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January 2, 2012

Shaking the Devil; A Barefoot Resolution

“I like to keep my issues drawn -
But it's always darkest before the dawn -

Shake it out, shake it out - shake it out, shake it out, oh woah …
And it's hard to dance with a devil on your back –
So shake him off, oh woah.”

-Florence + the Machine, “Shake It Out”, (video after post)


The first days of the calendar year are always somewhat anxious for me, in that it’s time to shake the devil off my back and get reacquainted with the routine of training on a regular basis.

I usually give myself permission to be a complete slacker during the month of December, so there’s very little guilt about sleeping in when it’s dark, drinking wine when I want to loosen up, or eating cookies when they magically appear around Christmastime. The whole process is so predictable, it’s become almost a holiday tradition for the family to guess the date when I’ll finally pop a button on my pants. (They don’t make Hallmark cards for that, I’ve noticed.)

New Year’s Eve tends to be a symbolic rock bottom, the darkest point before I start crawling toward the glimmer of good habits and self-discipline dawning on the horizon. Once January rolls around I can usually step up and start making some tangible progress toward whatever goal I’ve set for myself further down the calendar. But this year I seem to be struggling a bit more than usual, in that I have absolutely no idea what I want to do in 2012.

I don’t know if I want to chase far-off windmills or hunker down closer to home. I don’t know if I want to do something epic and inspiring or something more mundane and manageable. I don’t even know if I want to do formal races, or have more of a “choose your own adventure” year of visiting places and trails that I’ve been longing to explore. Especially considering that the Northern California ultra scene is currently wracked in so much unfortunate drama and shocking grief, it’s hard to elevate the importance of any particular race (or for that matter, running in general) in the grand scheme of things.

So … yeah. I’ll manage to shake something out, but it might take a little bit longer than usual; the devil on my back feels especially heavy this time around. In the meantime, I was asked to author a piece in a local magazine on the subject of New Year’s resolutions; instead of doing the regular “you should start running” spiel, I decided to put a spin on it that might grab the attention of anyone who has started and eventually given up a running program in New Years past. You probably know where this one is going – and the full article follows below.


“Resolve to Start Running – Barefoot!”

In the long, storied, frequently disappointing history of New Year’s resolutions, perhaps the most common one is this: I’m going to get in shape this year. I’m going to start running.

Certainly that’s a good idea … but what are you going to do differently this time to make sure you enjoy it more, avoid injuries, and stay consistent until January 2013 and beyond? If you want to make a major change in your previously unsuccessful or long-dormant running habit, here’s a radical notion to try: ditch your running shoes.

(You may recognize these photos - they're all recycled from past blog posts.  They were also used in the magazine article last week. ) 

Barefoot running isn’t exactly a novel idea, but it’s currently the most revolutionary (and often controversial) movement the running community has witnessed in quite a while. Runners with chronic injuries often find that going barefoot solves their problems, and veteran runners experience joy in their training that they haven’t felt since running across the playground as children.

More recently, the movement has gained increasing legitimacy. Barefoot running – as well as its close cousin, minimalist running – has progressed from a weird fringe element to popular fad to the subject of research studies. There’s mounting evidence that the natural running style associated with naked feet has multiple biomechanical and health-related benefits for all runners.

Here’s the premise: Over the past 30 years, modern running shoe technology hasn’t reduced the injury rate among runners at all. No matter how many cushioning, support, or stability features are crammed into your expensive high-performance training shoes, you’re no less likely to become injured – in fact, you’re probably even more so. By contrast, when you strip away the so-called protective and corrective features, your running form changes toward a style with less impact, and a lower incidence of most running-related injuries.

The primary downside of barefooting is that to get started, you must proceed extremely slowly. As in one minute at a time slowly. 20-minutes-per-mile pace slowly. So slow that it feels like you’re not actually running. Barefoot running is a skill developed over months and years, not days and weeks. If you’re not the patient type, you’d better make a resolution about that one as well.

Start anywhere you like – and believe it or not, asphalt is an ideal surface for your first baby steps. Remove your shoes and socks, and run for a minute or two, landing softly on the front of your feet before lightly touching your heel to the ground and then repeating with the opposite foot. Take very short steps, and don’t worry about how slow you’re going.

Build up the length of time gradually over a period of many weeks – and if you have any significant pain, stop your run and try it again another day. You’ll probably get some blisters or hot spots on the bottom of your feet; they’ll eventually become callouses that aren’t nearly so bothersome, and the underside of your foot will gradually grow firm yet supple, like the leather of a well-worn baseball mitt. Your feet, ankles, and calves will get very sore when you start; remember, those muscles are being stretched and used in ways they never were when confined to clunky cross-trainers.

Look online for barefoot running resources to help you get started, or check out two outstanding books: ChiRunning by Danny Dreyer, and Barefoot Running by Michael Sandler, who also operates the website RunBare.com. The support and instruction you will find from like-minded souls online will be helpful as you progress.

Of course, it’s January, so you can’t always run outside with nothing on your feet. That’s where minimalist shoes come in. These products allow your feet to move as they would without shoes, while providing a small amount of warmth and protection for external conditions.

Minimalist shoes are built as lightweight, flat, and low to the ground as possible, without any unnecessary cushioning or support. The most popular models are Vibram’s FiveFingers – those strange “toe shoes” you’re starting to see everywhere – but there are literally dozens of options on the market to choose from. The topic of minimalist footwear is an article all its own; for now, check out my Running and Rambling website for some ideas and other good resources.

Once you’ve built up to it properly, barefoot running is simply a lot of fun. You’ll feel like a kid, and exercise starts feeling like recess. If your goal is to maintain a running program throughout the year, the ability to enjoy yourself will be one of the greatest contributors to your success. Kick off your shoes, and go have some fun!

Florence + The Machine, "Shake It Out" (click to play):

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William 1/3/12, 5:38 AM  

Wonderful song by Florence that has been worn out on my ipod. I personally love running lower mileage runs in the NB Minimus Trail. So enjoyable!

Richard Averett 1/3/12, 8:58 AM  

Maybe I should try your Winter Wasting routine. My Solstice Sickness schtick is clearly not getting me where i want to go.

Cherylrunner 1/3/12, 10:50 AM  

Donald, I awoke this morning to your blog in my mailbox. I clicked on the link you referenced with "shocking grief" in Gretchen’s blog and read about Linda and Robert’s death. Tears welled as I read Gretchen’s beautiful tribute laced with her own grief. I live in Reno and of course, Incline is right over the hill from where I live. I have run their races.
I love the Machine. Great pick to sum up your writing and feelings. I am at a loss for words, but thank you for what you have written.
Thanks, too, for referencing ChiRunning in your article about barefooting. As a Certified Instructor, I know my opinion is biased, but having said that, I feel that attention to form is more important than attention to what’s on your feet. Most people who learn to run properly, naturally move towards a more minimal shoe. Barefooting forces a midfoot landing as it's too painful to heel strike and a shortened stride, both of which can be accomplished with any shoe and is a good place to start when transitioning.
I am sure that you will discover what will be the best path for you this 2012. I look forward to hearing about it! Remember the song, “It’s always darkest before the dawn…”

Adam R. 1/3/12, 5:04 PM  

I've been interested in barefoot running, but I also live in a part of the U.S. where running indoors for about a third of the year is a necessity. I assume it's near impossible to run barefoot or even in minimalist shoes on a treadmill, right?

Michael Shane Helton 1/3/12, 6:58 PM  

@Adam: You can do barefoot or minimalist on treadmill; I never have a problem on business trips.

@Donald: Drinking is never a source of guilt! Heck, being able to drink guilt-free is one of the main reasons I run! ;-)

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