Friday, April 29, 2011

I'm Still Barefooting

It's been more than a year now since that first barefooting experience. In that time I've gotten into shape, slipped out of shape, and gotten going again. Most of my running was in the Vibram Five Finger KSOs, but I did some barefooting as well. After overdoing it and tearing up my feet, I was much more cautious. I never ran two days in a row barefoot, and never more than five miles. It worked okay.

My speed has fallen off a cliff compared to three or four years ago. I wanted to try to run in the Club Northwest All-Comers meets this year, so I started doing some track intervals in my VFFs in November. It was unpleasant. Trying to go fast used all sorts of muscles I hadn't used in many months, and the 30-ish degree weather didn't help. I struggled to do 400m in 90 seconds and regretted it afterwards, muscles strained, unable to recover between intervals.

I took January off.

Last year we had a very mild February. This year it stayed cold, most days staying below 40 degrees. I did some working out and kept waiting for it to warm up a little so I could start barefooting. Didn't happen. At the beginning of March I got tired of waiting, so on a 43 degree morning I took off the shoes and just started running.

I haven't worn shoes in a workout since then, not even my Five Fingers.

It turns out my feet don't get cold. The increased blood flow when I'm running? Maybe. My hands get cold, but not my feet.

My bare feet must look pretty silly when I'm wearing a hat, tights, and a long sleeve shirt, but it works for me. It's only been over 50 degrees three or four times when I've run, but my feet have never been a problem. I'm still doing track workouts, and in addition to my moderate 4-mile runs I have added one long run a week and even some trail running, all without shoes.

The trail running is still a challenge, especially when it gets rocky. The worst is crushed gravel which is just brutal on my feet, and sometimes I have to run on the side of the trail to get away from it. Downhill is worse than uphill because you land with extra force. I'm still learning how to trail run. I'm sure I'll get better.

The most important thing, I think, is that I've given up the idea that I can't run barefoot every day. That was a self-fulfilling prophecy in that I wasn't putting in enough miles to toughen up my feet, so my feet never got tough enough to take the mileage.

I started with shorter runs, nothing over 4 miles for several weeks. My barefoot track workouts were very short, too, so even though I was running five or six times a week, I was only covering maybe 15 miles. Now my feet have toughened up. Last year after my overzealous 11 mile run my feet were torn up and I did no barefooting at all for several weeks while they healed. Yesterday I ran 11 with no problems, and I'll be on the track again tonight.

My feet are strong. The pads on the outside of my feet and balls of my toes continue to toughen. It will take some really bad conditions to make me put on my Vibrams for a run now.

A few things I  have noticed:
  • Yes, it still hurts when I step on a thorn or sharp rock, though I have a midfoot strike, so if it's on my heel it doesn't really affect me at all. Still, it can hurt, so I try to avoid them. I also avoid dog, horse, and goose poop. I'm not stupid.
  • I usually run on pavement, but my favorite thing is a compact, rock-free dirt path that is still damp from the rain. Grass is okay, but it hides rocks and uneven ground, so it can be a challenge to run on. But don't fear the pavement; I especially like freshly laid asphalt: it feels great.
  • Everything below your skull is just a giant spring. Don't run stiff. Relax, let your joints bend, and settle into your stride. Your joints, tendons, and muscles are made to trot, but you have to relax and let them do their work.
  • My turnover has increased, and my stride has shortened.
  • My endurance has improved. I attribute this largely to actively using my lower legs. When I ran in shoes I had a tendency to use my lower legs like inanimate pendulums, just throwing my feet out there and letting the shoes absorb the impact. That also meant that I was losing a lot of energy into the padding of the shoes. Now my lower legs are more involved and that energy is returned to my stride, making me more efficient. I'm no speed demon, but when I ran yesterday I had as much bounce in my 11th mile as I did in my first.
  • Running barefoot is more pleasant than walking barefoot. I don't know if it's the increased blood flow or the endorphins or what, but many things that bother my feet walking around before or after a run I barely notice during the run. 
I love barefooting. I don't even like the idea of running in Vibrams anymore. A few words of caution, however, if you're starting out.
  • You are developing two things: the pads on your feet, and the muscles in your legs and feet. Both those things require time and patience.
  • Barefoot every day - as often as you can, anyway. That's how you'll build up the pads in your feet.
  • Treat yourself like you're injured. The longer you've been running in padded shoes the more atrophied your lower legs will be. It took me months of minimalist running to getting my lower legs healthy again. Take your time. Don't rush.
  • Drastically cut your mileage. One barefoot mile is a long way if you've never done it before. Start with one mile as a workout, and don't be embarrassed about stopping.
  • Find a smooth, level place to run. You don't want to do hill work with atrophied legs. Artificial turf soccer fields are great. Natural grass, too, if they're not too rocky. A paved path, something smooth enough for rollerblading works well, too (that's what I started with).
  • Check your ego at the door. You will slow down. If you overdo it you will get transition injuries. Barefooting is a lifestyle change, not a miracle cure.

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