Six months or so ago, a colleague from our Zurich office asked me if I knew anything about the Vibram Five Fingers
shoes. "Huh...that's crazy", I thought, "running shoes with toes" and filed it away with other sports-gear that I wanted to possess but which would end up rotting in a box in the garage.
Fast forward five months and I'm failing to deal with lack of sleep with the birth of my first child. During paternity leave, my wife decided my go-to pair of running shoes do not in fact go with every outfit and make me a very un-hip looking dad. My wife and I were always at odds over my footware. I had a history of rejecting any shoe that met her euro-sensible, art-school-fab criteria. They were uncomfortable. They lacked the arch support and padding my big feet needed.
Maybe it was lack of sleep. Maybe just a desire to please the new mother. Maybe her challenge to "man up and wear some stylish shoes dammit!" finally got to me, but I tried to take her request seriously. Her analysis of the situation was that my feet were weak and just needed time to get used to any shoe. From her experience with women's shoes, you break in her feet, not the shoe.
Were my feet weak? How could this be? I'd done long back-packing trips with heavy packs. Races on steep mountain trails. Triathlons. All without any foot issues to speak of. It just didn't make sense. But it deserved some research.
Somewhere along my internet spelunking I came across an article
from 2001 that claimed that populations that wear no shoes at all
have the healthiest feet. Yeah, but what about for running? Surely you need protection for running! Apparently not. And apparently this was all old news and there were many crazy folks
in first-world countries running around barefoot.
The core arguments around barefoot running go something like this:
- Padding in your shoes insulates your foot from the ground and encourages you to place your foot incorrectly.
- Heel padding allows you to lengthen your stride and strike with your heel ahead of your body causing greatly increased stress on your foot, ankle, knee, and on up the chain.
- With an unshod foot you cannot heel-strike (it hurts!). Instead, you land on the ball of your foot and absorb the landing through the length of your foot, Achilles tendon, and calf muscle as you more gently contact ground with heel.
I decided to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. My wife will tell you that I'm an avid cult joiner, infomercial purchaser, and food fad follower. I'm going to try to stay objective, track my progress, and arrive at a verdict on barefoot running -- brilliant or bunk.
So how's it going so far? After a month on paternity leave going barefoot to start building some strength, I have to admit my wife may have been correct. (Not about everything -- last week she claimed to have a longer intestine than I do. But really, why would I argue about that?) I'm now sporting a pair of wife-approved footwear in comfort. No regrets.
Running? I've tried to go slow running 10 to 15 minutes twice a week. I imagined that running on pavement with bare feet would tear them up. Minus a pine-cone splinter, which I could have avoided, there have been no issues. My calves, however, needed work. I was laid up for a week after my first 15 minute run, hobbling around like an old man.
Three weeks of running later and the calves don't complain. I'm struggling a bit with other pains further up my legs and don't feel I can add distance yet. Here's to hoping to report advances in future posts.
Why a confessional? The average person, even here in San Francisco, has a strong reaction to seeing bare feet in public. When running I've gotten mostly smiles as if to say "oh, you're a kook!" and a few who exclaim out loud something like "you forgot something!". I do
feel like I've joined a cult, have shaved my head, and am walking the earth in flowing robes. When I run at work, I take routes where I won't see too many co-workers.
So here I go unloading my conscience to the world. It does feel like a guilty pleasure trolling the neighborhood in bare feet, rolling back the clock to childhood and doing something I'm not supposed to do. My bet is this will make me stick with it.