Barefoot Running

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.

Categorized as Gear


  1. Congratulations on your first barefoot run.

    Unfortunately, you’ve just discovered why so many people have problems when starting out barefoot running. They feel great, they discover they can go a lot faster than they thought they could, and they overdo it.

    Metatarsal stress fractures are a common injury for beginning barefoot runners. Those bones are not used to bearing the load your asking them to, and they may not be strong enough. They will adapt, but they need time to do so.

    “Too much too soon” is the cause of barefoot running injuries, not the fact that you’re running in your bare feet.

    So there, you’ve been warned. Please take it slow, and enjoy. Lots of walking in bare feet or Vibrams will help get the feet stronger.

  2. I’ve got to admit. I’m a bit of a skeptic myself. At least your philosophy of learning how to run again is sound. I’ll be watching from the sidelines.

    And thanks for your comment yesterday. I had copletely forgotten aboutthe sodium in the gels. I’ll be recalculating shortly….

  3. Welcome to barefoot running! You are right about most people starting off too fast. Did that myself and then took 3 weeks off waiting by my calf to heal. But I stuck with it (ramping up VERY slowly and concentrating on good form) and now I’m not planning to ever look back. I’m up to about 5 miles completely barefoot and close to 10 miles in Vibrams. I’m planning to do a half marathon in May wearing the Vibrams.

    I’ll grab your RSS feed and continue to read about your ventures in BFing.

    Bob (Downtown Runner)

  4. i’m with you and glenn… i’d do barefoot running more for the strengthening of the little muscles and tendons, not so much for strictly barefoot running like the “purists” seem to aim for?

    as a child growing up in south carolina i ran around barefoot all the time in the summer, but my feet are no longer as tolerant of the hot pavement. see, barefoot running isn’t just for the hippies – it’s for the southern rednecks too 😉

  5. I am with the Hendrick Marrow Program and we are in the process of organizing our 2nd Half Marathon and 5K. We are trying to do a much better job this year in organizing the race and I am trying to find out from runners what is the best way for you to learn about a new race…. Magazines, Web sites, free calendars, etc.

    Thanks for your help

  6. Brian – As you may know, I suffered a metatarsal stress fracture last fall as a result of barefoot running. I read the book, Born to Run and like a sheep I went out and bought the Vibrams as soon as I closed the book.

    I really liked running in the Vibrams, so much so that I incorporated my easy runs of 3-5 miles a couple of times per week as I ramped up for the NYC marathon.

    I had to conclude after much research after my injury, that the amount of barefoot running you do has to be taken much more slowly in terms of volume than even you have suggested. By that I mean, only run less than a mile or a half mile on your first day out and really learn the right technique to running barefoot. Likewise, you should only really run completely barefoot and not with Vibrams as this will help you with the technique.

    Richie will not be pleased BTW.

    Good luck with it!

  7. I am new to running, to be specific barefoot running. I have tried with barefooting for maybe months and seem to often experience medial tibial stress syndrome. The shins hurts even after running. It’s painful especially when I squat and stand up. But after a year of gettin used to it, I have finally learned how to run barefoot and I am lovin’ it!

  8. There is a cacophony of opinions regarding barefoot running. Many of these opinions are incorrect-even those spoken by so-called experts. Contrary to what many proclaim, one can run barefoot on very hard surfaces like concrete as easily as when running on grass (although form and stride may be different); impact to ones body is less running barefoot than running shod; broken glass is not ubiquitous on the streets and sidewalks of America; one can run 5 miles at 15 F (and lower) barefoot and not suffer frostbite; running on trails and crushed rock is possible in barefeet. As has beeb stated in other comments, a big issue in barefoot running is transitioning from shod to barefoot running in a slow, sustainable manner. Now after nearly 5 years of running barefoot my feet continue to strengthen year by year. And now that my feet are conditioned, I marvel at my ability to run barefoot on most every type of surface in most every type of weather. I am grateful each time I experience the joy of unfettered running

  9. Thanks for the input! I too have been skeptical about barefoot running but I recently attended a seminar on it at a running store here in St. Louis and I have to admit, the doctor who spoke presented a pretty strong argument for it, or for minimalist shoes in general. I have tried the Nike Free Runs but not the Vibrams or barefoot running yet. I agree with you that it is best to ease into a program. I jumped into a long run with my Nike Frees too soon and had enough pain to take off for a week. Now I’m easing back into things.

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