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Monday, November 29, 2010

Barefoot Running FAQ

This is a FAQ that I wrote many months ago.  It's not the most comprehensive FAQ about barefoot running.  It's not the most correct.  But it is pretty entertaining.  Enjoy!
I decided to write this FAQ because I get a lot of questions about barefoot running. Mostly it’s the same ones over and over.

It’s not that I’m sick of answering these questions (wait…yes it is). It’s that I want to be able to provide a source of more complete information for those that are interested in learning more. From the feedback I get, I am guessing a lot of you have some genuine curiosity about why an otherwise sane person might do this to themselves.

Some people already though I was teetering on the crazy fence, and fell off it with this effort. For those people, here’s a window into my little brand of crazy. For others, I know that you’ve been thinking about giving barefoot running a go, but something is holding you back. Hopefully, this FAQ will let you know that it’s okay and easy to shed your shoes.

This is not an exhaustive FAQ that explores every argument and option regarding barefoot running. It is as much as I could do over lunch. If you need more information, let me know and I will do my best to further explain. If you just want to argue with me, go bark up a different tree. I was fine with my decision to barefoot before I heard your unrationalized “please, don’t”. I will be fine afterwards as well.

Also, note that some of my answers to these questions are going to be snarky. It’s not that I find the questions upsetting. But some things just should be so obvious that I’m surprised they are not. So some answers sound like the old parental, “because I say so” because that’s really the way it is. Just open your mind and think about it a little.

So now…by popular demand, a FAQ about my weird little hobby: barefoot running. Okay, maybe not “popular” demand. How about demand? Or even just request? How about…I was going to do it anyway because I was bored at work! Here it is!

What is barefoot running?

It is running without anything on your feet. No shoes, no socks, no nothing.

You may find some reference in this FAQ to minimalist footwear. Many people equate this footwear to running barefoot. Us barefooters call them “wimps” (kidding…we call them “sissies”). Running in minimalist footwear is not the same thing as running barefoot, but they are very similar. I run in minimalist footwear sometimes. It has many benefits. I will address minimalist footwear later on in the FAQ.

Why run barefoot?

The reasons for running barefoot are as limitless as the selection at Cici’s Pizza Buffett (that is, there are probably 20 common reasons and 3 really, really good ones). I will go over the really, really good ones.

Efficiency: Barefoot runners universally run with a forefoot strike. This occurs when the ball or middle of the foot hits the ground first as you stride. Most elite runners use this same strike. Most non-elite runners (i.e. YOU) come down with a heel strike. This is not good. The heel of your foot is your body’s brake system. If you were a car, you’d be essentially pumping your brakes like a teenager in a driver’s ed class every time you land. Forefoot strikers do not do this.

Can you forefoot strike in shoes? Sure! But it’s awkward. Go take a look at your running shoes. See that two inch piece of foam attached to the heel? Nice brake pads buddy! Your shoes are built to enable a heel strike, not a forefoot strike.

Plus…if you ditch your shoes, you lose about 12-16 oz. in weigh ON EACH FOOT. Why do bikers want everything on their bike to be made of carbon fiber? Because it’s a lot lighter. They know that over long distances, weight matters. You are strapping on two 1 lb. weights every time you go running. Take them off, and you’ll go faster and further.

Injury prevention: Barefoot runners overwhelmingly come to the sport because their running shoes make running extremely painful. Michael Sandler (who is mentioned below), was told he would never run again, and was able to do so only through barefoot running. Barefooters also report a marked decrease in chronic injuries such as plantar fascitis, runners knee, and shin splints. Many report that their injuries disappear within DAYS of beginning to barefoot run. They also report that their symptoms immediately come back after they put their shoes back on.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, heel striking is bad for you. Your body doesn’t want to do it. Ever try jumping straight up in the air and landing on your heels while barefoot? It’s like trying to lick your elbow. YOU CAN’T DO IT! Shoes make this impossible activity possible. And what’s your reward? Studies show that heel striking produces 2 times the impact force on your body as forefoot striking. No wonder runners are injured at such a high rate. Thanks Nike!

Second, running shoes try to solve problems that don’t exist. Ever heard of pronation? It’s what your body does naturally during its running stride. Hardly anyone has perfect, neutral form. Pronation isn’t a problem; it’s just a fact of life. But running shoes try to give you perfect form by forcing your body to stop pronating. They don’t do it very well, and the result is injury.

You want a better way to get good running form? Train the muscles that are responsible for you running like a hippo by running in a way that promotes their growth. If you try to correct your form by slipping on some shoes, you’ll just look like a dumbass hippo in pricey shoes.

Hippie stuff: This is my reason for running barefoot actually. I started off because barefooting just made sense. But it’s hard not to catch the barefoot bug once you try it. It is truly exhilarating. And once you’re in you can’t help but embrace all the mother-earth, campfire, one-with-nature crap. I suppose I should have known this would happen. Hey, when my parents got married, my dad wore a deer-skin jacket with fringe. I have two kinds of granola in my office snack drawer. I’m a hippie at heart. And you might be too.

A guy at a shoe store once tried to sell me a shoe by telling me they feel like “running on a cloud”. Have you ever seen a cloud? It’s white, wet, and boring. I don’t want to run on a cloud. I want to run ON THE GROUND! I don’t want to feel some cushy piece of foam or rubber under me for 30 minutes to an hour. If you want to do that, my neighbors just got an awesome inflatable bouncer you can use. I want to feel the ground on my feet. I want to feel nature around me. If you don’t, why even go outside and run? There’s plenty of treadmills in this world.

You can have your treadmill, and your nice cushy shoes. I’ll bring you some kneepads and a helmet too, and you’ll never have to feel a thing…ever again.

What does it feel like?

Besides the snarky answer, “it feels like the ground”, I will say this. It feels like you’re running again for the first time. A lot of people who ran barefoot as a child say that it brings back that same feeling. It’s the best thing that I ever did for my running. It has brought me back to the time when I first started loving the sport. I hope it can be that way for you too.  Experiences may vary (that’s the attorney in me talking).

Doesn’t it hurt?

A lot of people ascribe to the saying “No pain, no gain”. That saying is stupid. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. If you don’t listen, you’re going to get injured.

So no, running barefoot does not hurt. When you start barefoot running, you may find it uncomfortable because your body is used to running with shoes. And the way you ran with shoes was wrong. For example, when I started barefoot running, I was shocked by how hard the ground was under my feet. I was used to driving my feet into the ground knowing I had a foam pad to cushion the fall. Now I put my feet down softly, and the sensation of the ground is quite pleasant.

You will adapt surprisingly quickly. I noticed that the ground felt just as comfortable, if not more comfortable, than shoes within a few days.

What supports your arches?

Your arches. Seriously. Snarky answer #1.

What do civil engineers use to make a bridge a strong, load-bearing structure? An arch. What weakens an arch? Supporting it from below. That’s what shoes do. Here’s my question to you. Why are you weakening one of the strongest load-bearing structures in your body with “arch support”?

Here’s another way to think about it. With every stride you take while running (and most likely heel striking you naughty, misguided runner!) your body lands with an impact force of twice your body weight. That impact force is transmitted up your leg and through the rest of your body. Do you really think that the one to two inch piece of foam and rubber below your feet is doing anything to dissipate that force? If you do, I have some ocean-front property to sell you. I’ll even throw in a unicorn if you buy today.

I have (insert ailment here). Can I still run barefoot?

Not only can you run barefoot, you should. The most common reason why someone says they can’t run, let alone run barefoot, is “I have injury X”. My response is that you’re blaming running itself for exacerbating your injury, rather than HOW you are running. Running doesn’t cause injuries. Running naturally strengthens muscles, lubricates joints, and generally repairs your body. Running is the body’s best exercise. In fact, many people think that the human body has evolved specifically for running (http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/4BiomechanicsofFootStrike.html). RUNNING DOESN’T CAUSE INJURY, BAD FORM AND OVERTRAINING CAUSE INJURY!!

For example, if you have bad knees, but it doesn’t hurt to walk, heel striking will exacerbate your injury by sending more than twice your body weight to your knee’s doorstep. Forefoot striking by contrast delivers a little more than your body weight, and does not transmit a force wave up your body. Barefoot forefoot striking does even less (there are studies that show this, don’t argue with me unless you have a counter-study). Heel striking with shoes will make your knees worse. I doubt you’d even feel your knee pain barefoot running.

How do you avoid road debris?

I don’t step on it. Again. Seriously. What do you do when you see a glass bottle shattered on the ground? Do you step on it, or do you go around? I do the same thing.

This is probably the question I get the most. It’s hard to convince people that the streets are not literally littered with glass, rusty nails, condoms, winning lottery tickets, human waste, and HIV-infected hypodermic needles. It makes me wonder where all of you live. The ghetto? I doubt it…I’ve seen the cars some of you drive. Where I live, I’m lucky if I see glass on the road but once a month…and it’s gone the next day.

Chances are the trail you run on does not boarder the city toxic waste dump. The actual debris on the road is greatly exaggerated. Go look next time you are outside. I bet you will not see any of the stuff you’re afraid of. Not a single piece of debris!

What you will encounter on your run are things like small pebbles and twigs. You will not feel most of these things, because THEY ARE SMALL! You will avoid most of the rest of these things simply by “not stepping on them”. If you are a lunking clutz, and you still happen to step on something, remember that your foot is one of the most sensitive parts of your body. It will react almost immediately to the pain stemming from your idiocy, and will shift your weigh instantaneously onto your other foot.

The pain is gone, but you’re still a dumbass.

Won’t my feet get dirty? That’s gross!

Your feet will get dirty. It’s inevitable. But if you’re like me, you have not so recently discovered that dirt comes off with soap and water. It’s going to be okay….

Besides being snarky, I also want to put this comment into perspective. You do a handful of potentially disgusting things every day; perhaps without noticing. When was the last time you washed that cell phone you just word-vomited into? What about your keyboard at work? The handles of your car door? What about your shoes? I’ve never washed my running shoes. Then you go for a run and sweat all over them. You’re putting your feet into little exercise cesspools every time you work out. Nummy!

Some people also seem to have an aversion to dirt on their feet. But they seem fine to get dirt anywhere else. I can’t reason with that, except to say it’s patently ridiculous. WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY? You just got done planting in your garden…and you have dirt on your clothes, hair, face, etc…but if dirt hits your foot it’s ISHY! Well wash up and get back into your kryo-chamber bubble boy! Barefoot running isn’t for you!

How far should I run to start?

I recommend that you don’t go very far. Around the block will be sufficient. No more than 1 mile total. Even if you’re currently a marathoner. Although you might be able to run 26.2, your feet can’t. In fact, while you’ve been running and developing your hamstrings, calves, quads, etc., you haven’t developed the muscles in your feet at all. They need time to develop after nearly a lifetime of being cooped up. And that takes time.

How much time? Look at the bottom of this FAQ for some links to more information on barefooting, including barefoot training schedules.

What surfaces should I start running on (i.e. isn’t it safer to run on grass)?

You just came from running in squishy running shoes, so you probably figure a squishy surface like grass or sand is the best one to run on. It actually isn’t. The best surfaces to run on are man-made trails composed of either concrete or blacktop. Here’s why. If you start on grass or sand, you will not only be exercising several muscles in your foot that you’ve never really used before, but also several different stability muscles that you’ve never really used before. You’re going to overwhelm your feet and get injured.

Not only that, but grass and sand feel nice. Although this is a good quality for having a picnic, or skipping with a streamer in your hand, it is a bad quality in a beginner’s barefoot running surface. Since these surfaces feel so nice, they’re probably going to let you get away with a lot of bad running form. Heel strike? Go right ahead! It’ll give! But try the same thing on your every day running surface (which I bet is not a grassy field) and you will get hurt in a few seconds.

Won’t I get calluses/blisters/cuts on my feet?

I have no calluses on my feet. All the calluses I had on my feet came from shoes. Same thing with blisters and cuts. A lot of people think in order to properly barefoot you need to scrape the soles of your feet up until you can’t feel anything. THE POINT OF BAREFOOT RUNNING IS TO FEEL!

Instead of building up calluses, your form will adjust so that running barefoot is a pleasant experience. This will prevent things like calluses, blisters, and other bad things from happening.

Could you get a blister on your feet from barefoot running? Sure. But you can prevent it with good form. Could you get one with shoes? It’s an inevitability. Blisters form from a combination of heat, moisture, and/or friction. You have all of these things in abundance in shoes.

The road outside my house is made of crappy chip seal and it hurts! What do I do?

Run somewhere else! This isn’t foot torture. It’s running. I choose a surface to run on by how it feels to just stand or walk on. If it causes me some discomfort, I don’t run there for very long. There are plenty of trails that will work just fine. If you have to run on a rough surface, you can relieve the discomfort by running in the grass. Or bring shoes. They are good for something sometimes…

Okay, you talk a lot about good form. What does it look like?

There's a couple different aspects of good form that become pretty apparent when you start barefoot running. First, you are taking too big of steps. Heel strikers tend to overstride because they can. If you overstride without shoes, you will hit your heels and it will hurt. Instead, keep your strides short. It will feel like you are shuffling like an old man at first.

Also, keep your turnover high. Your cadence for barefoot running should be about 180 strikes per minute. What does that mean? It means your foot should come down 180 times every minute. How can you tell if you're turnover is high enough? The song "Turning Japanese" by The Vapors is 180 bpm. If you sing the song while you run, you want to put your foot down on evey beat.

And of course...there is the forefoot strike. You should be landing on the balls of your feet, or close to them. This will come pretty naturally.

Finally, it is important to consider how you are picking your feet up after a foot strike. In shoes, you probably pushed off with your foot to gain more distance and power. You needed to do that in order to get your foot all the way into heel strike position. If you do that barefoot, you will get blisters real quick. During barefoot running, you don't need to generate as much force with each stride because you're not striding as far. You will make up that distance in your increased turnover. So instead of pushing off with your foot at the end of a stride, just pick it up.

All of this stuff will come with time. What you can do to make it better in the meantime is to listen to the feedback from your feet and try to adjust your form so that you're running comfortably.

Are there places or times that I shouldn’t run barefoot?

The sky is the limit to where you can go barefoot. Michael Sandler (whose book is listed below) runs barefoot in Colorado year round, including in the snow. Barefoot Ted (who is mentioned in the now bestselling book “Born to Run”, also listed below) ran in the blistering heat in the rocky mountain trails of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. I’m not saying you’ll be able to go out and run on a country gravel road right away. I’m saying that eventually, you will. And if you like barefoot running, you will want to…

Won’t people stare/point/laugh at me?

A lot of people will be curious. Some people will stare or comment. Most people won’t. I haven’t heard anyone laugh yet. I would challenge anyone who laughs to try it out and see if they are laughing then.

But here’s how I think of it. Some people will always think you’re a little nuts just because you run. It doesn’t seem normal to them. But you know that it’s good for you and it makes you feel good. I don’t think it’s normal to fester on the couch for most of your sedentary life and eat more than your daily share of sodium in one meal.

If you are self-conscious about what those people think, barefoot running will not change that just like running itself will not change that. But if you know something is good for you and makes you feel good, why would you stop because of what other people think? I thought we all graduated from the cesspool of conformity known as high school.

Are there other, ways to get the same benefits as running barefoot?

You can get some of the benefits of barefoot running by going with a more minimalist shoe. A minimalist shoe is a shoe that either severely limits or altogether eliminates the cushioning found in a normal running shoe. Thus, these shoes allow a runner to exercise the muscles in their feet (though not to the same extent as when barefoot) without exposing their feet completely to the ground.

If you read my FAQ and decide not to go barefoot, I hope that you at least take a look at some of these shoes. If you insist on spending that $100 or more on shoes every year, why not do it on a shoe that actually does you some good?

Vibram Five Fingers (by far the most popular minimalist shoe…but good luck finding them): http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/

Terra Plana EVO Barefoot (second to Vibram, but pricey): http://www.terraplana.com/

Note that I am definitely not anti-shoe. I have two pairs of Vibram Fivefingers. I wear them when the elements or the surfaces that I run on are a little too much for me. I live in Minnesota. We have perfect running weather for a couple of weeks out of the year. I have no illusions that barefoot is the only way, always. It’s just the best way for me most of the time.

Can I supplement my barefoot running with shoes?

Sure! Most programs for the experienced runner recommend that you ease into barefoot running. Do what makes you feel good. That’s what barefooting is all about.

After running barefoot for a while now, I don’t like shoes. I find them big, awkward, and clumsy. I use them when I have to, and take them off when I don’t. If you find a way that works for you, do it. I appreciate that you even took the time to read this far, much less try out my favorite sport.

For more information

I don’t pretend to know everything about barefoot running. I just know what I’ve read and experienced. There are plenty of people who have been doing this for years and who know what they’re talking about. Links to their websites are found below. In addition to information about barefoot running, a lot of them also have minimalist shoe reviews and other minimalist shoe information.
If you’re only going to do ONE THING to find out more about barefoot running, please read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. It is the barefoot runner’s bible. Not a whole lot of hands on information about barefoot running. But it does have the basics and will tell you how to find out more.

Websites

Michael Sandler’s RunBare Website: http://www.runbare.com/

Barefoot Jason’s Barefoot University: http://www.barefootrunninguniversity.com/

Barefoot Ken Bob’s site (this is the motherload of information, but hard to navigate): http://www.therunningbarefoot.com/

Books

“Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall: http://www.chrismcdougall.com/

“Barefoot Running” by Michael Sandler: http://www.barefootrunningbook.com/

“The Barefoot Running Book” by Jason Robillard: http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/the_barefoot_running_book.html

Forums

Runner’s World Barefoot Running Forum: http://www.runnersworld.com/community/forums/runner-communities/barefoot-running

Barefoot Running Society: http://www.barefootrunners.org/

12 comments:

  1. Very good information. Thanks. I've been trying it out for a few months and love it. Now that the weather's not so good I'm back in shoes and am worried that my form will suffer and I'll be starting over again in the spring. Any tips about that? How do you feel about running on the treadmill barefoot?

    ReplyDelete
  2. As you might notice from my other posts, I am a diehard outdoor barefoot runner regardless of conditions. But as I understand not everyone is like me, here's what I think.

    As for your winter issues, I have never had much trouble getting back into good form after a long break. Your body has good muscle memory. I expect it will come back to you quickly.

    With the treadmill, you gotta do what you gotta do. Treadmills are a great way to keep the barefoot fun going in the winter. Another good option my friend just turned me on to is the indoor track. Of course neither are like going outside and running, but you just have to get by in the winter.

    I actually take it easy in the winter once the snow gets heavier, and do more strength training. It's hard to keep your motivation up for running these next few months, so I use weights to keep it interesting. It makes me that much more fired up to get out there in the spring.

    Thanks for stopping!

    ReplyDelete
  3. ok, that song 'Turning Japanese' is now permanently imprinted in my brain. You are a genius.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Awesome blog, I love it :)
    I'd love to go barefoot, or at least minimalist, running or walking. I just love to feel the ground, and walk barefoot (usually indoors 'cause my parents think its 'wrong' to walk barefoot outside). I'm not sure about the running bit, but I've read plenty of stories of people suddenly actually going from HATE to LOVE for running... so, who knows...
    Unfortunately I'm not yet graduated from that bloody pig circus most of us proudly call 'high school'. It really is the most conformist space in the world, like EVER. I really would like to get myself some VFF KSO's to start with (and eventually transition to full barefoot), but having to struggle up against 'brainwashed' shod worshipping parents and teenagers... ugh! They already call me a 'hippie' and 'rasta', lol (cause of my dreadlocks, which is also pretty 'out of tune' in high school...) My parents are a bigger prob than my classmates, since they genuinely believe that barefoot is BAD for your feet and health and everything. Ah I can't wait till I'm gonna live on my own, so I can finally do what I actually want!!

    ReplyDelete


  5. افضل شركة نقل اثاث بالمدينة المنورة تساعدك على نقل اثاثك بامان فلا داعى للقلق مع افضل شركة نقل اثاث بجدة

    عزيزى العميل انت من محبى التنقل باستمرار بالتالى انت بحاجة ماسة وضروية الى الاستعانة بالمختصين في نقل العفش خاصة ارخص شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض لان الاستعانة باى من عمالة الشوارع الغير مدربة والتي لا تمتلك خبرة كافية في نقل العفش او الحفاظ علية وليس هذا فقط فقد يؤدى الاستعانة بعمالة الشوارع الى حدوث حالة فقدان وتكسير للاثاث بالتالى التاثير الضار عليك عزيزى العميل

    لا تقلق مطلقاً الان بشأن نقل اي منقولات خاصة بك طالما استعنت بشركة الاول لـ نقل الأثاث في الرياض وخارج الرياض فنحن ليس الوحيدون ولكننا متميزون عن اى مؤسسة أخرى داخل وخارج الدمام وشهرتنا كافضل شركة نقل عفش بينبع
    نقل اثاث بجدة

    ReplyDelete

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