I was hesitant to hop on the barefoot running bandwagon. I thought it sounded like the newest marketing campaign, on par with Sketchers Shape-Ups. A couple months after making the transition, however, I can’t help but sing its praises. It certainly took some getting used to, and I still can’t brag about being a pro, but I do believe that “going barefoot” has revolutionized my approach to not just running, but also hiking, interacting with nature, and in a way, living, in general.
If you’re considering getting started, now is the time. The transition doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) rapid, but if you begin easing into it day by day, I think you’ll find the results to be remarkable.
I’ve been using Vibram FiveFingers Women’s Sprint for the past few months now, and I’ve already noticed a transformation:
- I enjoy running. I look forward to it. It has turned something that used to be a chore into playtime. It feels childlike and free.
- I run in a different way. I’ve transitioned from heel striking to forefoot striking. Medically speaking, this is a healthier and more sustainable form of running.
- Because of this, my stride is smaller and quicker. Instead of feeling like I am hurtling my body forward, I am in control.
- I have an increased sense of balance, better posture.
- I prefer trail-running. With such little material between your skin and the earth, every rock and crevice is something to explore. Natural texture is enjoyable, pavement is boring.
- My feet are stronger. I notice more muscles, more flexibility (my toes spread wider, bend back farther). Incidentally, my skin is also smoother. The abrasion of the vibrams on my feet seems to have worn away any calluses.
When you think about it, running on top of a few inches of padding seems counterintuitive, and even dangerous. By overprotecting our feet, we are weakening the muscles and bones inside our feet. At the same time, the padding provides a false sense of security. We feel safe running with a forceful landing.
On the contrary, barefoot shoes force you to feel the impact of every landing. We become more conscious of our movement, of what inherently hurts and feels good, and if we listen to bodies, we will be more in tune with what is safe and unsafe.
If the barefoot philosophy is all about reducing equipment in order to connect us more with our surroundings, it seems contrary that it would require another purchase. Unfortunately, unless you are able to run on a beach or on another clean surface, some kind of barrier is necessary to prevent cuts and lacerations (of course, there are some examples of people running extraordinarily long distances completely barefoot).
If you were to invest in one “barefoot shoe,” I would suggest Vibrams. I’ve been alternating between the Vibram FiveFinger Women’s Sprint and the New Balance Minimus. The alternation between the two has worked well for me, but the Vibrams are definitely more versatile (for example, after my run yesterday, I jumped in the pool, vibrams still on!) and a little more playful (who wouldn’t want to pick things up with their feet?).
Making the transition
The transition was tough for me. To begin with, I had only been running for a little while before making the switch. I’m not sure if this was a good or bad thing, because while I had very little endurance, I also don’t think I’d done too much damage yet running in the wrong shoes. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s ever too late to switch.
My transition schedule fell pretty close to what Vibram recommends.
1st day: wore the Vibrams around the houseoutside for about 20 minutes. Very bizarre feeling. They felt very thick between my toes, very tight on both my heel and the tips of my toes, etc.
2nd day: same thing, just added about 20 minutes.
Continued with this pattern for the first two weeks, while continuing my training for my half-marathon in my old shoes.
After the second week, I slipped my vibrams on for 10% of my 4 mile-run (i.e. .4 miles). It was certainly tough because I tried forefoot striking, and my calves definitely felt the difference. The next day, I was crippled by the pain in my calves. I had to take the day off.
The day after, I ran 20% of a 4 mile-run in my vibrams (.8 miles). Still very painful. Slow run.
About a week into it, I had to stop running completely for three days. I was having trouble walking around the house because my calves were so sore and I had horrible blisters on my heels.
I was worried that I might have injured myself, but after doing some research, it seems like this kind of pain is normal. Our calves get little to no exercise on a daily basis, and running a mile with forefoot striking feels like the equivalent of doing one thousand heel lifts.
After taking some time off to let my calves recover, I got back on the training plan and followed the same pattern: adding 10% more vibram distance every other day. On days where my calves felt fine but my blisters were still bothering me, I just ran barefoot on my treadmill (pretty fun until the tread gets hot) or wore socks with the NB Minimus.
Don’t have expectations of running faster than your normally do. If anything, I think my vibrams slow me down. It’s a trade-off. I have become more in tune with my surroundings, more aware of my body, and that tells me I probably can’t push as hard as I thought I could before. Though I don’t have any long-term data to back this up, I hypothesize that barefoot running is a more sustainable, more natural, and more enjoyable endeavor than many people realize.