Barefoot: Now my Preferred Kind of Running

One month ago I posted here a hypothetical conversation about minimalist running in which I responded to the question “Do you also run barefoot?” as follows: “I try to do one or two miles a week, as both a training tool and a way to have fun. I have no desire to do most or all of my running barefoot. It just isn’t practical given the surface conditions where I typically run.” After steadily ramping up my barefoot running distance in the weeks since I wrote that piece, my perspective has changed and I would now answer that question a little differently.

At the time, all of my barefoot running had been done a mile or so at a time during a portion of a longer run while traversing a relatively smooth and debris-free stretch of asphalt pavement or concrete sidewalk, carrying my footwear—one shoe or sandal in each hand. That brief bit of barefoot running would be enough to magically re-boot my running form, lightening my landings, quickening my steps-per-minute, and intensifying my focus. I enjoyed those barefoot intervals, but primarily regarded them as training drills. The thought of doing entire runs let alone half or more of my weekly distance barefoot never really crossed my mind.

A few weekends ago I decided to visit a large park just a few miles from me to see if it would be a suitable place to run barefoot. I had last been there one year earlier shortly after it was finished and opened to the public. I recall that it had lots of concrete sidewalks including one that encircled an artificial lake. It would be nice, I thought, to be able to leave my footwear in the car and have my hands free as I ran. But to do that I would need a location where I could do my entire run barefoot. Most asphalt feels too rough for the bottoms of my feet in their current state. Unpaved areas like trails and the local canal banks are out of the question, and even some stretches of concrete sidewalk, while they may be smooth and otherwise in good condition, are just too littered with gravel to make barefooting enjoyable.

Happily, this park, along with the sidewalks surrounding it, turned out to be a barefoot running paradise! The sidewalks, particularly the one that loops around the lake, are quite clean, enabling me to push the pace. At night, they’re well illuminated with modern LED fixtures. They’re also wide, so even with lots of other people around, it’s easy to stay out of each other’s way. And I like the fact that the park is well populated. I’m not timid about running barefoot in public; in fact I enjoy demonstrating to people something they might not have thought was possible. It brings to mind the times in my own life when I was inspired by someone near me setting an example, to try something new and different. Also, the park has bathrooms! I’ve returned there every weekend since, each time doing an all-barefoot run that was a little longer than the one done the week before. Eight days ago I ran 5 kilometers. Yesterday I did 8.3 kilometers with just one brief stop for water. Next Sunday I plan to run 10 kilometers. That may seem like a steep increase in barefoot distances, but I’ve been doing runs of significantly greater length in my minimalist sandals for a while now. The forces applied to the internal structures of my feet when running in the sandals aren’t much different than when barefoot, but what is different are the forces applied to my plantar (bottom of the foot) skin. So far that’s doing fine. Plantar skin has a remarkable ability to thicken and strengthen in response to increased barefoot activity. And by paying attention to my running form, friction between my skin and the ground is minimized. I’m looking now at other locations where I can do all-barefoot runs.

From how fresh my legs feel after these runs, I can confidently say that barefooting is the gentlest and most physiologically correct kind of running that I do. It’s also the most rewarding. Suddenly, the idea of doing half or more of my weekly distance barefoot (at least during some weeks) is a realistic and exciting goal. How far I’ve come from thinking I’d be forever dependent on motion-control shoes and orthotics!

ADDENDUM, November 17, 2014

Six days after posting this piece I successfully completed my planned 10 kilometer barefoot run, and two weeks after that I did an 11 kilometer run barefoot. I’ve also done some barefoot intervals on an outdoor track over the past two weeks. Following all of these runs, my feet have felt fine.  

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