It is common sense to never talk about politics, sex, religion, or money unless you want to get into an argument. I’d like to add barefoot running to that list.
Barefoot running is undergoing a huge growth since Christopher McDougal wrote “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” in 2009 and since then Vibram, New Balance, Saucony and others have jumped on board with “barefoot” shoes. Vibram has even become so popular that it attracted a class action lawsuit! How is that for a measure of success? At the same time there is a lot of controversy over throwing away your shoes and running barefoot. Not only do barefoot shoes not have the cushioning or protection of normal shoes, there is research that states that running barefoot can lead to injury if adopted incorrectly.
In an article covering the class action lawsuit against Vibram, Ross Tucker from The Science Of Sport stated “everyone should incorporate some barefoot running into their training programme … However, it's probably not for everyone”. I couldn’t agree more. Everyone should do some barefoot running, even if you decide not to throw away your shoes and run like the Tarahumara.
A healthy foot is a strong foot and running barefoot activates a lot of muscles and tendons that don’t get activated or see very little use when running in shoes. Your arches, Achilles, and calf muscles will get a great workout with a minimal amount of barefoot running. You’ll also develop a better stride and discover your natural cadence and stride length. Many runners over-stride and with a low cadence - running barefoot will help train you to run more efficiently.
I run “barefoot”. I use quotes because a Vibram Five Finger is still a shoe as are all the other “barefoot” running shoes. I have been running barefoot for over 18 months now. I think everyone should run barefoot, even just a little bit. So how did I get started with barefoot running?
After an 18 year hiatus, I started running again in August of 2009 when the idea of doing a 70.3 was being bounced around among friends. After signing up for the Ironman Muskoka 70.3, my mileage started to slowly increase, and with more mileage came more injuries: ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome), Plantar Fasciitis, and a mystery pain that baffled even a podiatrist. I tried 5 different sets of shoes with and without orthotics; I tried ART (Active Release Techniques) and even took a month off running after the race. Nothing worked.
I was at my running store ready to try yet another shoe when I was told about a natural running seminar. It was free to attend and I’d get a $25 dollar gift card. Score! Sit through an information seminar and get $25 off my next set of shoes? Can I sign up twice?
I went to the seminar and after 2 hours of information and a few tests (including a short barefoot run) I thought I’d give it a try; it already hurt to run, how much worse could it get? So I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers’ “Bikila,” and after the 3 weeks it took to adjust, I haven’t had any pain while running since - well, other than the self-induced kind.
It was a long process; I didn’t even start racing in the Vibrams until late 2011 with a sprint-tri, and held off on anything longer until early 2012 when I ran a half-marathon. However, I have been running in them full time since October 2011, and will use them to race all distances in the future. If you are interested in trying barefoot running or incorporating it into your training regime, here are a few things I’ve discovered along the way:
- Start slow and build easy: My first run in Five Fingers was 400M, only one lap around the track. It took me a year to make the full transition, during which I switched between Five Fingers and my normal running shoes, so keep your old shoes around for a while.
- Don’t run barefoot two days in a row: In the beginning, you may find that the day after you run your feet, Achilles, and calves may be sore. After my first 3KM run in 2009 I couldn’t walk for two days- the day after my first barefoot run around the track was similar. With lots of stretching and no running two days in a row, I made the transition slowly but injury-free.
- Learn to run: Take it slow and practice proper form and technique to increase efficiency, as demonstrated by running coach Bobby McGee in an earlier TrainingPeaks blog post.
- Ask for help: If you have one, talk to your coach about how to incorporate some barefoot running into your routine. If you are self-coached, there are tons of barefoot resources out there - I’ve found one of the best to be the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab.
Try barefoot running and incorporate it into your routine. It will make you stronger, improve your form, and add some fun to your training program. Even if you continue to run in shoes I believe you’ll be better off in the long run. Just watch out for the dog poop ;)
If you are interested in training regimens that highlight the use of barefoot running, check out Eric Orton's plans in TrainingPeaks' Plans & Exercise Library. Eric is the coach of Chris McDougal, author of the book Born to Run.
From fatman to Ironman, TrainingPeak Ambassador Rodney Buike has been on a journey that has taken him from a 250 lb. couch potato to a lean, not so mean, triathlete. In 2009 Rodney got motivated to become active again after a long hiatus when a friend was paralyzed in a mountain biking accident. Soon Rodney was hooked, losing weight and looking for a reason to keep off the weight over the coming Canadian winter. He looked into triathlon, and Muskoka Ironman 70.3 seemed “reasonable”. After completing his first Sprint triathlon, Rodney went on to a 5:30 finish at Muskoka and has gone on to finish three half iron distance races as well as Ironman Lake Placid. Rodney is gunning for a 70.3 World Championship slot in 2012.