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July 28, 2009

The Barefoot Files

Before we get to today’s post, a quick reminder: you’re running out of shopping days to get great deals on La Sportiva Wildcats, La Sportiva Crosslites, or Injinji socks at Wilderness Running Company. All of the items are on sale for 10% off, plus an additional 10% by using coupon code R&R10 – and if you buy either pair of La Sportivas, you’ll also get a free pair of Drymax socks. These deals end on July 31 for the shoes, and August 3rd for the Injinjis - so get a move on if you want to grab them.

As for today’s post, we’re moving away from shoes in the most fundamental way possible …


“And what about those shoes you’re in today?
They’ll do no good … ”
- Jack Johnson, “Gone” (video after post)

I mentioned in my Injinji sock review that there’s a notable progression towards a “less is more” philosophy regarding trail running footwear, and I hinted that the idea has been quite compelling to me recently. Truthfully, it’s not just minimalist footwear that has me excited; it’s the thought of running with no footwear at all.

That’s right … I’m starting to run barefoot.

Although this is a brand new direction for me to travel, the idea has been percolating in my head for many years – in fact, almost as long as I’ve been a runner. When I was a novice marathoner nearly 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the story of Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic marathon while running barefoot (he did it again in 1964, this time with shoes), and who remains one of my favorite symbols of everything that is admirable about running (I even wrote an article about him way back then, comparing his story to the lessons of the Christmas season. It's a novice effort, but you're welcome to read it.)

As a child, I watched the infamous Zola Budd-Mary Decker race at the 1984 Olympics – and what struck me most wasn’t the fact that the two runners collided (it happens all the time in track, after all), but that Budd regularly mixed it up in a pack of spike-shod athletes with no protection whatsoever to her own feet. And in recent years, I’ve admired the penchant of my favorite elite ultrarunner for logging several barefoot miles each week on high country trails in Colorado.

All three of these athletes have competed at the highest level of their sport, on every running surface imaginable (Budd actually won back to back world cross-country championships in bare feet). So I’ve never really questioned whether somebody could succeed while running barefoot – rather, I just wondered whether it was something I’d have enough patience and discipline to try.

While the notion has always appealed to me, somehow over the course of my progression from marathoner to triathlete to ultrarunner, the timing never seemed right. This summer, a couple of factors have finally persuaded me that there’s no better time than now to make a foray into the world of barefoot running.

The first factor I’ve described in some detail already: I read (and reviewed) the book Born to Run. In addition to being a great page-turner about one of the most fabled ultramarathons ever contested, it’s essentially a 300-page manifesto on the virtues of running barefoot. I won’t rehash all the details here – check out my review if you’re interested – but suffice it to say that I was inspired.

I’ve also mentioned the other factor that plays into this decision: namely, I don’t have anything else to do. My race season is over; there’s nothing on the calendar to distract my attention, and I don’t have to worry about maintaining a certain number of miles per week or pace per mile from one workout to the next. In other words, from a training standpoint, I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.

That last point isn’t insignificant – because from everything I’ve learned, going down this road is a very lengthy process. You have to start with baby steps, progressing from week to week by minutes instead of by miles, and always as the smallest percentage of your overall mileage. The handful of runners who run entirely without shoes build up to that status over a period of several years, not months. I’m going to make every effort to avoid having this become “The Injury Files” once we get fully underway.

It also bears emphasizing that my goal isn’t to become an exclusively barefoot runner (especially since I have a few more shoe reviews lined up - that would be awkward); it’s to incorporate barefoot running as a regular component of my trail running regimen, and get in touch with some of the unique physical, psychological, sociological, and seven spiritual aspects of kicking off my shoes and running free.

So this post is mainly an introduction, and a roadmap of sorts for some topics I’ll be exploring in separate posts intermittently over the next few months. I don’t have a real specific framework in mind, but here’s a sampling of some things I have in store:

* A basic explanation of the biomechanical/anthropological theory behind barefoot running – which, ironically, has recently been embraced and promoted by some of the wealthiest shoe manufacturers in the world.

* A beginner’s guide to barefoot training, based on my own experience plus guidelines from more experienced practitioners. I've done a couple of very short barefoot runs so far, and I'll try to provide specific details about these sessions as they develop.

* A review of the Vibram Five Fingers “shoe”, a brilliant product that straddles the two worlds of barefoot running and high-tech athletic gear, and may be – depending on who you talk to - nothing short of revolutionary, or nothing more than a gimmick.

* A brief foray into the support network of barefoot runners; if you thought ultramarathoners were a crazy fringe element of the sport of running, just wait until you meet some of this crowd.

* Finding the right balance between barefoot running, training shoes, and everyday footwear that optimizes the training and (presumed) health benefits while dampening the “freak factor” that inevitably occurs once people notice my absence of shoes.

I may work some other angles in there as warranted, but this certainly gives me enough to chew on for a while. I’ll also be open to any suggestions for topic ideas as we get further along in the process. Just understand that I don’t really know where this little experiment is going to lead – but I’ll be glad to have some company to share my results with.

It’s turning into a Jack Johnson theme week around here – but since we’re in the middle of summer, there’s really no reason to avoid it. Here’s one of his classics, which was later remade by the Black Eyed Peas: “Gone” (click to play)


Rainmaker 7/28/09, 10:32 PM  

This is pretty cool. I'm interested to see how your conversion goes (whether it be temporary or permanent).

Sarah 7/29/09, 7:59 AM  

Looking forward to your posts on this subject! After 17 months off I'm getting back into running with the couch to 5k program AND doing my run/walks exclusively in vibrams. I'm on week 4 and so far so good!

Hank 7/29/09, 8:59 AM  

I started running barefoot just last April. It's been a school of hard knocks for me, because I'm not a trained runner nor do I know anything about biomechanics, etc. I just run. I was not aware that it could take years to build up to it so there have been frustrations. I've endured blisters and aching shins while finding and learning a new and comfortable running style. I'm almost there but my callouses need to thicken even more. Landing on that lone small stone is still just as painful as before. And that 10-grit asphalt quickly grinds down the callouses.

But when I run on grass or dirt I feel so fast and free.

jeff 7/29/09, 1:17 PM  


hehe...just don't start out like i did. a rubber track is VERY unforgiving.

Stuart 7/29/09, 2:39 PM  

I'll be interested to follow your progress, there is huge swing to barefoot running (I wish I had got Vibram stock 18mths ago when I first saw VFFs).

Personally I am not convinced, I remain injury free in my orthotics and Kayanos

Anne 7/30/09, 9:55 AM  

Should be interesting to see how your feet and your body adapt to the lack of layers between you and the surface. Biomechanically, it makes so much sense. Logically, well, it's a bit different since there are all kinds of creepy things to step on. I'm still too queamish to give it a try.

Lesser is More 7/30/09, 1:00 PM  

I'll be interested to read how things progress for you. I've been interested in this for a long time, and occasionally mix in some very short "runs" of the barefoot variety. Best of luck!

Julie 8/18/09, 3:38 PM  

I don't train barefoot...mostly due to the fact I run on lots and lots of very rocky trails. Maybe the Vibram "shoe" is a good option...I'll have to look into it. I do know my running form is much much more efficient without shoes: my PR in the 5k was barefoot on sand on an accurate course (even compared to all my track 5ks), and the one time I did run barefoot on a track I set the womens track record for that track (and messed up my feet enough to go to the ER). Its a bit ridiculous how much faster I run with better form once I take the shoes off...good luck with the transition! It will be interesting to follow.

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