The phenomenon of running barefoot may bring to mind images of carefree hippies or our ancient ancestors. Truth be told that before I read the best selling book Born to Run by author Christopher McDougall I had never considered running barefoot.
Why would anyone want to try running barefoot?
It’s a question I would have asked myself prior to reading Born to Run. I would worry I would step on something sharp and hurt myself more than my current running injuries.
But the book Born to Run provides a stunning case for why running barefoot as opposed to super cushioned sneakers is better for you.
The cliff note here is that by running barefoot, your feet can get stronger, and your running mechanics will be more natural. When you run on a very cushioned shoe your entire running form will change, often leading to running injuries.
For me, I had a few running injuries that have plagued me for years, about four years to be exact. So before I could even finish the book Born to Run, I was about 200 pages in when I knew that I wanted to give running barefoot a try.
Taking A Step Back
To give you an idea of what lead me to even consider running barefoot let me step back tell you how I got here in the first place.
You see, I love running and have been doing it since junior high, about 20 years. I have completed four marathons and have just recently gotten into trail running in Portland, Oregon.
Side Note -If you ever visit Portland, its a runners paradise with a huge trail system in popular spots like Forest Park. Well worth checking out.
Although I am not an ultra marathoner I have become increasingly interested in someday doing a longer distance race, if I can get my body well enough to do some proper training.
I have become a bit obsessed with watching running documentaries on YouTube about the famous 100 mile Western States race in California and the Leadville 100 in Colorado. At this point I can easily start name dropping ultra marathoners that most people have never heard of.
Here are a few of my favorite running documentaries to inspire you:
Awesome running documentary featuring Brian Morrison running Western States.
Courtney Dauwalter, an insane ultra marathoner.
My First Sign Of Running Injuries
About four years ago I had so much pain on the bottom of my left foot that I literally couldn’t walk normal. I was constantly limping around and decided it was time to see a doctor.
That appointment diagnosed me with a common runners injury called plantar fasciitis. The doctor instructed me to find some better footwear, specifically running shoes that had a wide toe box.
Soon after that appointment I changed ALL of my footwear. I bought more expensive dress shoes for work as well as purchasing a pair of wide toe Altra running shoes from a Fleet Feet running store.
Even With My Expensive New Running Shoes, More Injuries Came
The wide toe box in my new shoes did help relieve a lot of my plantar fasciitis symptoms. But it would still resurface now and then. Therefore I knew that these new running shoes hadn’t completely helped.
Next thing I knew I had developed an upper hamstring injury that persisted for years.
I saw two different doctors and two different physical therapists, and even went through an extensive physical therapy routine that consisted of twice weekly sessions, along with at home workouts for a period of 12 weeks.
The physical therapy helped, but never completely healed my upper hamstring injury. It was also getting very expensive, even with the health insurance plan I had.
This really bummed me out. I felt like I couldn’t do the one exercise that I love more than anything, running, without feeling pain.
Despite the upper hamstring injury and the coming and going of plantar fasciitis I continued to do some running.
However, I was still on a mission to heal my injuries.
So that brings me back to why I was ready give running barefoot a try. I figured I had nothing else to loose, so why not try a method of how humans ran for thousands of years.
I picked a local park in Portland to test out running barefoot for the first time.
It was a typical rainy day in Portland, but that wasn’t going to stop me from giving this a try.
I specifically chose a park that had a lot of grassy field space where I could run long laps without having to run on pavement.
I decided to drive to the park where I would start running. Usually I just start running from home, but in this case since I wanted to do the entire run barefoot, I figured why not drive two minutes down the road and start from the park.
So there I was, in the parking lot inside my car mustering up the courage to remove my shoes and start running.
The thoughts going through my head were that if anyone saw me they would surely think I was out of my mind.
But, I didn’t really care. If running barefoot three to four times a week would heal my upper hamstring and plantar fasciitis what do I care what some stranger thinks of me.
Here goes nothing, I thought. I placed both of my feet on the parking lot black top and walked my way to the edge of the paved bicycle path so that I could be on grass to start running.
My first steps in the wet grass actually felt really good. Its like when you are a kid just playing outside. It felt instantly enjoyable.
The first thing I noticed is how aware I was of each step I was taking. I was overly cautious of trying not to step on a sharp piece of wood debris or a rock.
About halfway through my first lap I stepped on a spiky weed of some sort.
It felt like little pins and needles in my foot. I stopped and brushed off both feet. Nothing was stuck in them, thankfully. I just had a few scrapes.
Okay, note to self, I thought, next lap, just run on the paved path and not on the grass to avoid the spiky plant.
I started noticing stares in my direction when I passed by other runners, bicyclist and walkers. I can only imagine what they were thinking.
But I didn’t mind, I laughed to myself, and just thought of this whole “running barefoot” trial as my own personal science experiment.
On my second lap, I ran on pavement to avoid the spiky plant.
The transition to having pavement under my bare feet instantly felt more difficult. There was no give to the ground below me, and I could feel tiny rocks on the surface that hurt the bottoms of my feet.
Despite the tiny bit of discomfort of running on new surfaces it also felt like a new challenge that I wanted to continue with.
Of course I was going to feel it. I had been running my entire life prior to his moment with sneakers that protected my feet.
Just because I was experiencing a little bit of pain it didn’t stop me from continuing my laps. All of a sudden before I knew it 30 minutes had gone by and I was feeling really good.
My cardio was great, and I was enjoying this new style of running. I didn’t want to push it too much for my first run, so I decided to call it a day on my first ever barefoot running experience and head home.
Climbing back into my car my feet were covered with pieces of grass blades and dirt.
That night I felt some new muscle soreness that I had not felt in a long time.
My shins, calfs and the bottoms of my feet felt sore. That good muscle soreness feeling when you know you had a good workout. But not the painful feeling of a pulled muscle.
I realized that the way I was running barefoot was engaging different muscles in my body that had not been challenged in this way for a long time.
Hmm, maybe I was on to something here. Not that running barefoot was my miraculous idea. In fact the barefoot movement has had a loyal following for years now.
Popular shoe companies are finally making thin soled shoes that show hardly any cushion. Their aim? To try to mimic a barefoot as much as possible.
There are even running sandals that are marketed specifically for running.
My plan going forward
I am going to incorporate running barefoot workouts into my usual weekly routine. The plan is to do about three barefoot running workouts a week.
For trail running, I knew that I needed to find a new sneaker.
With everything that I have read about the benefits of running barefoot, I didn’t want to throw that out the window and continue with my thick soled altra shoes during weekend trail runs through the woods.
So after lots of internet research and reading reviews I decided to purchase the Merrell Trail Glove 5 women’s running shoe.
This shoe is specifically meant to mimic as close to barefoot running on trails as possible. I am hopeful this will be a good switch from my current footwear.
And who knows, maybe at some point I will test barefoot running on a trail but until that time, I am excited to see where running barefoot takes me.