Friday, April 02, 2010

How long does it take to learn to run barefoot?

Okay, foo on me for not writing for over a month.  I don't know when it happened, but something changed in my running experience.  Big change.

In the last post, I was obsessed with stretching, having correct running form, recovery time, etc.  I was about to write a post about how much concentration barefoot running takes compared with shod running.  How I don't listen to music while running because it distracts me from improving my form.  That post ain't gonna happen.

When I run now, I just run.  Shirt, shorts, and away I go.  I don't think about it.  I don't stretch before or afterwards and feel just fine.  What a difference a month can make.

So, how long did it take to learn to run barefoot?  Seems like somewhere around 3 months.

I still have things to learn.  On occasion, it feels like I'm gliding along barely touching the ground.  On other runs, I struggle.  While I don't have to think about form so much anymore, I'm much more aware of how much form matters to enjoying the run.

I don't shy away from unpaved areas, but big gravel is still a challenge.  My feet feel tough as leather (though they still look pretty normal), but an occasional rock will remind me that I'm still not invincible.  I asked my wife if she wanted to feel my feet.  For some reason, she declined.

I'm looking forward to the next three months.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Advice... It's worth what you pay for it

I'm celebrating.  I've had my first week after starting this barefoot running experiment where I have no soreness the day after a run.  Gravel paths have gone from "ouch!" to "interesting...".  I'm thinking it's a good time to reflect on what I've learned getting here.

Before I go into what worked for me, I have to say that this is not advice.  I started this crazy project by reading everything I could from others who'd been there and done it.  Many of them had advice about stride length, body position, arm-swing, name it.  Looking back on my struggles, I'd have to say I would have been better off without reading what I'd read.  I screwed my self up, but good, trying to follow the advice of others.

That said, I think there is possible insight to be gained by reading the struggles of others as a basis for working through problems.

So what worked for me?  After ending up sore trying to follow the advice of others, I came up with a simple rule: If it hurts, try something different until it doesn't.  Yeah, yeah, okay, what about more specifics?  I have a few thoughts below.

Problems and solutions

IssuePresumed CausePresumed Solution
Sore archesWeak foot musclesBarefoot long walks
Sore foot-padsWeak foot and leg musclesBarefoot walks, building running distance slowly
Sore calf muscleWeak calfBuilding running distance slowly (disappeared after a month or so)
Sore calf tendon (Flexor Digitorum Longus)Swinging arms too-far side to sideArms move nearly straight forward/back.  Someone from the Chi Running camp can tell me how I'm screwing up my mechanics on this one.
Sore, tight hamstring (semitendinosus)REALY weak hamstringHamstring stretch, foam roller, hamstring exercises.  I particularly like the single-leg romanian deadlift while holding a weight as it works all the balance muscles in my foot and leg.  
Tight, painful back musclesHolding muscles tight during runningFocusing on relaxing during running -- keeping spine straight and vertical, relaxing abdomen.

One might ask, did all this need fixing?  That is, if I was just running in shoes, would this be necessary?  Some of it, like the tight back muscles was a problem when running with shoes as well.  I'm banking a bit on the research that indicates better long term joint durability from running barefoot.  And how can I complain about having stronger feet and legs with better balance?

I'd love to hear about other's experiences of failures and triumphs. Feel free to comment, or send links to your blogs to

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Between work and new baby, I'm finding it hard to get in as many runs as I'd like.  I'm finding that just walking barefoot helps tremendously in keeping my feet muscles strong and soles tough.

As I leave the house for a stroll with Liam, I'm hearing my wife's words echo in my head. "They won't let you into ____", where ____ is whatever store I'm on my way to -- Whole Foods, the taqueria, etc.  I worry on my trip that she may be right.  Am I going to come home grocery-less and sans burritos?  A complete failure as a father?  My wife was good enough to take a picture of this failure-in-making on my way out the door.

I'm thinking at some point in history, bare feet became associated with poor or crazy or both.  Poor because you're crazy, or crazy because you're poor.  Any shopkeep worth their salt would do their darndest to keep these miscreants out.  The good news seems to be that times have changed, at least here in San Francisco.

Whole Foods?  Nothing but broad smiles and "What can I help you find?".  Taqueria?  Two burritos, no waiting.  Ha-ha!  Now mad with power, I'm going barefoot everywhere on the weekends.  I got in 5'ish miles last weekend tootling around the city.

My wife is still not particularly happy being seen with me.  She let me know this in no uncertain terms during last weekend's trip to a furniture store.  She claimed that nobody approached to help us because she was with a crazy man.  Maybe.  I interpreted it as politely waiting to help us at the slightest indication.  This is still the topic of lively debate.  If anyone knows folks who work at Room and Board in San Francisco, please ask them and let me know.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Barefoot Running in Nature

Maybe I'm suffering the wrath of Benjamin Franklin's ghost for invoking his words in the context of barefoot running.  I'm awake in the middle of the night.  Apparently, ol' Ben used to take "cold air baths" reading naked in a chair in the middle of the night.   Thanks Ben.  On the other hand, this might be normal.

But here, in the middle of the night, watching YouTube, not quite naked, in a chair, I came across this video on barefoot running from Nature.

You might want to watch it on YouTube directly in it's full 720p glory.  It has some nice footage of forefoot strike running verses heel strike running.

After a bit of searching the interwebs, I found that this professor has a site with even more on the subject.  Notice, though, the disclaimer at the bottom of the page that this research -- and therefore the video -- is sponsored by Vibram, makers of the Fivefingers footware.  That said, I didn't find too much bias in the information presented and would recommend the read.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Safety or Freedom

I've taken a week off and just started running again yesterday.  Torrential rains plus having gone a bit too far too fast and being sore for it convinced me to take a week off and reflect on progress.  Let's go through an inventory:
  • Fewer aches and pains?  I'd have to say that they've only moved.  My feet feel better than running with shoes.  Hamstrings are tighter and seem to be getting more of a workout.  IT-band issues about the same.  
  • Faster?  Maybe.  I'm still going such short distances (2+ miles) it's hard to say.  My comfortable pace is still pretty slow at around 7 to 7.5 mi/hr.
  • More fun?  Yes with bare feet, maybe not with the Vibrams.
Maybe the novelty will wear off, but the barefoot experience is still exhilarating.  My feet tell me a lot about how fast I can safely run.  I get a thrill from feeling the temperature and texture of the concrete, rocks, sticks, etc.  It takes my full concentration looking for obstacles, landing gently, etc.

Gravel paths are still challenging

With the Vibrams, it's closer to the shod experience.  I'm more likely to get lazy and revert to poor form.  I don't get the input from the environment.

Ben Franklin is often paraphrased about those who choose safety over freedom deserve neither.  Is the same true for running?   It's probably a stretch, but I'm leaning towards more barefoot fewer Vibram runs.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Quick Check-in
Where am I?  This week was my longest barefoot run to date at a whopping 2.5 miles.  Here's the summary:

Jan 6
Jan 8
2.04 mi @ 6.4 mi/hr
2.54 mi @ 7.6 mi/hr
Warm, dry pavement
Cold, wet, pavement + gravel trail
Issues running
Pain in right knee, right groin muscle, left achilles
Feet stinging
Post run issues

Slight detour -- I've been using Cardio Trainer on my Nexus One to track miles and pace.  The app also tracks elevation change and has some other nifty features, but I'd have to say that the killer feature is that it talks.  I was actually shocked to hear it the first time I used it.  I was running along and after a bit it called out my pace.  A bit later, it called out the distance I'd gone.  I've used a Garmin wrist GPS before, but the talking aspect is much better as I don't have to focus on a small screen as I run.

Back to the main program.  The good news is that my feet performed like champs.  Or alternatively, I've learned to be gentle on them.  The cold and wet is a bit uncomfortable, but the dry pavement feels great.

In the 'not so great' category, I've got work to do on being gentle on the rest of my drive-train.  During the run, my knees felt tight and my right groin muscle felt like I'd pulled it.  I'm not sure if it's technique, weak muscles, not enough stretching (or too much stretching?).  Time will tell.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

True Love

Is there anything as wonderful in life than to be totally and unconditionally supported by someone?  I think not.  I wasn't expecting to find someone other than my parents who I could include in this category, but then I met my lovely wife.

As previously reported, like 99%+ of the rest of the country, my wife thinks barefoot running is crazy.  And yet, on Christmas morning, I was given a single box containing not one but two (count 'em, two!) pairs of Vibram Five Fingers shoes.  A pair of each the Sprints and the KSOs.  Can you say kid in a candy store?  I was shocked.

I was particularly shocked because the Five Fingers have a very precise sizing system which requires you measuring your feet with a ruler.  Did she just guess?  Measure my feet in my sleep?  Nope.  Measured the impression on my shoe insoles.  Very clever, that wife of mine.

She got it as right as she could have if she'd measured my feet directly.  But still not quite right.  Why?  My right foot comes out at just a hair over 11 inches but my left foot is right at 10.5 inches.  I never knew.  Total freak-show.  I'm off to join the circus.  "Come see the man with different sized feet!"  Okay, maybe it's not that uncommon to have different foot sizes.  I've read somewhere of a barefooter reporting that his shoe size gradually shrank as the muscles in his feet grew stronger.  Maybe mine will even out eventually.

I'd worn them all morning, but had been too busy putting together our Christmas feast to take them on the road.  With the turkey in the oven, I had a bit of time to kill.  My brother, though 2 inches taller, has almost the same foot-size.  He took the KSOs and I the Sprints.

Yeah, I'm the shrimp at 6' 2"+.

How do I like them?  I like them very much.  They let my feet flex and roll very much like with no shoes at all and protect my feet from all but the biggest bumps.  They're also possibly the most grip-ey foot ware I've ever put on -- they corner like crazy.  Gone are the worries of broken glass, splinters, gravel, and road-borne toxins.

On the downside, it isn't like running barefoot.  I can't feel the concrete and don't get as much feedback from my feet on how to land lightly.  There's still some sense of breaking the mold and stickin' it to da man, but not like being bare.

And then there's the problem of my long right foot.  What problem could this possibly cause?  Well...the amazingly sticky tread covers the front of the big toe.  In my first outing, I lost concentration for a bit and dragged my big toe.  My toe curled under and errrrrrrip!

No damage to my toe, mind you.  Is this a design flaw, an anatomical defect, a lapse in concentration or a perfect storm of all three?  I'm not sure, but it's happened on two separate runs so I'm beginning to think it isn't a random happening.  I am finding that concentration is one of the keys that I'm developing in barefoot running.  More on that later.

And my brother?  I was surprised when he told me that he felt like his toes were being spread more than in his regular shoes but otherwise didn't notice much difference.  He's been following his own path of running discovery and trying to incorporate Tai Chi teachings.  More on that later as well.

I'm excited to run in the Vibrams again today.  I think I'll mix it up with some completely barefoot and some Five Finger runs.  Each have advantages and drawbacks.  I'll have to see if one ends up winning.