Monday, September 12, 2011

Why barefoot running? Part I: Physical evolution & benefits

I have been running in more and more minimal shoes for the past couple of years and experimenting with running completely barefoot. This started when I had a video analysis of my running gait at the Running Revolution in Santa Cruz, California back in 2009. Although I have had folks in running shoe stores tell me previously that I had a neutral gait, I always ran in stability shoes and found that I got injured if I tried to run in neutral cushioned shoes. However, the video analysis made it very obvious that I do not overpronate.


The primary reason I ran in stability shoes (my favorites were Brooks Adrenaline) was because they were “harder.” That is, not so cushioned. And it was, in fact, the cushioning that caused me trouble. I didn’t need the cushioning and it made my footfall so unstable that my IT band and hamstrings would have to compensate and that’s when I would get injured. However, now armed with this new information, I began to experiment with new shoe models. I tried Brooks Trance which were pretty good (a new category for Brooks, called “guidance” which was between stability and neutral). I tried Nike Lunars whose neutrality was great, but whose cushioning (way too much) was horrible. I didn’t even put 200 miles on them. Then I tried a pair of Newton Gravity’s which I quite liked as shoes and definitely increased my pace with no extra effort on my part. Unfortunately, the underforefoot piece that stuck out caused some serious falls (see May 2010 when I was living in Lubumbashi) on the uneven terrain I had to navigate. Then I tried Brooks Green Silence which are both neutral and “hard”—they are marketed as a “performance training” shoe and have little cushion and little extra support. Those were quite good and eventually became my main shoes. Throughout this experimentation period, I also bought Vibram FiveFingers and later a pair of VivoBarefoot Evos (both very minimal shoes-little or no padding, no support). Actually my first pair of Vibrams were bought when I was in the Solomon Islands in 2008 and I have run in them off and on since that time, but always thought that I needed “real shoes” for long runs. Simultaneous to my own experimentation, the running shoe industry has been changing and this past winter/spring several companies came out with minimal shoes. Before leaving the US for Namibia, I got a pair of New Balance Minimus Road shoes (those did not work for me) and a pair of Merrell Trail shoes (first the Pure Gloves which injured my Achilles tendon and then the Lithe Gloves which I haven’t run in much yet, but I think may work out).


I started to notice something during this period of experimentation. When I ran in the Vibrams or Evos, my back didn’t hurt. I have had an off and on chronic lower back issue—the flaring up of an old injury. It is often resolved by getting some deep tissue massage or physiotherapy, but it will come back when I increase mileage or overdo it. But even when it was flared up, if I ran in the Vibrams, I had no pain during or after the run.


Last year, when I was living in Lubumbashi, I would try to run all my shorter runs in the VFFs. The roads were horrible—rocky, full of holes, etc.—so I thought I couldn’t run barefoot. I ran barefoot on the beach when I was on vacation in Zanzibar and again in Diani Beach, Kenya. I really liked it but felt my feet were so tender! When I was back in the US last winter, it was very cold for my feet, but as Spring started to peek out from under the cold, I again was using VFFs for shorter runs. By the time I was getting ready to come to Namibia last March, the Brooks Green Silence had become my “long run” shoes—a far cry from the Adrenalines!


The big advantage of these more minimal shoes for me is that they give me the firm feel I have always been wanting without the unnecessary support. So I am able to get back to my natural gait and, it seems, this is resolving the issue with my lower back. As I’ve mentioned on this blog, I’ve been wanting to go completely barefoot, but was training for a marathon and dealing with winter here in Katima, which was cold enough in the early mornings to make running barefoot very uncomfortable. Why bare feet? In part, because all of the advice I have read says that the best way to perfect your form is to go completely barefoot. I know that now I can really feel how much padding the VFF Bikilas have compared to some other more minimal shoes I have (Luna sandals and now my new SoftStar Moc3s). When I have experimented with running barefoot, I have to run more slowly and mindfully than when I wear the VFFs. This means that the VFFs are not only protecting my feet, but they are allowing me to run less attentively, less naturally. Now that the marathon is behind me, I’m committed to running as often as possible completely bare. This past week, this meant on the weekends, when I can run later in the morning when it is warmer. If the temperature is in the 50s F in the early mornings, my feet go numb and this is not good. When it is too cold to go completely bare, I use either my Luna sandals or my Moc3s, which are the most minimal shoes I have and seem to change my form the least.


I also now walk barefoot or in minimal sandals as much as possible. This helps condition my feet and muscles. I no longer have any calf pain and my feet, ankles and legs are quite well conditioned. Also, the bottoms of my feet are getting less callused and more leathery and padded/fatter. My proprioception is very good just from living and running on trails and in Africa where the road is not smooth and predictable, but it has definitely gotten better through barefoot running. I don’t always know how to change my gait, but I am keenly aware of exactly what my feet, ankles and calves are doing. These are very good developments.


So that has been my physical evolution—from stability shoes to very minimal shoes and soon bare feet. My current goal is to build up to be able to run a half-marathon in bare feet. Perhaps after that, I will shoot for a marathon, but we shall see. On a related note, I am also using Phil Maffetone’s MAF method (maximum aerobic function) and running with a heart rate monitor for the first time in my life—to run much slower than usual. My range should be 126-136 bpm which looks like it will be between 10:30 and 11:30 min/mi pace at the moment. Maffetone’s idea is that you will start out quite slow, but as you increase your aerobic conditioning, your pace at the same heart rate will increase. This will make me more aerobically efficient and, hopefully, faster. The added benefit is that slowing down helps me stay more mindful as I run barefoot.


In the next post, I will write about the spiritual aspects of barefooting.

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