At work I used to sit next to a nationally ranked Ironman-distance triathlete. He helped me with various aspects of my running, especially as I was training for my first (and so far only) half marathon. I started having some pains and his response was “Go see my PT.” I’d come back from the doctor lamenting the fact the doctor was stumped. “Go see my PT.” I’d stretch and ice and scratch my head on why it wasn’t getting better: “Go see my PT.” I obviously wasn’t taking his advice. I’d never been to a PT. I mean……COME ON! PTs aren’t doctors. How much could they really help? Well, eventually I took his advice and saw the PT. Five weeks later I was running pain free.
I’ve been working on minimalist running for quite a while – probably 18 months. Things, form-wise, have felt great, but it just wasn’t working. Aches here. Niggles there. I’ve been posting questions in the forums. I’ve been working with my PT. Things just weren’t just getting better. I was running in Saucony Bullet shoes. I bought them because they were on the Pose approved shoe list and were reasonably priced on eBay. They’re great shoes. The soles are very thin and flexible. I figured they were more than minimal enough to give me sufficient ground feel, let my feet move, bring my heel to the ground, etc.
While working on the form and trying to ramp up my mileage (and deal with the various pains) I was hanging out in the Runner’s World Barefoot Running forum, where they discuss not just barefoot but also minimalist running. Many people show up there having heard of the benefits of going to less shoe, wondering how to transition to barefoot. The consistent response of “If you want to run minimalist start by first going completely barefoot.” was ignored by me. “I don’t need to go full barefoot. The experts advocate this to help people get their form correct, but I’ve been working on my form for a while. My form is in good shape.”
Finally, when I posted my own question asking why I couldn’t get this to work, and the answer “Go barefoot.” was given to me, it clicked. “Maybe I should really go barefoot?!” Just like with the PT, whack me 20 times and I eventually get the message. So in late August I started the Lose The Shoes plan that Jason Robillard put together and I began walking barefoot outside. After 2-3 weeks of that I began some running and that has been progressing. Here, in no particular order, are some observations of the last seven weeks:
- Walking Barefoot Inside Is Not The Same As Barefoot Outside. Some will say they have reasonable foot strength because they go barefoot in their house. It’s not the same as being outside. There aren’t random pebbles inside our houses. One can walk with a level of “reckless abandon” inside that can’t be done outside. In a certain way I think our houses are “one big shoe” – protecting us from the real world.
- Walking Outside Barefoot Is And Is Not Painful. The initial walks weren’t too bad – but they weren’t particularly fun. Part of this very much has to do with the fact our house is on a street that has been chip-sealed – which is quite rough. The “not painful” part occurred after a week or so. The walks became much more comfortable and the real “fun” part started to occur. It feels so good to be out with no shoes.
- Sore Hips. Following my first few walks my hips were sore. I think it’s a tangible example of how the gait changes. I’m sure, since my brain knew the foot could encounter almost anything with each footstrike, the hips had to be ready to react. I found this fascinating – being barefoot really does alter the gait.
- Ankle Strength. I have a cheap inflatable plastic balance disc. It’s not a Bosu ball – but very roughly the same concept. I haven’t been a consistent user of it – but I get on it occasionally. The other day I gave it a try – the first time using it since I started the barefoot activities. The level of increased stability is amazing. I think barefoot activities have really increased my ankle strength.
- Blisters. Even though the running form felt great while in minimal shoes I did get a few blisters when I started running with no shoes. It goes to show that with the shoe things can feel great but, in reality, be off. Blisters actually can be a form diagnostic tool. In my case I developed a blister on the vertical surface of my fourth toe. Thanks to some great information over at Barefoot Running University (Thanks again, Jason R.) I learned this blister location was an indicator of pushing off. I also got a blister (well – almost a blister – it was in development) on the inside edge of the ball of the other foot. That can apparently be an overstriding or pushing off indicator. In yesterday’s run I paid more attention to that foot and I think I had been pushing off. Now it feels great. In both cases I received feedback that something was amiss and the recovery time was so short I didn’t miss a run – and I could try to resolve the issue in the very next run. What a fabulous tool.
- Achilles Issues. My previously written about Achilles issue began showing up again. That can be an indicator of pushing off with the calf. The next run I really focused hard on lifting the foot with a relaxed ankle and also making sure I wasn’t running on my toes by having calf tension on landing. That, coupled with some pretty strong calf massage, has helped keep this problem at bay.
- Foot Strength. The feet have gotten much MUCH stronger. I’m not saying they’re strong yet – but they’re much stronger. They were in big shoes with totally rigid orthotics for 10+ years – it’s expected they have a lot of muscular development to do. The soles now have this “sheen” on them from getting toughened up. Some people shy away from barefooting because they assume they’ll get massive calluses. It’s just not the case.
- ARCHES! My flat feet seem to be getting arches. It doesn’t happen to every barefooter, but some.
If you’re on the fence about going really barefoot – give it a try. One thing that is so cool is that the only thing one has to do is take off their shoes and walk out the door. No shoes to consider. No money to spend. No errands to run. Just go for a walk and see how it goes. Give it a week – at least – and see how it feels. Maybe after that you’ll be convinced it’s not for you. On the other hand, it might be the beginning of a whole new dimension to your running.