Barefoot running… What a novel concept.
I first learned about this modern-day movement when Leo over at zenhabits.net published his “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Barefoot Running.” It sounded cool, but at the time I wasn’t experiencing a ton of problems, had probably just bought a shiny new pair of Brooks Glycerin (my running shoe of choice for the past nine years), and didn’t quite get it.
Around the same time, a colleague of mine told me he had started running barefoot on his treadmill. “Feels great!” he raved. I contemplated trying it, but life took over and I continued running in my Brooks.
Then I turned 36. And everything started hurting. My hips especially. It all started after a lengthy run on lots of concrete while visiting relatives in Washington D.C. My hips were like: “Oh no you don’t…” I had no choice but to get back on the treadmill, avoid hard surfaces, and mix my workout routine up with some cross-training (not a bad idea in general, btw).
Born to Run
A week ago, I started listening to Born to Run, the best-selling book by Christopher McDougall. Even though I have two more chapters to go (I’ve got like three books going at the same time…), I think I can safely say that the main thesis of the book is that we were born endurance runners, born to run barefoot, and born to run joyfully, with kindness and compassion.
The book weaves storytelling and scientific fact-gathering together into a truly inspiring tale that gets to the heart of running – at least what running is supposed to be. One of the main characters in the book is “Barefoot Ted,” who swears by barefoot running. The author raves about barefoot running and how it helps with injury prevention, etc. It’s quite compelling. (However, if you go to the “Running Barefoot” website of the scientists who study this concept in depth, they are very clear on that more study is needed to prove this.)
With all my recent hip pain and general stiffness, this was starting to sound pretty good. The book planted a seed in my head and I let it sprout.
Barefoot Running Day 1
On my first day of experiencing barefoot running, I didn’t run at all. In fact, I was biking down to Luther’s gym to do my bi-weekly routine of weightlifting when I spotted a very fit college student running on the grass. And he was running barefoot!
It was a sign. Surely the God of Running was smiling down on me and gently nudging me in the right direction!
I thought about barefoot running for most of my workout and by the end of it, I had convinced myself that at my next run, I would try it.
Barefoot Running Day 2
Another non-running day… I was out of town all day and didn’t exercise. Period. But I listened to more of the book and became increasingly convinced that I should give barefoot running a try. So when I got back in the evening, I did some minimalist shoe/barefoot running research. The first site I came across was REI’s How to Choose Minimalist Shoes (Barefoot Running) article. At the very end, there is a section on how to get started with barefoot running.
One bullet especially stuck out to me: “Don’t do too much too soon. Try using the 10% rule—no more than 10% a week in both distance and foot-strike change.”
Oh, OK. Not too much too fast. I get it.
Barefoot Running Day 3
On Saturday morning, I biked down to the Luther track to run some laps with Todd. Yeh, he runs from home and I bike. It’s a good arrangement. When he got to mile 6 and felt the need to start running toward home, I walked across the road to the athletic fields, slipped off my shoes and socks and gingerly started padding down the side of the road on the wet, cold grass.
It felt awesome! I tried running with a forefront strike as recommended in Born to Run, and my guess is that I looked absolutely ridiculous. But I didn’t care. Nobody else was around. After a few hundred feet, the path turned into a tunnel flanked by trees and brush. Where did this trail lead, I wondered?
I briefly enjoyed the mystical trail. Then I remembered the 10% rule. Hmm. Probably time to turn around.
I sat down on the curb and attempted to wipe my feet off prior to enveloping them in my expensive running socks. It didn’t work so well. Wet grass is sticky.
When I went to bed, I couldn’t wait for morning and my next barefoot run. I set my alarm for 6:30 AM to ensure that I would have a chance to run and make it to church on time. However, right before I dozed off (listening to Born to Run, mind you), I changed my mind and turned off the alarm. Best listen to my body on a Sunday morning and wake up with the sun.
Barefoot Running Day 4
When I woke up the following morning and asked Todd what time it was, he said “7 AM.” Guh, was that enough time to re-experience barefoot running bliss? I groaned and he said “maybe you should stay in bed this morning,” while tucking the covers around me (yes, he’s awesome!). “Maybe,” I thought for about two seconds. Then the barefoot running urge took over. I jumped out of bed, downed some water and cereal, got dressed, and jumped on my bike to pedal the two miles to campus.
I parked my bike in its usual spot by the track and took off my shoes and socks. Crossing the paved road to get to the grassy side was a combination of “ouch, relax your feet and it won’t hurt, ouch, relax…” until my feet hit the cold, dewey grass and everything was good. I tromped down the same route as the previous day with an obsessive desire to determine the shape and distance of the trail.
The 10% rule loomed overhead. “I better not overdo it,” I meekly told myself. “Ten percent, ten perschment,” my adventurous self said scornfully. I’m going to run the distance of that trail.
The trail scenery alternated between open plains and tree-lined “tunnels,” mostly on a wet, grassy surface with select patches of tired, packed dirt. Every slight difference in surface was a world of difference for my sensitive feet. They were on red alert, trying to make sure they didn’t get hurt. At one point, I definitely got something not so comfy stuck in the ball of my foot. I pulled it out (most of it at least – the rest had to be surgically removed later than evening). No big deal.
Shortly thereafter, I arrived at the entrance of what seemed to be a maze flanked by 5-feet tall flowers and brush. “Why not?” I thought (although an image of Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire briefly flashed before my eyes). I ran into the maze and lost myself in the awesomeness of what I was doing. I was running barefoot! Through a freakin’ maze. Eventually, I realized that with my sense of direction (definitely gatherer…) I could be stuck in this maze forever, so when I spotted an opening, I went for it. One of my options at this point was heading straight up a small hill. OK. I ran up it and found myself on the top of a ridge overlooking the athletic fields.
“I’m on top of the world!” I shouted in my head (not wanting to scare other maze runners). My left heel was feeling a tad bit off. (“Ten perschment,” I chided myself.) I walked for a little while, but it was no fun, so soon enough, I was trotting again.
Feeling the grass swoosh between my toes. Sensing small rocks and leaves below my feet. Bathing in the moisture on the ground.
My stride was short and springy. I wasn’t running fast, but that wasn’t the point. I ran through another “tunnel” and as I emerged, I was faced with another decision. Climb up a quite rocky slope or continue on grassy path (in the directly of my bike). “Ten percent,” my rational mind told me and transmitted the signals to my feed to take the grassy path to the finish.
I did a pain check. By this time, I would have expected my hips to be complaining. Nothing. I checked again to make sure it wasn’t being masked by my current state of elation. Nope. Sure, my left heel felt a little iffy still, but that was my own “ten perschment” fault. Wow!
As I neared the track, I felt a pang of melancholy. My barefoot run was almost over. I tried to savor the final stretch and let my feet and legs do what they wished. When I reached my bike, I sat down on the stone fence, wiped off my feet (I came prepared with a towel this time) and put my socks and shoes back on. My feet felt like happy teenagers in love. They sparkled with energy and enthusiasm, thanking me for the free massage.
When I started running on the track, my feet felt heavy, confined. I could sense the distance between the sole of my foot and the ground. I felt disconnected. And at that moment I knew that I was stuck in barefoot running land.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. Maybe I’ll buy a pair of Luna sandals. Or maybe I’ll run barefoot on the treadmill for a while to make sure this is something I truly want to stick with.
But my feet will be longing for the wet, dewey grass. (Only next time, I’ll adhere to the 10% rule.)
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