Our perspective: Two team members share their thoughts on running barefoot

Jocelyn A. is a runner from Ann Arbor, MI. She wants to break 20 minutes for her 5k, and hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon again!

“You should stop running.” Words that a runner never wants to hear. I heard them after months of physical therapy. Knife-sharp pains in my right knee would put me out commission for days. I couldn’t run four miles without aches in my legs. I was convinced that knee surgery was in my future.

I was sad and miserable.  Running was a part of who I was, how could I give that up? Around the time of my PT sessions, a friend suggested the book Born to Run. I read it and decided that even though I knew my Nike Zoom Equalons were my shoe, I’d still give those funny looking toe shoes a test drive.

A few days later, I popped into an outdoor adventure store to test out the Vibram FiveFingers. After fifteen minutes of trying to get the pair of blue KSOs on, the salesperson said that I should do some victory laps. I  cautiously padded around the clothes racks and decided to give FiveFingers a shot.

Thousands of miles and two years later, I am a faster and stronger runner than I have ever been in my life, including my high school running days.  I have PRs across the board, including a 2 minute drop in my 5K time and BQing in my first marathon.  My distances continue to increase while my times continue to drop. My running adventures over the last couple years have given me thrills and happiness.

While I love finding out just what my body can do, the increased speed and endurance is not what’s important. What matters is that minimalist running helped me be me again.

Logan H. (aka. Unarunner) is a runner from Murrells Inlet, SC. He’s one of those guys that you feel like you can share anything with, no matter how tragic, heroic, or just silly. Logan hopes to be the roughest, toughest, most enduring bad ass he can be.

 I would not call what I do “barefoot” running.  The most fanatical of barefoot runners might call me a poser, or worse.  They will say that only a runner without shoes of any type is worthy of claiming barefoot status.  I however like to keep my feet clean and free of glass and other embeddable debris.

My journey to minimalist footwear began like many in this current footwear fad.  I read Born To Run (have re-read it two or three times so far).  The tales of Barefoot Ted and African hunters captured my imagination.  But I did not jump into this without a lot of thought.

I ran for years as a slave to The Man.  I would not consider myself a shoe snob.  My decisions of footwear usually fell to what “looked” good. (I can hear my shoe selling friends rolling with laughter)  So my feet often felt like crap.  Of course I never considered the “how” of running.  I simply went out and slapped the pavement.

My life as a running began with my commitment to marathon training.  While I bought a book and considered scheduling and improving my nutrition I gave little thought to my feet.  Feet are supposed to hurt when running, right?  And so I went for sixteen weeks.  Lots of pounding.  Gallons of feet-sweats.  More blisters than I ever cared to consider.  All for the sake of this running dream.

By the end of that first test-marathon I decided to sign up and go to a real race.  I knew that my form would have to improve.  That is when I found Chi Running.  I also knew my feet would have to improve.  That is when i stumbled upon injinji toe socks.  A literal toe saver.  My blistered toes never felt so good.  Where I used to wince in pain I now glide along without a care in the world.

At the same time that I was experimenting with form and gear I hopped onto a tech/innovation blog I check from time to time and watched a video about Vibram 5 Finger toe shoes.  I was hooked.  My wife smirked.  I had to have them.  She had a nervous chuckle.  Around this time is when I read Born To Run so I was immersed in the folk-lore of the Vibram brand.  As a concept, and wrapped into my practice of Chi Running, I believed this could be the next “shoe” for me.

Running in regular sneakers was often a painful experience.  My arches often hurt.  To the point that I would have to cut a run short.  I often rolled my ankle while running (as I typed that sentence I cannot recall the last time this happened while on a run).  My poor little piggy toes were constantly beat up as well.  My feet tend to roll forward and out which is very painful and stressful on the littlest of toes.  I researched various shoes.  Saw a brand with multiple inserts for all sorts of control.  Read about some shoe from Europe that was supposed to be incredible, but was priced around $200 dollars.  I even heard of some abomination with microprocessors and other crap.

If interested look up Chi Running to see how this practice fits well with the idea of barefoot/minimalist running.

When I bought my first pair of Vibrams I promised myself I would transition slowly.  I was one month out of my first official marathon and knew I stood a good chance of screwing things up.  (Note to self – always go with your gut instinct)  Within  the first week I said screw it and decided to go for it.  I wanted to run and felt what my mind had built up into this euphoric orgasmic blind blowing event.  You know what?  It was all that and more.

The first run in Vibrams was a hard wet twelve miler.  I lost the footpod for my Nike+ so I had no clue as to the exact mileage or pace, but it was a known route so I was comfortable in calling the distance.  Having just finished reading Born To Run and making my way through a state park bike path I imagined myself a hunter tracking large game.  I ran hard.  No slow easy transition for this kid.  And when I was done I was breathless.  Not from exertion but from the glimpse I had of the future.  That first run felt effortless.  Oops.

Within a few weeks I noticed something “not right” in one ankle.  By the morning of my race I foolishly hoped I would finish the marathon.  Did not happen.  But I learned my learn.  Over the next few weeks I hit the stationary bike.  I ran with my daughter.  I kept the distances short and the pace easy.  Within twelve weeks I hoped to tackle another marathon.  This time however I decided to transition more carefully.  I switched between the Vibrams and Saucony whatever-they-were-called.  I questioned the choice of trying minimalist footwear but knew that I needed time to see if it were meant to be.  That marathon was cancelled due to weather (yawn… old news) but I ran the course anyway.  All 26.2 miles.  In the Sauconies.  And I have never worn “regular” running shoes again.

People like to scoff at the trend toward minimalism as a fad.  The concern is that unthinking uninformed people, whether they are veterans or noobies, with jump into any sort of minimalist shoe without hesitation and get hurt.  Ok, it happened to me.  Both hands raised.  I’m that guy.

What I learned though reinforced what I should have taken from Chi Running.  ”Gradual progression”.   Do something wrong long enough and you will break down.  I do not like the phrase “over-use” injury.  I prefer “mis-use”.  If you have proper form and avoid rocks or other impediments you should do pretty well.  The only concern then is fatigue.  And fatigue is the mortal enemy of proper form.  But mis-use your body and you will break down eventually, regardless of fatigue.

So whatever miminalist approach you take, whether it is completely bare or through some shoe like Vibram, etc, please make a gradual transition.  Just like expecting six pack abs after one core routine, expecting to suddenly run faster, farther or smoother immediately will only serve up disappointment.  And an expensive trip to a doctor’s office.

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