Running Barefoot and in Vibram Fivefingers: New Runner Starts Minimalist

Michael B. ProfileEditors Note: The author of this post, Michael B., is a barefoot/minimalist runner from Los Angeles, CA. You can view Michael’s dailymile profile page, or read more about his running and parenting adventures on his personal blog, the badass dad blog.

I didn’t really decide to be a runner. I still hesitate to call myself a runner until I’ve been at it at least a year. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying it more than I ever expected, and since my path to running has been a little different than a lot of folks on dailymile, I was happy to share my running story here on the dailymile Community Blog.

If you know me, you probably know I’m a barefoot and minimalist-shoe runner. Except for occasionally adding Injinji socks, the only thing I wear on my feet when I run are Vibram Fivefingers (see image below and to the right), in which I’ve logged most of my almost 300 miles. About 30 of those miles I’ve run totally barefoot on the streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles, and I plan to do more miles sans footwear as it gets warmer. A lot of runners seem to be considering the move to barefoot or minimalist shoes. I give credit to Christopher McDougall’s inspiring book Born To Run and the recent Harvard study on foot strike in barefoot vs. shod runners, both of which have generated a lot of media attention and have gotten people talking. But even if you buy the theory, the transition to barefoot can be tough, requiring you to dial back your mileage A LOT, which is understandably hard for someone used to running a certain number of miles each week.

Vibram FivefingersMy path was a bit different. I found my way to minimalist shoes and barefooting before I ever considered running. And, while I’m still quite new to it, the way I arrived at running is part of why I love it, and why I believe it will be part of my life for many years to come.

I first kicked off my traditional shoes after reading an article in New York Magazine online called You Walk Wrong. It’s got these amazing photos of people’s bare feet with shoes painted on them. (I would love to show up to a race with my feet done up like this guy’s.) The article, the first one I’d seen on the subject, describes how the cramped toe box, stiff, cushioned sole, and elevated heel of the modern shoe is entirely wrong for how we are biologically designed to move. It went on to say that this contributes to a range of foot problems, knee and hip trouble, and even back pain.

That got my attention. I’d suffered lower back and sciatic nerve pain since high school. Not exercising made it worse, but every time I tried to do more I’d be back at the chiropractor just so I could tie my shoes without feeling like I was 95 years old. If you’ve ever had to lift your legs out of your car with your hands because it was too painful to move them, you know where I was at. It was especially bad any time I’d do any impact exercise. A game of pick-up basketball or a jog around the block would leave me hobbling for a week. Even the treadmill could do me in, and that was supposed to lessen the impact of running. So I stuck with the elliptical and weights, did my core exercises, stopped showing up for basketball, and decided running was definitely not for me. I literally looked at my friends who ran marathons like they were insane. Why would ANYONE want to do that?

With impact off the menu, I started the Body-for-Life program. I never looked like the “after” pictures on that site, but it served me pretty well for a couple of years. I lost weight and was in pretty good shape for a change. Then we had our first child. Suddenly my 6-morning-a-week gym routine and strictly metered 6-meal-a-day diet were replaced by late night baby-bouncing sessions and grabbing whatever food I could on my way out the door. My waistline went to hell pretty quickly, my back wasn’t far behind, and I was desperate for a solution.

I didn’t really think these “barefoot shoes” I’d read about were going to solve all my problems, but I was ready to try anything. The shoes weren’t cheap, but they weren’t much more than shoes I was already buying, and if they actually helped PREVENT the pain, I was sold. So, I got a pair of Vivo Barefoots and a pair of Vibram Fivefingers. Before long I wore these almost exclusively, when I wore any shoes, and while they didn’t change my world overnight, I liked feeling more in touch with the ground as I walked, and my back did start to feel better.

Even so, by the time we had our second child three years after the first, I was a mess physically. I was 30+ lbs overweight, and feeling generally crappy (to the left is a picture of me from Sept 2009 – clearly hoping my adorable son will distract from my less than adorable moobs). I made a pledge to get back in shape, for me, for my wife, and for my kids, and I did get more active. But after a year I was still overweight, and suddenly let go from my job and unable to afford the expensive personal trainer I’d been hoping would solve all of my problems. Once my prepaid sessions with him ran out, I needed another answer.

I’d been wearing my minimalist shoes for about a year. I still hadn’t done any running, but I’d been reading a lot about it on Barefoot Ted’s Google group, and decided to give it a try. Not ready to go fully commando-foot, I slipped on my Vibrams and went out for a pretty slow 2 miles, trying to keep in mind all the technique advice I’d read: light steps, quick cadence, back straight. In hindsight, I did too much too soon. But it felt pretty good, and was fun in a way running had never been before. I liked it so much I did 2.5 miles a few days later, and 3 miles a few days after that. About a month after my first outing, I went for my first fully barefoot run. I didn’t do many of those early on, and might have been better off if I had. Running fully barefoot is one of the best technique teachers around. The soles of your naked feet give you instant feedback if you do something wrong, and they prevent you from going further than you’re ready for. But it was November, and starting to get cold (for LA), so I mostly stuck with my VFFs.

A month after I started, I did 6 miles one week followed by 14 the next. A 130% increase one month after getting off the couch is probably too much in ANY shoes, but in minimalist shoes, it’s a recipe for disaster. The following week I put in 10 more miles with a nagging pain in my right ankle, capped off by pushing my pace in my first 5K, figuring the pain would work itself out. It didn’t. I took a couple days off, tried to run again, and was sidelined for a week. After that, with a lot of great advice from friends on dailymile and Barefoot Ted’s group, I basically started over. I dialed my mileage back to where it was on day one, added more barefoot runs, and stuck strictly to an every-other-day, 10% weekly mileage increase, always mindful of how my leg was feeling.

Michael B. Post PictureAs much as that early episode was no fun, the injury wasn’t serious, and since the beginning of this year I’ve been more or less steadily increasing my mileage, feeling good, and loving it. I’ve had some smaller setbacks, aches and pains, but no serious problems. I ran my first 10K in Februrary (picture to the right is of me chasing what I hope will be my future self – I wanna be that guy in front of me in 40 years, minus the shoes), and am happy to say I significantly improved my pace vs. that Thanksgiving 5K a few months ago. I’ve signed up for a 6K trail run in May and the LA Rock and Roll Half Marathon in October. My longest run so far has been seven miles, and I hope to best that as soon as I kick this pesky cold my kids gave me.

Barefoot running may not be for everyone, and I’m not here to evangelize for the cause. I love running, and I love running barefoot and in Vibrams. My early illusions of being impervious to harm were put to rest pretty quickly, and minimalist running is not without risks. But neither is running no matter what shoes you wear, and this is the path that feels right for me. While I don’t claim to be an expert, if you’re thinking about trying barefoot running, I’d love to talk about it. Or if your interested in trying out some minimalist shoes and want someone to bounce questions off of, I’m happy to chat (feel free to add me as a friend by visiting my dailymile profile).

When I finish that half marathon in October, a full year after this adventure began, I think I’ll be ready to call myself a runner without hesitation. With the amazing circle of support I’ve found on dailymile, I’m pretty confident I’ll make it to that one year mark, and beyond.

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