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August 8, 2009

The Barefoot Files: Training Update #1

* Series note: For this barefoot running series, my plan is to provide training updates like the one that follows at least every couple of weeks – I’m hoping that if I do them somewhat frequently, they won’t be quite as lengthy as this one. Additionally, since writing the introductory post, I’ve arranged for gear reviews of Nike Free and Vivo Barefoot shoes in addition to the Vibram Five Fingers. There’s lots more of this topic to come, obviously.

“Free – ee – ee –
(Dontcha want to be) free – ee – ee
(From time to time a little) free – ee – ee
(Feels so good to be) free – ee – ee”
- Donavon Frankenreiter, “Free” (video after post)

If the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, making that journey while barefoot would start with an extremely tiny baby step.

That’s the mindset with which I’m treading into the world of barefoot running right now – and the intent of these training posts is to chronicle the buildup in case anyone else is intrigued enough to follow. Longtime readers here can attest that I almost never detail my daily workouts, weekly mileage, or other “raw data” from training – but The Barefoot Files will be the exception that proves the rule.

There’s an ulterior motive for this policy change as well: I’m terrified of screwing something up. I don’t want to force the progress too rapidly and end up injured and frustrated and wondering why the heck I even bothered trying this. Hopefully, being publicly accountable will prevent such a situation from developing. I don’t ever mind making an example of myself, but I generally prefer that it’s for the act of doing something correctly.

"It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others" - in this case, I hope not.

Without exception, the most common piece of advice that I’ve heard is to build up to barefoot running in very small doses; the activity is a shock that your musculoskeletal system is initially unprepared to deal with for more than a few minutes at a time. In light of that, and for the other reasons above, I’m doing something else that I gave up more than 10 years ago: keeping a training log of sorts.

I’m still not tracking my overall mileage or individual workouts, but I’m logging the amount of time I spend barefoot, and on what surfaces. If it works out well, feel free to copy the model for yourself. If it doesn’t … you can thank me later for the warning.

On that note, here’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks:

Week 1: 3 barefoot sessions: twice for 5-min each on asphalt, once for 5 minutes on dirt.

Each of these came after my regularly scheduled run; as soon as I finished, I stripped off my shoes and socks, and kept on going. The main goal was just to get a feel for being barefoot, see what my running pattern would feel like, and how the pain tolerance on the soles of my feet would be. I also started purposely walking barefoot around the house and yard more often, instead of instinctively slipping into sandals after work in the evening.

It’s almost shocking how immediately and thoroughly your running pattern changes once you kick off your shoes: Your foot strike flattens, your knees and hips flex to absorb more impact, and your stride length becomes ridiculously short. These are the baby steps that eventually turn you into a barefoot runner, but during those first few sessions, it will feel like you’re barely making forward progress.

Which brings up another point worth mentioning if you’re going to start running barefoot: you have to accept running slowly. Embarrassingly slow, in fact. So slow that, if you were to watch yourself from a distance, your altered gait pattern and minimal forward displacement wouldn’t resemble running as much as a Native American rain dance. Throw some feathers on your head, and chances are that nobody could tell the difference.

Week 2: 4 barefoot sessions: twice for 5 minutes on asphalt, once for 8 minutes on dirt, once for 3 minutes on asphalt.

This is the period when I almost overdid it: since we were on vacation in the Sierras, I figured that I’d tried to stay barefoot for entire days at a time. With my running, I did the same routine as above, tacking a few minutes onto the end of each run. (If you’re keeping track at home, the dirt session followed the run in Big Trees park from this post.)

Predictably, I developed some sore spots on my feet: not blisters, but mild pain at some pressure spots on the underside of my foot – primarily along the line of metatarsal heads (where the base of the toes connect with the rest of the foot). The discomfort was bad enough to make me cut the 4th run a few minutes shorter than I intended, and it got me back into a pair of sandals for most of the day again.

The good news is that after a few days off, I was able to resume without problems the next week. Which brings us to …

Week 3: 4 sessions: 8 minutes on asphalt, 20 minutes on grass, 10 minutes in Vibram Five Fingers, 5 minutes on dirt.

The asphalt run was the first after the layoff, and all seemed well again. I can feel the skin on my feet becoming calloused, but right now it’s still in the stage where those formative calluses are painful – so I was seeking a little more comfort for the next two runs.

Luckily, I live close to this place:

That’s Toro County Park, which I’ve detailed in two separate posts (see photo tours on right sidebar). There’s a grassly inlet at the entrance to the park almost a half-mile long; ironically, for years this has been the area that I dismissively skirt around on my way to the dirt trails on either side of the grass, heading toward the big hills beyond. Now I see myself logging a lot of time here over the next few months. During my first barefoot run here, I only had to double back twice to log 20 minutes.

Week 3 also saw my first run in Vibram Five Fingers, a protective coating which basically allows you to run barefoot without the pain of overly sensitive soles. I’m going to do an entire post devoted to this product; for now, suffice it to say that they’re amazing.

These last two runs – one in the grass, and one with the Vibram Five Fingers - also emphasized the element of barefoot training that I’m already finding intoxicating: the feeling of absolute freedom that you get by running around with nothing on your feet. The simplistic pleasure of leaving my shoes behind never fails to make me feel like a child – and by extension, it makes exercise feel like playtime. This phenomenon will also be the subject of its own post at some point.

In the meantime, I’ll summarize this first update by reporting that after three weeks, my progress is coming along nicely, and it feels quite good to be free.

Music note: this song and its video sometimes make me question my decision to do the marriage-career-kids thing so early in life. Sometimes I really wish I had just smuggled myself onboard a ship to Hawaii and lived as a surf bum for five or ten years. Clearly, that time has passed ... but it still feels nice to get lost in music like this every now and then.

Donavon Frankenreiter, “Free” (click to play):


Backofpack 8/9/09, 10:01 PM  

Our older son went barefoot for about four years - ironically, only starting to wear shoes again when he began living on the land. Turns out there was poison oak around...but still, he lived in Seattle and went barefoot the whole time. I think the only time he wore shoes was when he was with Eric and I and we made him put them on to go into restaurants. It'll be interesting to see how this works out for you!

Gretchen 8/10/09, 1:44 PM  

LOVE Donavon Frankenreiter!

While I'm not insanely intrigued by this whole barefoot phenomenon, I am looking forward to the hinted-at post on how running barefoot makes one feel like a kid. That's where my real interest in the topic is. My barefoot running has always been strictly limited to grass (and occasionally beaches)and what I love about it is the feel of the grass between my toes, the spring it seems to add, the feel of pure play and being a child. I actually feel like I often run faster when barefoot.

On a seperate topic, I have a suggestion for your next visit to Lake Alpine. Have you ever run the PCT between Carson Pass and Ebbetts Pass? Phenomenal! I just ran it this weekend, and I am still reeling in delight. You should start incurring favors from family members now so that by next summer you can get someone to drive the pick-up/drop-off for you. I'll post some pictures later this week.

stronger 8/10/09, 5:17 PM  

I've done a barefoot trail run to avert full blown blisters due to the wrong shoe choice. Not nearly as bad as I was expecting...rather enjoyable. I think everyone should experience it at least once.

I've seen the feet of long term barefoot island runners and they seemed very dried, cracked and wide.

Rainmaker 8/10/09, 8:08 PM  

Good update. I'm continueing to watch as this develops, and it sounds like you're on the right track. Also looking forward to the revies once you've had time to get 'close' with them.

Peter Lubbers 8/14/09, 11:30 AM  

You've probably already seen this, but I just came across this interview with Barefoot Ted that you might enjoy:

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