hard, unforgiving place full of rocks and pointy stuff. Our ancestors did not practice persistence hunting by convincing their prey to run on beaches and spongy manicured lawns. I grew up going barefoot much of the time in Nevada, and a smooth, flat sidewalk is very forgiving compared to the desert. I spent plenty of barefoot time on both. But surely that is anecdotal, right? As a doctor friend said in a Facebook comment, "Really? On pavement? Hmm." But, it turns out science is on my side with this one.
The comparison of peak impact force values across surfaces for the group of subjects demonstrated no significant differences in magnitude of force. DISCUSSION: For some subjects, the maintenance of similar peak impact forces for different running surfaces was explained by observed kinematic adjustments. For example, when running on the surface providing the least impact absorption, an increased initial knee flexion was observed for some subjects, suggesting an increased lower extremity compliance. However, for some subjects, sagittal plane kinematic data were not sufficient for the explanation of peak impact force results. It appears that the mechanism of adaptation varies among runners, highlighting the requirement of individual subject analyses.
 They throw a grave warning at the end because the "sagittal plane kinematic data" didn't look the same for all subjects, but the fact remains that they didn't find a significant differences in magnitude of force no matter what the running surface was. So, I've cherry picked a google search above, but there seems to be a growing consensus in the data. I'll sum it up with a quote from Danial Lieberman at Harvard:
Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world's hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain. All you need is a few calluses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot.
And now I'm going to digress and complain about science, briefly. Many of the interesting studies I've found cost lots of money to read.  This seems wrong to me and may be leading me in the wrong conclusions. </rant>.

OK, back to my run. Yes, people think it is weird. People think it is odd enough that I run in the VFFs. I often get questions like "how much cushion do they have?" and "how much arch support do they have?" Of course the short answer in none for both. But people think I'm crazy when I say that there is plenty of data that those things are counterproductive. I can't fault them. I think of all the years I repeated the "fact" that you needed a stability shoe if you pronate too much. So now that minimal running had opened my eyes to barefoot-like running, I figured I needed to get out for a run with no shoes at all. I keep finding proponents of barefoot running talk about how the direct feedback of your feet on the ground forces you to change your gait and run better. So off I went.

I wanted to stay focused, so I didn't bring the iPod, or anything else: just my running shorts and a shirt. It was a beautiful day & I started a light, easy pace. The sidewalks near our office were recently redone in preparation for the Olympics, and they are pretty fancy. By fancy I mean contain crushed glass. I never really thought about it before, but was concerned about this 4 steps into my run. It is rounded like pebbles though, so not too bad, But I'd never thought about it before. So my immediate impression was that running without shoes definitely changes your perception and your gait. Trust me, when you are running on rocks, glass and concrete you land very gently. I tried to focus on relaxing my foot, spreading out the load and not letting the pressure build up in any one place during landing or toe-off. In the first block I was a bit worried about the ball of my left foot, but once I got onto a smooth sidewalk everything mellowed out a bit. At a stoplight another runner said "Hey, you forgot your shoes!" and then "I bet you get that a lot." I told him that he was the first, as it was my first barefoot run, but I'm sure I'll hear it more if I keep it up.

Once I hit the seawall by Canada Place I got into a bit of a groove. I wasn't pushing myself and was at a slower pace than usual, but I was running and relaxed. My feet felt fine. It was a bit like a dynamic, random shiatsu massage. I could feel every detail of the surface. That feedback had me changing things a bit. I was focusing on a gentle footfall, with the outside part of the balls of my feet softly landing a split second before the rest of my foot settled in, and then a gentle lift at toe-off, not pushing with the toes themselves. At a few different points I was able to step off the path and run in grass for awhile. Wow. After running barefoot on concrete for a couple kilometers you would not believe how nice a soft lawn feels! But what was more amazing was my gait changed. Instantly I was making more use of the heel: not pounding, but letting much more weight settle on it, and pushing through the toe-off a bit more. After the gentle, careful gait on the pavement the grass felt fast. I had the urge to sprint. But, my first footfall on the concrete landed cat-like and gentle, but very precise. The concrete didn't feel that bad, but the grass lets you drop your focus a bit. You can let your feet flop down a little, and not be so exact with how your foot strikes  lands (you do not strike the ground barefoot like you can in a shoe). I got a few comments from other runners, the most common being "ouch!"

But nothing really hurt during most of this run. My goal was to go for a very short run and turn back early if I got too tender. But things probably went too well. I wound up going more than 2.5 kilometers before I turned back, making for a more than 5 kilometer run. I felt fantastic when I started back for the office, but at some point I started to feel less than fantastic, with a fair bit of distance to go. I made it back, but I have new respect for the term tenderfoot.

All things considered, my feet aren't too bad. I got a couple of pretty bad hot spots. I would say blisters, and maybe they are, but they are similar to what happened to my big toe on my first run in the VFFs. I have a couple spots that are puffy, red and tender. There is probably fluid deep in there, like a blister, but I don't think they are going to pop. The really interesting thing to me is where they are. My toes, heel and the pads on the balls of my feet are all fine. They have obviously been used a bit and could stand some rest, but they are surprisingly good. The hotspots midfoot outside, opposite the arches on each foot. I've been trying to figure out why. It could be a problem in form. Some of the forums around barefoot running claim that blisters are usually the skin sliding against the pavement, ant that I might be twisting the foot slightly. But I can't imagine that happening only there. But the thought I keep coming back to is that it may be a result of running in the VFFs for the last month. While they are a very minimal shoe, the pads under the balls and heels are slightly thicker than the midfoot, even on the outside. After a single barefoot run I think that may be a slight design flaw. In the first few runs my toes and the balls of my feet got some hotspots/blisters. Then they toughened up and are fine. The midfoot had less work to do, as it was slightly lifted, so it never toughened up. It is just a theory, but I have a feeling that may be part of what is going on.

Either way, I did a 5km run on mostly asphalt and concrete with no shoes at all. I enjoyed it, and feel like I learned a bit proper running form, and I'm sure my feet will come out of it stronger. I think it was a pretty successful experiment, and I will likely do the occasional barefoot run on occasion to see how it goes.


  1. Very cool, Shawn. You're a month or so ahead of me, but we're doing about the same things between barefooting and running in VFFs. (Even to the point of me pondering blogging - something I never would've considered. I opted for more of a photo-less journal in Word, though. I'm a wuss.) You apparently haven't made the mistake of barefooting on a treadmill (i.e. "dreadmill"). I never knew those got so hot, and the blisters set me back at least a week.

    Also, nice work on the race last weekend!

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I'm surprised it drove me to blog as well, but I'm really excited by barefooting. When I started I didn't realize so many people were blogging about it. There must be a hundred blogs out there on minimalist/barefoot running. It changes your relationship to running much more than I would have thought, and engages your brain much more directly. I honestly believe that in 10 years there will be very few thick, squishy shoes left out there.

  3. Love this post! Thanks for describing your experience in detail. Found you on reddit!