I’ll admit that I’ve been a skeptic of the whole “barefoot running”/Vibram Five fingers movement that’s been sweeping the running world over the last few years. My parents bought me a copy of Born to Run for Christmas and Raffi read it on the drive home from St. Louis. She immediately converted to the barefoot running philosophy, although she has yet to run barefoot. I’ve finally made my way through the book and the scientific argument for barefoot running is difficult to ignore.
I always thought that barefoot running fell into the realm of the mystical, “Let’s be one with nature” type of philosophy, but the book put forth actual studies that were hard for my logical scientist brain to ignore. On the other hand, I’ve heard countless stories of people who tried barefoot running or running with Vibram Five fingers and ended up with stress fractures or other running injuries. To put things simply in my mind, I’ll quote a speaker I heard at the Walt Disney World marathon expo:
“For every person who’s had success with barefoot running, I’ve heard of ten who’ve been injured”.
So, I waited patiently until after my marathon to give it a try. I’m more than 2 weeks post marathon and I took it very easy during recovery. Most of my time has been spent warming up on a stationary bike, followed by upper body weight training. In week two of recovery, I went for a 3 mile run with Raffi and we averaged 12 minutes per mile. Yesterday (exactly two weeks since the marathon), I ran to the gym, did an upper body and core weight training circuit and ran back (a total of about 5 miles) in my racing shoes.
Normally, we would spend the girls’ Spring Break as a family at Disney World, but this year, we were short on cash. So, Raffi and the girls headed to Ft. Lauderdale to spend the week with the in laws and I’m left as a bachelor for the week. I didn’t want to waste the break entirely, so I decided to take most of the time off work. Today, I headed to the beach and I left my shoes at home.
I ran just over 4 miles barefoot on the beach and I have some good things to say about that. When I’m running my best (as I feel I did during the Walt Disney World half marathon this year), I feel less like I’m running and more like I’m piloting my body. By that, I mean that my legs are turning over quickly and I simply can’t feel the work they’re doing. My head says speed up or slow down and my legs easily obey. I quickly curve around obstacles. It’s almost like I’m remotely telling someone else what to do. That’s how I felt running barefoot on the beach today.
My initial intent was to run about 3 miles, but when I hit 1.5, I saw a pier in the distance and I decided to aim for that. I was definitely landing on the balls of my feet (landing on my heels hurt) and my stride seemed like it was a lot choppier than usual. Amazingly, however, I was flying through sub 8 minute miles with very little effort. I mainly ran on the “hard” part of the beach next to the water. One advantage to running barefoot here instead of with shoes was that I could veer into the Gulf of Mexico at will and splash up some 58 degree water to cool down. Doing this with shoes would result in some pretty damned smelly shoes.
Ultimately, I finished four miles in less than 32 minutes, barely feeling winded at all. There were some downsides, however. For the most part, my shortened stride steered me easily around sharp shells and other obstacles, but I stepped on a burr in the last quarter mile and that stuck in my left foot. My stride adjusted and I easily pulled it out when I was finished, but it did hurt. I’m also surprised to find that I have blisters! I have one medium sized one on the ball of my left foot where the burr lodged itself, and a couple very small ones on my toes. Sans shoes, that’s entirely from my feet rubbing on the sand.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with my first barefoot running experience. My theory is that a lot of barefoot running injuries come from people who are averaging 50-70 miles a week with shoes, then try to run 50-70 miles a week barefoot or with the Vibram five fingers shoes. I’m going to work it from the perspective that I’m just learning to run barefoot and I need to pretend I’ve just started running in general. So, I’ll be hitting the stationary bike again tomorrow along with some upper body strength training. If I’m feeling up to it, I’ll head back to the beach for 3-4 barefoot miles on Wednesday.
Ultimately, I’d like to ditch my heavy training shoes and start running most of my runs in racing flats. It’s still too early to determine if this plan is realistic, though.