Running Barefoot

A few months ago, an interesting headline about how we evolved to run made the news: http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/

I've always been a "heel plodder", but my friend Dave has always been a good runner, and once ran a marathon in 4:10 despite only 2 weeks training and otherwise being in pretty poor shape. He always runs "on his toes" - so I decided that if I want to become a better runner, I too need to learn to run "on my toes".

So I decided to start trying to run on my toes, in my normal shoes, so that my calve muscles would get stronger. Initially, my calve muscles would be tight - but I was expecting this and thought they just needed time to get stronger (wrong!).

I got blisters under my big toes from the wear and tear there. But, I thought, "that's also expected - my feet and muscles have to toughen up" (also wrong!).

Then one day in the gym, I tried running on the treadmill wearing just my socks. It was a revelation. My heel was able to reach the ground, whereas in normal running shoes, because of the padded foam underneath the heel, I was always having to run "too much on my toes".

However, about a day later, I could barely walk - because my foot hurt so much! I later learnt that this was because you need to build up slowly, and most importantly, running on the cushioned surface of the treadmill meant that it did not hurt immediately when I was running with poor style - it only hurt a day or so later.

But I really wanted to start running in some shoes that let my heel go all the way to the ground. If you're landing on the ball of your foot, heel cushioning just gets in the way. So I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I went out for a few runs in these, but would always get quite a big blister under my big toe in a very short amount of time, and the ligaments in my foot would often end up very tight. So I switched back to my normal Asics trainers for a bit. Then, after a particular fast "sprint" in which I really went up on my toes, I found that the base of my left index toe was really tender and sore.

So hopefully you're getting the idea that in my attempts to transition gradually to a more natural running style, I was always injuring my feet.

OK so what's the upshot of all this?

I should have just started running barefoot, completely barefoot, from the very beginning.

If you want to learn to run properly in Vibram Five Fingers, learn to run barefoot first. Preferably on hard ground like pavement (not soft ground like grass). The "rougher" the terrain you try to run barefoot on, the more quickly you will learn how to run properly, in a way that does not damage your feet.

This is actually the established advice on websites such as http://therunningbarefoot.com/, founded by legendary barefoot runner Ken Bob Saxton. Above all, it should never hurt. It's not a case of "toughening up" your feet. Even your calve muscles should not get tight (this is caused by your heel not going all the way to the ground). The analogy he gives goes like this: While a deaf person can learn to speak, but generally not very well, people who can actually hear can sing! Running with shoes is like trying to learn how to sing while being deaf. We have to listen to the soles of our feet, which give constant feedback on whether you are running properly or not.

I started going for short runs (5-10 minutes) around Canary Wharf, slowly, completely barefoot. For the first time, the injuries in my feet started to improve (they are fine now!)

I'm still a beginner at this - but yesterday I ran 5.4 km at a pretty fast pace, and it was a turning point because I think I actually ran faster and with less effort than when I was wearing shoes. The movement felt so natural! I felt a sense of joy at the way it felt to run this way. My feet felt alive!

Oh and one other thing - people always ask about broken glass. So far, it hasn't been a problem. I keep my eyes open of course, I certainly don't try to run over broken glass. But if you are running "softly" then it seems you can even run right on top of small particles of glass and they don't get stuck in your feet. I've done enough running that I almost certainly have run over some small bits of glass (unintentionally) but it has not been a problem.

Here's a picture of the sole of my foot now. As you can see, there are no callouses or blisters. I can tell you that the skin actually feels softer - I think this is because there is a layer of subcutaneous fat that is developing giving me additional padding (and the skin seems thicker). My feet in general feel more flexible and supple, but also stronger:

I'm never going back to trainers - although I may wear some Vibram Five Fingers when it gets colder.

If you're interested,  I recommend you read this page and this page for some very good advice from one of the masters - then take off your shoes and give it a try!

 

This page last modified on