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What I have learned from running minimal and barefoot

By Staff | Nov 23, 2012

I was invited last month to debate Simon Bartold of Asics Running. Simon still believes that a runner should have the heel elevated. His internal data from Asics showed that overstriding heel hitting runners were more efficient in his shoes. I was not surprised by this data, although none of it is published anywhere.

I shared some of what I have learned after many mistakes and some successes. James Joyce once said : “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” I have made almost all the errors in my life.

I am here to tell you that you were designed to run and yes you can run. There is no pill invented for prevention of chronic disease. In certain high risk situations there are medications that reduce risk of future events, but true prevention is not allowing the condition to evolve. Diabetes and heart disease prevention? The evidence is strongest for the largest prevention being in the form of the daily walk or run.

My goal is simply to get folks outside, moving, enjoying their activity and not be in pain. This has led to a number of developments in our community involving hosting races and even opening a small community running store Two Rivers Treads with a focus on teaching running form and minimalism. I have made a transition myself over the last 10 years after multiple injuries, foot surgery and being told not to run.

In my delving into the rabbit hole of running I have sought advice from the leading experts. Before recommending anything to others I try it myself. Six years ago I began cutting shoes down to a level drop, and gradually as my understanding of foot mechanics and kinetic chain evolved I started going into thinner and thinner shoes. Somehow through my store, writing and competing I became one of the leaders in “barefoot running” and was asked to present this topic with true experts Dr. Dan Lieberman and Dr. Irene Davis at the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Dan and Irene were the research leaders in the field. I had been teaching running form, but in shoes. What could I learn from taking my shoes off? I set out to find out and made a gradual transition to running barefoot on grass and roads in the spring of 2011 before the Boston Marathon talk. We filmed and presented the video Barefoot Running Style showing the art and science of this. We followed this year with the video The Principles of Natural Running on the components of proper running form.

I have reset many assumptions that most believe to be true about the risks of minimal and barefoot running:

You land softer barefoot, especially on the hard roads. After a barefoot run where you must self regulate, there is less soreness. You experience discomfort and fatigue well before tissue breakdown (if of course you listen to the messengers- the feet). The day after running the 2011 Boston Marathon (a 2:37.00 at age 44) in a thin and flat shoe I had some of the usual post marathon soreness. I set out on a gentle barefoot run along the Charles River. After this run my body was reset. There was something magical about this that I could not fully explain.

Your feet become thicker and softer. One does not develop hard callous, but rather a soft and thicker skin that is very resilient to surface irregularities. The road is the ultimate pumice stone as Dr. Irene Davis has said. The muscles of the foot thicken, too. I cannot fit in any shoe I wore two years ago. My feet look like the hands of a lumberjack now and I have a large buffer to injury. My skin, muscles, bones and tendons have become nearly bombproof.

I have not cut my foot on needles or glass. Actually if I were to run over small pieces of glass or sharp rocks I am not worried. Like our primal ancestors who ran on rocks, the skin is tough and shapes around the object. A sharp hidden protruding object, that is a different story and I try to avoid these by doing most of my barefooting on the roads. This is where eyes come in. Tune in and watch for hazards.

I have fixed form flaws. You cannot create friction running barefoot on pavement. It forces me to engage my glutes and place my foot in the correct position, which is not extended out in front.

There is more work in barefoot running, especially when the surface is not super smooth. For racing I can go faster and more reckless in shoes, but the barefoot teaches me the foot control, stability, form and recoil that I can use better when I put a thin shoe back on. Anti-barefoot folks always want to throw a study at me saying shoes are faster. They are right, especially for someone used to wearing shoes.

Muscles and tendons feel discomfort, joints do not. This is really important. A little soreness is a training effect as tissues get stronger. The worst running injuries are arthritis of major joints and these joints (big toe, knee, hip) are not wired for pain until extreme damage has occurred. So yes, everyone should fix their form and learn to land better even if one is not “hurt.”

I’m waking up my springs. Running is mostly elastic and the more we are braced the smaller the spring becomes. I do supplemental drills to retraining this mechanism which was really strong as a rabid barefoot Ultimate Frisbee player in high school.

I have found a new enjoyment in running which comes from the sensations of the foot with the ground. My first running was barefoot on the beach and I am reconnecting with my inner child with a new sense of play when I run. The transition is patient and slow. Even after almost two years of barefooting I’m still adapting and this is after almost 10 years of minimal shoes. We have many resources on minimalism and barefoot at The Natural Running Center www.naturalrunningcenter.com and at our local store Two Rivers Treads.