Category Archives: barefoot running

Running in Berkeley

Sather Gate

Sather Gate

I was in Berkeley, California last month to attend the 2016 World Vegan Summit and Expo held at the U.C. Berkeley campus. It was three days of very interesting presentations and I attended almost all of them. Some resembled college lectures in their depth and delivery. (Many of the presenters were from academia.) Others were artistic in nature and included a poet, an illustrator, a comedian, and musicians, all of whom used their artistry to promote veganism.

I ran the first two mornings—barefoot the first day through the campus and surrounding neighborhood, then in minimalist sandals the following morning on and out-and-back route that took me up fairly smooth dirt trails winding through the wooded hills above the campus.

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Xero Shoes minimalist sandals

The barefoot run was nice because the sidewalks were largely free of the tiny, sharply textured decomposed granite gravel that I frequently encounter where I live in Phoenix. But compared to Arizona State University (ASU), where I’ve run barefoot a number of times, U.C. Berkeley had more asphalt walkways, and some of them included really rough patches that were uncomfortable to run on. I also came across some old, fairly rough exposed aggregate concrete paving. I did appreciate the hilly nature of much of the Berkeley campus compared to ASU’s pancake flat geography.

The second run was quite enjoyable, starting out in the fog then gradually climbing a few miles until I was looking down on a dense puffy layer of white. There was one short but very steep section where I walked. The surface was ideal for my thin sandals, and the frequent wide turns and elevation changes added visual interest. It was a very extensive network of trails and fire roads. No doubt, the U.C. Berkeley cross-country team uses it frequently for training.IMG_1242

On the decent I came across some human barefoot prints. I wasn’t sure if they were from walking or running. Later, I spotted what I think was a group of wild turkeys walking near the road just above the university’s football stadium.IMG_1243

By the end of the run my feet and ankles were coated with a fine layer of dirt that at a quick glance resembled a suntan. While sitting in the ballroom later that morning at the Vegan Summit, wearing the same sandals, I looked down at one point and noticed a small patch on my ankle where the soap and shower water had missed, and a thin layer of trail dirt remained.IMG_1240IMG_1251IMG_1247IMG_1252 IMG_1265

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“How Do You Run in Those?”

I’ve run the Jerome Hill Climb race many times, beginning in 1988, about one year after moving to Arizona. It’s a point-to-point uphill race on Labor Day weekend that starts in the small town of Jerome at an elevation of just under 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), then climbs approximately 1,100 feet (335 meters) along 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) of mostly little-used unpaved roads to the finish. It’s a very scenic course with splendid views of valleys and mountain peaks, and Jerome—originally founded to support copper mining operations and now mostly populated with artists and entrepreneurs and their employees who cater to tourists—has lots of old and weathered buildings with interesting histories lining narrow, twisting, and hilly streets.

2015 Jerome Hill Climb T-shirt.

2015 Jerome Hill Climb T-shirt.

This past weekend, I ran the Jerome Hill Climb again for the first time in 11 years. My friend Sandra was also entered in the race. We talked briefly minutes before the start when she asked me why after all those years I decided to run it again. I didn’t have a good answer at the time, but I thought about her question later that day and came up with two explanations.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of experiences over material things. Jerome is quite an experience with its challenging hills and altitude, and unique scenery, making it a refreshing change from my usual running locations in the Phoenix area.

And after 11 years things have changed quite a bit with my running. When I signed up for the 2015 race I was curious how it would feel running a very hilly, unpaved course in my unsupportive minimalist sandals using a different running form. But I was also a little wary of the event, not sure how sore I might be the day after, or of my memory of how rough the terrain was. And I hadn’t been doing any hill training to speak of.

Happily, my concerns proved to be unfounded. While as expected I walked two sections of the steepest grades, just as I had every other time I’ve run the race, I felt good. My minimalist sandals and improved running form worked great, and I managed to finish first in my age group out of 13 people!

These are the Xero Shoes 6 mm minimalist sandals I ran the race in.

These are the Xero Shoes 6 mm minimalist sandals I ran the race in.

Grinding up the steep grades with a pronounced forward lean at the ankles resulting in a smaller than usual angle between my feet and my tibias, plus the effects of running back down the hill to my car after the race, I thought surely I would be sore the following day. But I have excellent mobility and strength in my ankles and feet—much more so than 11 years ago when I ran with orthotics and motion control shoes. Honestly, except for the first minute walking around the house after getting out of bed, I wasn’t sore the next day.

It wasn’t the first time I was certain I’d be sore the next day from doing something out of the ordinary with my body, but was not. I’ve learned from experience that I’m not that prone to soreness. I suspect being a vegan plays a role, as plant-based diets are known to reduce the inflammatory response.

The two things about the run I found most significant though was the presence of a barefoot runner, and a question from another runner regarding my sandals.

Among the approximately 255 entrants was a guy in bare feet. I was impressed because the running surfaces were way too rough for me to consider running barefoot. He had a pair of Vibram FiveFingers tucked into the waistband of his shorts, but he was still barefoot when I ran past him just before the first mile marker. Seeing that made me even more confident about my plan to run barefoot in the upcoming Phoenix 10K which traverses city streets with relatively smooth pavement.

When standing around awaiting the start of the race, I noticed that a group of girls were looking curiously at my minimalist sandals. Each of them wore conventional running shoes in a variety of bright colors. They had the typical cushioned soles with exaggerated thicknesses at the heel.

“How do you run in those?” one of them asked me.

I explained how I landed on my forefoot, under my hips, lowered the back of my foot until the heel gently touched, and then quickly lifted the foot behind me. I also added that the sandals, because they provided no significant support, allowed my feet and ankles to strengthen.

The irony of her question quickly occurred to me. So indoctrinated are most of us in the idea that conventional running shoes are a prerequisite to running, minimalism throws us a confusing curveball. It would have made more sense if instead I had asked her how she manages to run in conventional running shoes. But I already knew the answer to that question, because for decades I ran in such shoes. Getting out of them was a necessary step in improving my form, becoming stronger, and having more fun.

Barefoot on Venice Beach

Earlier this week I drove west from Phoenix on Interstate 10 and spent a few days visiting the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles. Each of the two mornings I was there I ran on the beach, barefoot on the firm and smooth sand by the waterline. Between the mindful feeling underfoot, the seagulls gliding overhead, the sound of the ocean waves, and the perfectly comfortable temperature, these runs were my most enjoyable barefoot running experiences to date.

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The last time I ran barefoot on a beach was in 2006 during a vacation in Costa Rica. I was a heel-striker back then, addicted to motion-control shoes and orthotics, though I remember employing a more flat-footed landing since that just felt easier and more natural running barefoot on the firm sand. Of course at the time I was not accustomed to running that way and I was most certainly not doing it correctly; likely reaching out with my lead foot and not landing quickly under my hips. That afternoon and for the next couple of days my calves were more sore than they’d ever been before or since. This week, in contrast, there was no post-run soreness, just the familiar feeling I experience following barefoot running that mimics the soothing effects of a foot massage.

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During my second morning at the beach I did a 9.3 km run. The first half was on the sand near the waterline heading north from the pier at the foot of Washington Blvd. to the Santa Monica Pier. I ran back on the boardwalk, which interestingly, unlike the boardwalks I was familiar with from my years living on Long Island, was made of concrete, not boards. This is what one of my feet looked like back at the parking lot.

I was disappointed to see that most of the other people walking or running on the beach were wearing shoes. At least some of them had minimalist shoes like FiveFingers, but I didn’t even see a need for them. There were occasional areas sprinkled with small seashells and polished rocks, but the way they were partially embedded in the fine sand made them harmless. Not once did I experience a twinge of pain from stepping on something. While shoes are often an appropriate choice when faced with rough terrain or cold temperatures, from my experience they seriously interfere with the ease and enjoyment of running on a clean ocean beach. Barefoot runners need to do a better job of getting the word out.

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Humans aren’t the only animals who like to run around barefoot on the beach.

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No shoe-induced foot deformities here!

 

 

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.  

Hypothetical Conversation About Minimalist Running

Being around other runners while wearing my most minimal running footwear—a pair of sandals consisting of nothing more than a six millimeter thick slab of rubber and a polyester lace—tends to spur curiosity, and subsequent questions and conversations about minimalist and barefoot running. I’ve put together a hypothetical conversation based on some of the questions and comments I’ve received in the past, those that I anticipate getting in the future, along with typical responses I’ve provided or might provide down the road. The questions and comments are in boldface type and my responses are in regular type.

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Whenever I see you running by me in those thin sandals I feel pains shooting through my feet, ankles, and up my legs.

The next time I run past you, take a closer look at how my feet are relating to the ground. You’ll see that I’m running lightly and not landing on my heels. By landing under my center of gravity and utilizing the elastic qualities of my lower extremities, I’m sending significantly less impact shock up my legs than I used to when heel striking in thickly-soled conventional running shoes. Also, I pay attention to where I’m running and step around or over rocks or anything else that would cause me pain if I landed on it. I assure you, I wouldn’t be doing this if it were causing me to experience shooting pains.

Did you make those?

Sort of. I assembled them from a kit I ordered online. I selected the color, thickness (these are 6 mm thick soles) and the appropriate size after measuring the longest part of my foot. I also choose a lace color. The kit came with a hole punch for making the hole between the first and second toes where the knot goes, and the website has videos illustrating various ways to thread the laces. I actually came up with my own way of lacing these, and I made an instructional YouTube video. Finally, I trimmed some excess material off the front edge of the sole with heavy scissors, and then they were ready to go.

Do you stub your toes?

I haven’t yet after running close to 900 kilometers in them. Actually, I find that the less footwear I’m wearing, the more I naturally tend to be careful about where and how I place my feet.

Those things look like they’d be bad for your feet.

It’s not wise to suddenly switch to minimalist sandals or minimalist footwear in general after years of wearing very supportive, cushioned, elevated-heel shoes. But with proper transitioning, and learning and mastering proper running form, they allow your feet to function better and get stronger. And with your feet so close to the ground, the chance of turning your ankle is reduced.

Do you also run barefoot?

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.

I assume that when you’re running barefoot you’re on grass.

Actually no. I wouldn’t feel safe running on grass because it can hide significant surface irregularities and sharp objects. My preferred surface for running barefoot is smooth and clean concrete sidewalk or bicycle path. Second best is a rubberized running track or asphalt that’s in good condition. Old asphalt that has lost much of its binding material can feel quite rough depending on the surface texture of the exposed aggregate.

Can anyone run barefoot?

Certainly people with diabetic neuropathy shouldn’t be running around barefoot. Since they lack normal sensation in their feet, they’re more prone to injuries. And they often also suffer from compromised circulation, which results in slower healing, and a higher risk of infection. Other conditions can also make barefoot running a bad idea. I think that being able to run barefoot for significant distances both requires and reflects a certain baseline level of good overall health. Just what that level is, I can’t say. I would talk to your doctor or other primary care professional for advice.

I can’t run like that. My feet need lots of support.

You might be surprised. For decades I ran in motion control shoes with rigid prescription orthotics. I was conditioned to think that I had “flat” feet and could run no other way. Yes, I needed all that support, but only because I was a heel striker. Podiatrists’ never looked at how I ran or discussed with me proper running form. They just cast and measured my feet for orthotics and billed my insurance provider. I don’t blame them. They didn’t know any better and were merely doing what they were trained to do. Hopefully that’s changing because quick fixes are rarely as effective in the long run as getting to the root of the problem.

How long did it take you to learn to run like that?

It’s been around five years since I changed my running form and began transitioning into minimalist footwear. I made some mistakes along the way and got injured. Even though I took a gradual approach, I didn’t have the form and technique quite right. I was still reaching forward too much with my lead foot, putting too much stress on my metatarsals. Running with a metronome to speed up my steps-per-minute, and mixing in some barefoot running, really helped fix my form problems. I find that taking off the shoes and running barefoot for a stretch has a way of resetting my running form, because when I’m barefoot I automatically take shorter, quicker steps. One of the reasons I started my Intrinsic Running website was to help people learn how to transition without getting injured like I did. Today I’m thoroughly comfortable with my running form and how it feels. I don’t get injured as often and my legs feel better. I could never go back to heel striking and landing way forward of my hips. Yet I still consider myself to be transitioning. There is always more to learn, always more to perfect.

There’s no way you could do trail running in those.

It really depends on the nature of the trail and on the individual runner. I frequently run on our local canal banks in my minimalist sandals, and I recently did a 5-K race in them over trails that were relatively smooth. Obviously you have to watch where you’re stepping. Footwear should provide the appropriate level of protection for the particular surface you’re running or walking on. If you’re traversing a rugged trail, it’s perfectly fine to wear something with a thicker, less flexible sole.

Ken, that’s just crazy. I don’t know how you run in those things.

I suggest that you check out my minimalist running website, Intrinsicrunning.com, to learn how I do it.

Pre-Industrial Civilization Squat

Also known as the hunter-gatherer squat, this properly performed deep squat position which offers numerous fitness and health benefits is a prerequisite to minimalist running. Chairs, along with our modern conception of “sitting,” were rare in early human cultures where bare feet or minimalist footwear predominated. People instead spent considerable time in balanced deep squat positions while eating, working, or conversing.

Pre-Industial Civilization Squat

Pre-Industial Civilization Squat

The pre-industrial civilization squat promotes mobility in the ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. It strengthens core and lower body muscles used in jumping, which is relevant because running is essentially a series of small jumps. The plantar (sole of foot) pressure distribution is similar to proper running form with the center of mass balanced over the balls of the feet. And unlike sitting, the squat is healthy for the back, decompressing and opening the lumbar spine.

To perform the squat, stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Flare your feet out slightly. With a firm core, let your hips, knees, and ankles bend substantially as you lower yourself down. Maintain your feet flat on the floor. Most of your weight should be on the balls of your feet, but the heels should also be in contact with the floor. If you’re doing a static version of the squat, maintain this position for up to ten minutes (or even longer if you’re used to it). The dynamic version requires that you quickly rise back up to the start position and repeat, utilizing a light, bouncing motion. A weighted pole of at least 5 kg balanced horizontally across the collarbone with the arms stretched out forward, increases the effectiveness of the dynamic squat by forcing better form.

For many people, the pre-industrial civilization squat is initially difficult to achieve. Particularly for someone used to wearing high-heeled shoes, getting the heel down on the floor may not be possible due to tight calf muscles and shortening of the Achilles tendons. An assisted deep squat position, in which you hold on to a pole or other stationary object in front of you while gradually working into the position, may be helpful.

 

Chasing Down a Better Way to Run

Like a lot of movements, the case for minimalist or barefoot running seems to be based largely on anecdotes, speculation, and what countless people think makes perfect sense. Fortunately, good research and peer-reviewed studies exist, though at this point there is much catching up to be done. The study of minimalist running is particularly suited to an interdisciplinary approach; principally involving the fields of evolutionary biology, kinesiology, anthropology, and psychology, and including collaboration between research scientists, clinicians, and subjects and patients.

Harvard University is at the forefront in this quest, as Katie Koch explains in this April 2012 piece in the Harvard Gazette.

Chasing Down a Better Way to Run

By Katie Koch

Harvard Provost Alan Garber loves running—so much so that when he returned to his alma mater last year, he listed among the job’s perks a chance to resume his exercise route along the Charles River.

“I love seeing Dunster House as I’m approaching the end of my run,” said Garber, who’ll soon be pounding the pavement with nearly 30,000 others in the Boston Marathon on April 16.

But until recently, Garber described himself as “recidivist runner.” The cause wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm or even of precious time, but an all-too-common phenomenon for regular runners: repeat injury. “I was at the point where injuries were making it questionable whether I’d be able to continue to run,” he said.    Read More »