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  Three Years Later

Running Barefoot

The subject I want to talk about here is actually not just running barefoot per se but also various other adventures in barefootedness that I've had since I wrote Walking Barefoot. So, the title isn't perfect, but it'll do. Running barefoot is still a large part of the subject, and Running Barefoot is a fitting name for a second essay about being barefoot, since you have to walk before you can run.

Let me start with the story of how I got into barefoot running. Unfortunately, I no longer remember the exact starting point. I know it was just over a year ago. I think I must have seen, or seen an ad for, some of those FiveFingers shoes. I was curious, but not curious enough to spend nearly a hundred bucks on something I might easily use once or twice and then lose interest in. I knew, though, that the point was to run as if you were barefoot, so I told myself that first I'd try that, running totally barefoot, and if I liked it, then I could buy the shoes. And, try it I did, mostly on the grass in a nearby park, and mostly sprinting since I didn't know any other way to run on the front of my feet.

After not very much of that, a fortunate coincidence occurred. One night when I was over at my parents' house for dinner, I mentioned that I'd been learning to run barefoot, and that prompted my dad to loan me a book that my uncle had just sent them, Born to Run. (I later found out that it had been given to my uncle by my cousin as a present, so now I value it that much more.) I read it quickly, and was fascinated and inspired. It's about running in minimal shoes (among other things), not running barefoot, but running barefoot does play a part in the story, and it's presented as a real thing that it's possible to do. From then on I thought of running barefoot as an end in itself, not just a step on the way to new shoes, and I started experimenting a bit more to see what my feet were capable of.

On the unfortunate side, a couple of months later I broke one of my toes—not by running barefoot, not even by walking barefoot, just by accident—and that put an end to my experiments for a while.

In late spring, when my toe was almost completely healed, another coincidence occurred: Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, came through town and gave a talk! I didn't hear about the talk in time to go, but it still got me thinking about running again, so a few weeks later when Michael Sandler, author of Barefoot Running, came through town, I was excited to go hear what he had to say. The talk was in fact very helpful. It confirmed that I was more or less on the right track and also gave me lots of practical new ideas to try out.

Around the same time I started going running with my girlfriend. At first I wore running shoes since I didn't want to put too much stress on my toe, but then one day I tried taking my shoes off and running the last part barefoot, then the next day I did it again and ran a little further, and before I knew it I was running the whole thing completely barefoot. And, that brings us to the present, when I can routinely run two or more miles on concrete with no trouble except the occasional tiny blister.

So, that's the end of my story. I don't know if it has a moral, but it does contain an obvious and important point that I'd like to emphasize: it is possible to run barefoot, possible even for someone like me who isn't especially athletic. There's another important point that I completely left out: running barefoot isn't just possible, it's fun! It also feels really good. In fact, it combines the good qualities of walking barefoot with the good qualities of ordinary running, only better, because it feels light and strong and fast, not slow and ponderous. It's also surprisingly quiet. I was so used to the sound of shoes on pavement that I thought it was an intrinsic part of running!

Next, here are the main practical ideas from Michael Sandler's talk that I hadn't already picked up somewhere else.

  • Use the feedback from your feet. If something hurts, don't do it! Concrete is actively good, not just OK, because it gives you the most feedback.
  • Start with short distances, like 100 yards. Really, no kidding. You'll want to run further because it feels so good, but don't. Your feet and legs need time to adapt. (I'd like to add that even so, your calves will be tight and sore the next day. Don't worry, that's perfectly normal. After a while they'll become big and strong.)
  • Expect to take shorter, faster steps. The right tempo is roughly three steps per second instead of two.
  • Take a pair of shoes with you, just in case. You can hold them in your hands and use them as weights—a good use for your old running shoes! (So far I haven't had much trouble with poky things on the ground, and in fact I haven't needed to watch the ground nearly as much as I thought I would. It's still a good idea to take shoes.)

Finally, here are some ideas and observations from my own experience. I'm not sure they're good ideas, but I'll throw them out there anyway.

  • At the end of each step, you don't want to wait passively until your foot hits the ground, you want to reach down with your foot to meet it. It feels like pointing your toes, except the toes themselves stay flat.
  • Running through thick grass has some of the right feeling. I like the way you have to pull your feet up out of the grass and the way you have to bend your knees to do it.
  • Running up steps has a lot of the right feeling. You have to be light and springy without being bouncy. I think the way you have to flick your foot on each step to provide power is key. If possible, find a set of wide, shallow steps somewhere outside.
  • Speaking of being springy, sometimes I've enjoyed imagining that my feet are real mechanical springs like the ones Oscar Pistorius uses or the ones you wear in Portal. That has some of the right feeling too. Really, though, your feet ought to be better than springs!

That's all I have to say about running barefoot right now, so, onward to the other adventures!

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@ November (2011)