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September 9, 2009

The Barefoot Files: Training Update #3

"Easy, then light, then smooth, then fast. Take care of the first three, and fast will take care of itself."

- Caballo Blanco (pictured), from Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

One indication that your life has taken a turn for the crazy might be when you start considering mantras from a quirky, mysterious, middle-aged vagabond to be some kind of universal wisdom.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what’s become of me over the past few weeks as I try to settle into a comfortable routine as a barefoot runner. While some parts are falling into place quite nicely, there are other aspects that I continually struggle against – although I think I might have had a minor breakthrough in that regard, as Ill explain shortly.

With that, let’s get to the details. (I’m trying to keep these reports shorter, I promise.) If you missed them, update #1 is here, and update #2 is here.

Week 6: 4 barefoot runs, 2 Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) runs

• 30 min on asphalt
• 20 min on all-weather track
• 10 min on dirt
• 10 min on asphalt

Vibram Five Fingers (VFF):
• 60 min on trail
• 65 min on trail

The 30-minute road run represents the longest duration I have gone without shoes, and also the first time that I walked out the door solely to do a barefoot run. That is, I didn’t tack these minutes onto the end of a longer shod run; the entire workout was 30 minutes long. Kind of sad for an ultrarunner. Even more depressing was the fact that I probably only covered about 2 miles – more on that issue in a second.

I figured I’d try running on the track one day, thinking that its springiness would be a comfortable departure from the hard asphalt. It was, and it wasn’t. The impact of the track was very minimal, but the rough texture of the all-weather surface was the perfect formula for creating friction blisters on my toes. I cut this workout short just as I started feeling some hot spots.

Resting in the meadow

Dirt surfaces weren’t much of a relief, either. Remember the quaint little meadow I wrote about recently? I run on the dirt paths there sometimes – and if I’m not tormented by sticks and pebbles and acorn shells, I’m wincing from the little thorns dispersed from the recently mowed wild grass. It’s amazing how such tiny little things can cause such immense discomfort sometimes.

On the plus side, one nice development has been my rapid progression and easy tolerance of using the Vibram FiveFingers. Aside from the traction issues on steep downhills that I mentioned in my KSO review, I feel very confident tackling any kind of terrain with them, and I don’t seem to suffer any strange aches or soreness afterwards. They’re the only means by which I can get any decent mileage on trails right now.

In fact, I felt comfortable enough to debut the VFFs on a group outing, at our weekly 6-mile hilly trail run. My overall time was a few minutes slower than normal, but I kept up well enough that the rest of the group didn’t have to wait for me more than a couple of minutes at the bottom of some long descents - or maybe they were just being polite to the freak who showed up wearing gorilla feet. It’s sometimes tough to tell.

Hitting the trails in VFF

Week 7: 5 barefoot runs, 2 VFF runs

• 20 min asphalt
• 12 min asphalt
• 6 min dirt
• 24 min asphalt
• 15 min asphalt

• 55 min trail
• 65 min trail

My VFF mileage stayed pretty consistent this week, mainly because I didn’t have enough training time to push further. That will come soon enough.

The primary revelation from this week has been a mental shift in my approach to running barefoot on asphalt - and that’s where I’m starting to channel my inner Caballo Blanco.

From the very beginning of this experiment, my biggest frustration has been how excruciatingly slow you have to go when starting out barefoot. On most of my road runs, I’ve tried to push the pace as soon as I felt capable of it, only to develop some strange (and usually sharp) pain as a result. My form would falter a bit right as I tried to speed up, and I could feel the difference in my foot strike immediately. More often than not, my barefoot road runs would end with me nursing one sore spot or another that developed due to my impatience.

Finally, in the midst of struggling down one particularly rough stretch of road and feeling down on myself, I recalled the quote that introduced this post, and decided to check myself before I wrecked myself. I basically thought, “Screw it – just run the right way, as easy as you need to in order to make it more comfortable, no matter how slowly you’re moving or how ridiculous you look.” I shortened my stride to near baby steps, and slowed my pace down remarkably close to walking.

It sounds surreal – but just a few moments later, the asphalt became much more tolerable. (I warned you that this stuff could turn crazy.)

At one with the road ... seriously

I came to realize that I’ve been battling the asphalt all this time, when I should really be trying to work with it instead. So during my last two runs of the week, I did exactly that: I ran as easy as possible, taking only what the road gave me without striving for anything more, and disregarding any expectation of speed or distance. That mental shift made a world of difference; now instead of finishing workouts in pain, I’ve completed the last couple of workouts feeling like I could keep right on going if I had the time to do so.

In other words, I think I’ve got easy down now. I’m working on light (not exactly my specialty), then I guess I’ll need to figure out smooth (whatever that means) somehow before I begin to worry about fast anymore. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but at least the long journey won’t be quite so painful anymore.


Tuck 9/9/09, 9:41 PM  

Hey Donald, check out the podcast Brandon's Marathon, episode 50. Brandon interviews Chris McDougall, and if you're a fan of 'Born to Run' (I gather you are) it's something you really ought to listen to. Chris discusses a lot of stuff that's happened since he wrote the book, including how he's given up on shoes and started running barefoot almost exclusively. He's got a lot of really interesting tips that you might find helpful (he runs 90 minutes barefoot w/ no problem nowadays.

shel 9/10/09, 5:13 AM  

feel your pain on this donald. i want to run fast and far and when i'm barefoot i couldn't be further from that. it does take time, but whenever i get frustrated i think of jason robillard running 50 miles without shoes, or running 6-7 minute miles during a 5k. he can do it - so can we. one step at a time...

Hank 9/16/09, 10:20 PM  

"I ran as easy as possible, taking only what the road gave me without striving for anything more, and disregarding any expectation of speed or distance."

I've been struggling off and on since I started barefoot running last May. But for the last two weeks I followed the same advice of taking it easy. It's not perfect yet, but it's so much better than before. I can do 3 miles or asphalt and end up with just the slightest stinging in a couple of spots on my soles. But it beats the heck out of the hideous blisters I've needlessly suffered through.

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