Throwback Thursday. This week’s throwback article comes from our Jan/Feb 2012 edition, #5 in the archives. Back then fledging writer EJN provides a personal expose into barefoot running.
Barefoot Running: a foray into minimalism
Runners’ feet are disgusting. As much as Rex Ryan and Quentin Tarantino love feet, even they would shy away from the thick callouses and black toenails that are often found on the feet of any frequent pavement pounder. Looks aside, the human foot is quite a remarkable structure. Let’s take a look inside: 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments. A couple of these come together to form the arch which is capable of absorbing a lot of shock and the force of lugging around the human body (and fuel belts, iPods, etc.) for mile after mile. Considering all these levers, cams, and pulleys, the foot seems less like a body part and more like a freakin’ machine on the bottom of the leg.
The foot, with all its impressive qualities, is still treated as a point of weakness by many. With barefoot running gaining in popularity the debate on this topic has crossed over into the mainstream. Barefoot running (or minimalist running in general) may not be for everybody but it’s hard to argue with the impact it’s having on the running scene today. Manufacturers are locked into a minimalist arms race, trying to see who can provide the best barefoot experience while still getting you to part ways with your hard earned cash. Be it a revolution or a fad, odds are you’ll see someone embracing it at any given race or over the course of any given training run.
Why not go barefoot? It’s not as if Phil Knight developed Air Max technology to entice our ancestors to stop dragging their damn knuckles and stand upright. People went running without shoes for quite some time and we were able to avoid extinction. Drawing from personal experience, I’ve come to realize that most podiatrists and orthopedists will suggest aiding the foot (and the arch specifically) with supports for any sign of weakness. If this great support structure isn’t strong enough, then wouldn’t it make sense to strengthen it? Instead, they all seem to want to jam some insert under it, like using a crutch to prop up Tiny Tim.
For as long as I can remember I never really felt comfortable running. I would go out on my training runs with my heavy trainers (and arch support inserts) and heavy stride and wonder why I never felt fast, never felt like I could just flick a switch and run somewhere near race pace. It wasn’t until race day or maybe an interval workout, where I’d have the flats on, that I’d feel so light and free…and fast. Since I wasn’t used to running more up on my toes I would typically feel extremely sore after races and faster workouts and couldn’t handle doing them too often without breaking down.
For some reason I never questioned why I trained in a different style than I raced. After all, how well can you be preparing yourself for a race if 95% of the preparation is done using different mechanics? It makes about as much sense as Roy Halladay preparing for the season throwing sidearm and then switching back to his normal overhand toss for games.
What I learned about barefoot running was that by shortening the stride and landing on the forefoot, the natural shock absorption abilities of the feet would take over and the shorter stride would lead to a faster turnover. Whereas when heel striking, all that shock that would’ve been absorbed by my feet and calves was shooting into my knees and back. Another key point that got my attention is that the more shoe you have on your feet, the harder you land on them. The extra cushioning in the shoes absorbs some of it, but you’re still subjecting your body to more shock than it was meant to handle. My back seemed to be stiff quite often and when I went in for routine massages the lumps throughout the legs were out of control. By switching to the forefoot stride my massage therapist and I started to feel the difference in the way that my legs weren’t feeling nearly as beat up anymore. Gone were the days of struggling to find a good rhythm on training runs. Now every run felt great, like a religious experience. On pretty much every run I was starting to feel like I could throw down.
I do admit that it seems kind of lame that I ran out and bought a copy of Born to Run and immediately started in on this trend after finishing the book, but it really struck a chord with me. It made me think back to how I usually felt heavy-footed on training runs and that maybe there was a better way. Eventually this lead me to buy a pair of Vibrams.
Now I didn’t run out and buy Vibrams nearly as quickly as the book, but with a lack of soft trails in the city I decided that it could help me take this experiment a step further if I picked up a pair. What I’ve come to realize about Vibrams is that they are quite possibly the most polarizing piece of equipment in all of sports. Runner, non-runners, and even the sales people at shoe stores all have their opinions and not all of them are intelligent or even remotely helpful. Even the very act of buying them proved to be diabolical as the salesperson at this particular running specialty store tried to talk me out of it in a condescending tone.
I view the shoe as nothing more than a tool to use to help build up strength in the feet. Luckily I’ve only had one forgettable encounter with my Vibrams. I was on my way home from work, backpack strapped to my shoulders and Vibrams strapped to my feet when I happened to come across this “gentleman” who didn’t appreciate my footwear. He looked down at my feet, then looked me in the eye and said something along the lines of “you’ve got to be kidding me” then scowled at me. I was shocked mainly because that was uncalled for and also because I wasn’t sure exactly what he said. I was tempted to shout a reply back to him or worse chase him down and toss him into the river, but I opted to keep going. This guy had poser written all over him, which only infuriated me more. I was positive that if I raced him then and there, even with the backpack and Vibrams, I would’ve beaten him so bad that I would’ve been granted prima nocte with his woman.
Still I was hesitant about what I was doing, so I attended a barefoot running clinic put on by Marathon Sports and Newton Running. In attendance was Zola Budd, who was quite successful on the international stage as a barefoot runner. I was lucky enough to get to talk shop with her there, and she took a look at my stride and let me know that I was on the right track. With renewed confidence I steadily built in more miles landing on my forefoot and in lighter shoes until I finally got to the point where I only felt comfortable wearing racing flats on runs.
I must confess that I haven’t done much actual barefoot running. According to my training log, I think I’ve only logged about 10-12 miles of pure barefoot running but I don’t see a need to do more because I really don’t think going completely barefoot would work for me. I just view those precious few opportunities to kick off the shoes and get at it as a way of perfecting the technique and further strengthening the feet. Looping lush grassy fields with nothing but a pair of short shorts separating you from an indecent exposure arrest feels so good that it almost seems criminal to put the shoes and socks back on to run home.
Racing flats are the perfect compromise: the light feel of running barefoot but also the basic surface protection of a shoe. One theme that kept popping up when reading about the golden years of Shorter and Gang was that they barely had anything on their feet. This was before running shoes beefed up and became a big business, and not only did runners get along well without them but they seemed to flourish. Injuries just didn’t seem to be as commonplace. I recall reading an interview with one gentleman who went so far as to say that nobody ever got hurt.** I take that with a grain of salt, but it really meshed with the rest of the information I was picking up that was steering me toward minimalist running.
Perhaps I’ve been too cautious in my own experiment and that in and of itself has lead to some issues. Since I was hesitant to dive headfirst into it, I pretty much ran through the winter in the heavier shoes thinking they were better suited for the snow. Is the minimalist approach better in terrible conditions? Personally, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I definitely tweaked my calf a bit slippin and sliddin in the snow and ice in those heavy trainers. Shortening up the stride and landing on your forefoot seems like it would be a safer, more efficient method for handling such conditions but I can’t speak from personal experience just yet.
This minimalist movement is not for everybody and that’s understandable. We spend so much of our time in shoes that the idea of going without just seems ridiculous. If you want to or even if you feel that you need the shoes with all the bells and whistles, fine. The problem I have with that is when people talk about needing shoes or supports because of whatever issue with their feet, it always seems to stop at the shoes. It doesn’t make any sense that they wouldn’t try to strengthen any areas that might be weak. Minimalist running kind of forces you to address those areas and I think this will make you a stronger runner in the long haul.
I’m on board with this movement and it’s hard to hide my bias. I’m currently waist deep in my own experiment and I think it’s working. I’ve had some setbacks that I’m currently trying to get over, but I don’t think the minimalist approach is entirely to blame. It brought attention to strength imbalances and areas of weakness in my body and I’m confident that once those issues have been addressed I’ll be back running better than ever.
Eric Narcisi runs is the web director for this illustrious publication.
**Editor’s Note: that interview came from a Christopher McDougall article in the New York Times entitled “The Once and Future Way to Run.” The gentleman Narcisi recalled: Amby Burfoot. Here is what McDougall wrote: “Back in the ’60s, Americans ‘ran way more and way faster in the thinnest little shoes, and we never got hurt,’ Amby Burfoot, a longtime Runner’s World editor and former Boston Marathon champion, said during a talk before the Lehigh Valley Half-Marathon I attended last year. “I never even remember talking about injuries back then,” Burfoot said. “So you’ve got to wonder what’s changed.” To access the full article go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/magazine/running-christopher-mcdougall.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
If you would like to read more of the Jan/Feb 2012 issue, click here.