Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Getting my Feet Dirty - Barefoot Running


A recent trend in the athletic world seems to me a bit strange - barefoot running. For the past few years runners and shoe companies have been making major adjustments to their training and products based largely on the premise of one influential philosophy - minimalism. In this context it is the idea that barefoot is way we were meant to run.

This idea was futher popularized by the book Born To Run - A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen - by Christopher McDougall (Google Affiliate Ad). It was a run away hit in 2011 (Pun intended). It tells the story of an Indian tribe that runs hundreds of miles every year without shoes and without injury. He not only tells their tale but also connects recent research which suggest that modern day shoes might hurt our feet as much as help in these types of endeavors. Admittedly, I have yet to read this book but it is on my list.


While all of this sounds like a twisted version of back to the future where scores of people just start throwing off their sneakers in a mad attempt to break 88 mile per hour, it is not so cut and dry. Other experts have come forward stating that barefoot running has been used by coaches to teach better technique for many years. They are also warning that beginners could just as easily hurt themselves should they jump into this trend before understanding the painful possibilities. For more on this perspective read the Post Injury Running Blog.

With all of these thoughts in mind, I still decided to give it a try. However, I'm not some noob who jumps into a pool of jellyfish thinking he's Aquaman - I took precautions.


My plan was simple. I wanted to start working on 400 meter sprints to improve my speed. I measured out the cricket field at my local recreational park to ensure the distance and then I did a warm-up lap with my shoes on. The oval was well groomed, soft grass without any obstructions. I know because my initial lap gave me an opportunity to look for anything that might hurt my feet.

I returned to the pavilion, took off my shoes and did some dynamic stretching before returning to the oval. Now it was time for some fun.


The first lap was not a success. My feet felt heavy due to the fact that they were making real contact with the earth. At the 100 meter mark I stepped on a sand spur but I kept going and a few feet later stepped on another. The two were poking lightly into my skin and they hurt but it took another fifty meters before I had to stop and pull them out. The rest of the lap went by without incident.

One bad lap was not going to stop me. I took a breather, double checked my feet and returned for the third lap.


You know those moments in life where you really should be paying attention to what you are doing but for some inexplicable reason, you're not. That is what happened during the second lap. My mind shut off, my knees raised high and my stride lengthened into a beautiful sprint. I was absolutely flying. It wasn't until I reached the 300 meter mark that I realized how fast I was going. Something had definitely changed. The third lap carried that same glorious stride but was even faster.

I would love to conclude that running barefoot made all the difference, that the absence of my shoes corrected my footfalls and set me right but that seems like too much of an assumption. I will say that it felt different, it felt freeing.


Later in the week I returned to the oval for another session of sprints with similar results. My feet felt light, fast, my stride was wide and quick. The next week I returned yet again but this time tried a set of 800 meter sprints. The grass had grown a little longer and it did whip at my shins but other than that it was still an exhilarating experience.

After only a couple weeks I can say that I love running barefoot at least for short distances and on a soft surface. My reasons have little to do with technique and a lot to do with joy. Running barefoot reminds me of a time when I did this as a kid and didn't think twice about it. This freedom also reconnects me with the earth and nature making it a soulful experience. The gentle tug of grass blades between my toes and the push of dirt as I spring upward just takes my breath away.


I have found myself waking up early and despite exhaustion and muscles pains, I'd be eager to get to the field so I could take off my shoes and run. Isn't that what it's all about? Shouldn't we follow whatever path compels us forward? Do whatever it takes to get off the couch back into stride? Maybe there is something to this trend after all. Like many others that have come before, there is usually a little truth under the surface that  propels our inquires and forces us to finally give it a try.

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