It’s now been 4 months since I started transitioning to barefoot running. I’m currently running about a quarter of my mileage barefoot. For regular runs on concrete or asphalt barefoot is definitely what I prefer. I’m up to 10k road runs barefoot without difficulty. I haven’t had problems with blisters, cuts or callouses since logging my first 20 kilometres or so. Occasionally landing wrong on a bit of gravel will give me a mild bruising sensation for a day or so, but nothing troublesome. My soles are tough enough to handle small bits of gravel or debris. I can now run the roads at night, trusting that my feet will be able to handle even the bits of stuff I can’t see.
I love trails, though, and I can’t run the trails around here at any sort of aerobic pace without some sort of foot protection. So my trail runs are done using some sort of footwear. Sometimes my Asics Kayanos, which I loved last fall but which now feel like casts on my feet. I use them in mud, because they’re pretty trashed already, having 400 or so miles on them. Sometimes I use my Nike Lunarglides which I bought a year ago but got little use out of before I hurt myself. They are low-support running shoes, roomier in the toe-box and much more flexible. And sometimes I use my Vibram Five Fingers KSOs. My plan is to purchase a pair of minimalist running shoes this fall, likely the New Balance WT 101s. I’ll need something I can wear socks with to get me through the winter. Something with a little tread wouldn’t be amiss either in the snow, ice and slush.
My running gait has definitely changed. I land on the outside of my mid-foot with the muscles in my foot dialed in to absorb the shock of landing. After rolling medially to distribute the forces, I flex off the ball of my foot. In running shoes this sort of outer-to-inner weighting of the foot is called “excess pronation.” In the context of heel-striking in shoes it probably is excessive, because the torsional forces can’t be absorbed by the foot itself and easily get transmitted up to the knee and hip causing injury. But it’s healthy on bare feet with a mid-foot strike. My cadence is also faster. I used to run at about 140 steps per minute. Now my natural cadence is about 175. And my mid-foot striking and faster cadence feel normal and natural now. I run that way even when wearing my old mega-support Kayanos. Up to about 14 miles, anyway.
I’ve noticed that when running barefoot or even barefoot-like in regular shoes, I no longer twist my ankle if I land wrong. My forefoot, rather than my heel, is what is on the ground at the moment of impact. The heel has no mechanism for correcting balance, but the forefoot is full of muscles that kick in reflexively. If you’ve ever tried to hold a yoga pose like the tree, you know that as you challenge your body to hold the pose, its the small muscles in the forefoot that start to gasp and complain. The heel can’t do a thing on its own. From time to time I find myself landing off-kilter in the woods, maybe once a month or so. My foot would “give way” on an angular rock or root and my poor ankle would take the brunt of the force. In the past I’d roll outwards off the heel and feel a small (or large) twinge in my ankle ligaments. The sort of thing that in its nastier forms is called an ankle sprain. These days when I land strangely and get that sickening feeling of rolling outwards about to possibly sprain my ankle, my forefoot corrects the off-kilter stresses in a split second and there’s no twinge at all, no “giving way,” nothing. It’s like a sped-up version of seeing a huge flash of lightning and then hearing …. nothing: there’s no clap of thunder. You expect to be hurt, but your body has fixed the problem reflexively and there’s nothing to worry about.
My feet are also learning what to do when they meet an unexpected rock or pebble. I guess I’m probably landing more lightly, and likely my soles are toughening up, but I also think my foot muscles are learning better, faster ways to transfer the force of impact if they meet an unexpected lump or chunk. I can now run barefoot on the road in the dark and trust my feet to manage if they meet up with something nasty. It’s strange to realize that my lower limbs have all these reflexes that they never used before.
Someone asked about my huaraches. I use them a ton for walking and general about-the-property wear, but not so much for running. I think I used rubber that was just a little too thin and flexible for running. The soles flop around, and the toe part of the sole easily catches on small roots or stones or weeds and folds back on itself, leading to stumbles. And they’re noisy because of a tendency to slap the ground. So they’re better for general use than running. I might try making another pair with a slightly more rigid rubber next year, possibly using a lacing system that gets rid of the lace between the toes.
Feet are amazing things. All these bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. Tons of them. A marvel of biological engineering. Instant active response, intrinsic stabilization, adaptive technology, tools that will last a lifetime, healing themselves, growing stronger as demands increase … and they actually teach you how to run with their instant feedback.
And yet we put them in malleable casts all day every day for years on end. We call these casts shoes, and we build them up with counters and gel and foam and rubber and cushions and various other forms of “support.” Our feet enjoy the cushioning and comfort. They don’t have to do much work, and they don’t have to pay attention to the ground at all.
The problem, of course, is that shoes are like an addiction. Put a limb in a plaster cast for 8 weeks and it will lose up to 40% of its muscle mass. Imagine what a lifetime of shoe-casting does to our foot muscles. Wearing shoes makes our feet weaker and weaker, and less and less aware of the ground beneath them. And this changes how we walk, how we stand and how we run. We gradually move away from the healthy biomechanics that our bare feet trained us to use when we were little kids running barefoot in the grass. And the result is that we want even more support and cushioning. And our feet get weaker and less sensitive.
The other thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is the arch. The arch is an amazing engineering principle. It has incredible strength and resilience. You can load an arch from the top and it will support great amounts of weight. The forces from above compress the arch, making it stronger. Who in their right mind would support an arch by pushing up from below? Yet that’s what we do with insoles.
If you’re interested in transitioning to barefooting, it’s important to do so gradually. References to TMTS (“Too Much Too Soon”) are at least as common on barefooting message boards as are other acronyms like KSO or VFF. So start gradually, and continue gradually! Canadians, who are typically unshod indoors, have a leg up so to speak. The best first step is to spend as much time as you can in and around your home without shoes on. After a few weeks you can start walking or running a kilometre or two barefoot on clean smooth surfaces every other day. Running tracks, gyms, golf courses or well-swept concrete or asphalt are good choices. Gradually you can begin notching up the length, frequency and surface-challenge of your runs.
Common wisdom says it’s most effective and efficient to start completely barefoot, rather than using minimalist footwear as a transition. Bare feet will teach you correct form from the beginning. After you’ve internalized the adjustments in your form through putting your bare soles directly on the ground you’re moving across, you can then start using minimalist footwear for surfaces and conditions that require it. But sometimes practicalities trump common wisdom. If you’re starting to transition in winter, or if you don’t have access to smooth predictable surfaces, or if barefooting just seems too weird for your tastes, by all means, find some minimalist footwear. Plenty of people have learned barefoot-like running in minimalist footwear. It might just take longer to get the form down. Early on I ended up with some Achilles tendon issues that I might have avoided if I had started out truly barefoot rather than in my KSOs. I was trying to change my form intellectually, rather than just running intuitively by barefoot feel, and I was landing too much on the balls of my feet.
It’s reassuring to know that if one of your guilty pleasures is buying new running shoes, moving towards a barefoot style still gives you plenty of ways to spend money on footwear. A couple of major manufacturers already have minimalist shoes on the market: Nike has their Frees, and New Balance has the MT/WT 100’s. Other companies like Brooks and Saucony are said to have minimalist shoes in the pipeline. Leave it to big sports companies to find a way to make money off barefooting! Refreshingly there are a bunch of small upstart companies busily creating a huge range of creative minimalist footwear for all applications: Luna Sandals, VivoBarefoot, Feelmax, Figo, Inov-8 and InvisibleShoes, to name a few. And of course there’s the gold standard, the Five Fingers division of Vibram, the shoe and boot sole company.
In the months to come I’d like to continue to toughen up my feet so that I can do more trail runs barefoot next year. Obviously I’ll have to take a break from barefoot running over the winter, but I hope I can find some truly minimalist shoes that will allow me to continue to run barefoot-like and to feel the ground (and snow!) beneath my feet.
“Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. This was the book that prompted me to turn my inclination towards spareness and simplicity in running into action. While the book isn’t really about barefoot running, it figures into the overall story and thesis. Although it’s non-fiction, the writing is very good and the inter-woven plot and colourful cast of characters makes it read like a novel. Audible also carries it if you prefer an audiobook format.
Barefoot Running University. Jason Robillard has a website and a book / ebook. Both provide great guidelines on the nuts and bolts of becoming a barefoot runner. Look for the second edition of the book, which is much meatier and costs the same as the first.
Barefoot Running Shoes. Descriptions, photos, information and reviews of minimalist footwear for running.
Birthday Shoes. A comprehensive Vibram Five Fingers fansite with information, reviews and tips.
Living Barefoot. A website, but more importantly a podcast which has some good interviews with interesting folk in the barefoot “movement,” or just normal joes with unique barefooting experiences.
Is it the shoes? It’s gotta be the shoes. A clear, convincing YouTube video comparing shod and unshod running form in the same runner.
“The Barefoot Book: 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes” by L. Daniel Howell. I’ve not read this book, but I’m told it’s a full of great diagrams and explanations of the anatomy, physiology and biomechanics of the foot, and why shoes work against all that natural design.