Barefoot Running Debate and Going On a Forefoot Strike

Bill Waterson's Calvin and Suzie argue the merits of running barefoot vs. using a motion-control running shoe with heel lift. After doing some more research, I’ve come to a rather obvious conclusion: barefoot running is a cause for much debate in the running world.

Ridiculous fad?

The truth “they” don’t want you to know?

A good method to strengthen otherwise under-utilized muscles for otherwise shod runners?

Does the science back up the claims of the barefoot proponents/cushioned and motion control running shoe proponents?

Even within the barefoot running community, there is debate. Minimalist shoe or truly barefoot? Do you use a minimalist shoe as an intermediate step to barefoot running, or should you begin your transition right off the bat by beginning a new regimen barefoot, supplementing with a minimalist shoe as needed?

A lot of people on both sides of the various debates get pretty worked up about it. Not sure why, other than that’s just part of our modern, troll-friendly Internet culture. As for me, it all strikes me as kind of silly – the getting bent out of shape part, that is. Ultimately, all that really matters is what works for you. If you use standard running shoes and can accomplish your goals without too many problems or issues, then no problem, right?

Of course there are many people out there who feel that way. It’s just that those people tend not to weigh in on discussion forums, blog posts, etc.

But at the end of the day, that’s all I’m really interested in, as far as barefoot running goes: what works for me and what doesn’t.

Barefoot: It Works (For Me)

Initially, the primary argument for barefoot running/minimalist running shoes struck a chord with my intuition, the first time I came across it: whether you believe it was the design work of god(s) or Mother Nature and evolution – I fall into the latter camp, as you might have guessed – the human foot is built to work without shoes. The idea of running barefoot seemed absurd, at first, to be quite honest. But, this made a certain amount of sense.

Furthermore, science aside, there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence to support this, not the least of which is that we are born barefoot. Then there is the fact that except for the last couple thousand years, we as a species have been living many thousands of years (or just 5,000 if you’re of a Biblical Creationist bent). There are still aboriginal populations that get along just fine without shoes.

So why do I need poofy, heel-lifted and-cushioned, motion-controlled running shoes?

Still, in spite of my early interest in Vibram Fivefingers, I probably never would have actually tried running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe were it not for my experiences as an English teacher in Thailand. Then it became clear to me that shoes with a raised heel were wrecking my feet. I quit wearing them and teaching in them, and my foot aches and pains went away. I didn’t need to be a medical specialist or scientist to make the obvious conclusion: this is what worked for me.

Other people wear traditional dress shoes and don’t have problems. I did. Now that I’m experimenting with minimalist running shoes, I’m noticing that the problems I used to always have in the past when I began a running regimen – sore knees and shin splints – haven’t occurred so far.

Oh, there are other aches and pains; one can’t expect to begin a running program when overweight and out of shape without some discomfort. No pain, no gain; if it were that easy, everyone would do it. Insert your favorite athletic training cliché here. But so far it’s mostly just the been-sitting-on-my-ass-now-I’m-not kind of soreness. The good kind of pain, that actually feels kinda good, in a sensual kind of way.

Show me an athlete, and I’ll show you a closet masochist.

Anyway, this is what is working for me. It may not work for someone else. It may not work for you. Some people like coffee. Others don’t like the way it makes them jittery, and stick with tea. You don’t see coffee and tea drinkers arguing with and trolling each other online. You don’t see coffee company spokesman going off about that silly tea-drinking hipster fad.

Or maybe they do, and I just haven’t been paying attention. But assuming the former, I’m not sure why running should be any different. But then, again, ultimately I don’t really care; I’m finding what works for me.

Up On My Toes: Experimenting with a Forefoot Strike

Speaking of which, last night I tried experimenting with a forefoot strike. I decided to repeat the first week of the noob program from Runner’s World, at least for another day, while I tried this. After two days of rest I still had a mild but nagging pain in my left foot, in my arch on the anterior side. I didn’t think much of it – as noted above, pains are to be expected. But while researching more about barefoot running, minimalist shoes and form this past weekend, I became curious to try jogging with a forefoot strike.

A more or less midfoot or not-quite-heel strike seemed to be working for me; would a forefoot work as good? Better? Less? It certainly feels unnatural, but I was curious.

So last night I did 10 intervals – 1 minute jogging, 2 minutes walking. Notably, I had almost no pain in my left foot. An occasional twinge, usually during the walking interval, but that was it. And no knee pain or shin pain, either. Even my tibialis anterior didn’t check in with any complaints or otherwise crap out by the last interval, either, which really surprised me.

Huzzah.

Today, the mild pain in the arch of my left foot is still there, but not any worse. I’ll need to be careful of this going forward, but it seems like the forefoot strike didn’t aggravate it. Of course my ankles and Achilles are plenty sore (the good kind of pain), but then that’s apparently part and parcel with learning a forefoot strike and beginning a barefoot/minimalist shoe running program. Surprisingly my calves themselves aren’t sore; I guess the last year of cycling and walking around Thailand and Viet Nam without shoes did some good.

Or maybe I just haven’t run long enough yet using a forefoot strike. We’ll see.

Take That, Hipsters: Escalating the Footwear War

Jeff Chappell's hairy legs and hobbit feet in his homemade huaraches made from an Invisible Shoe kit.I finally got a hole punch and made my minimalist sandals from the kit I ordered from Invisible Shoe. The 4mm Vibram is nice and grippy; even the relatively smooth side upon which the foot rests grips the sole of the foot pretty well. It’s surface actually consists of tiny little grooves to help. These grooves will likely be funk magnets down the road, but it’s nothing a scrubbing with a brush and some antibacterial soap wouldn’t solve (I used to have to do this with my faithful Tevas a couple times a year).

Getting the lacing dialed in so that it’s perfectly comfortable is going to take a bit of experimenting, but so far, I dig these sandals. These provide much more sensitivity than my Vibram Fivefinger KSO Treks, as this Fivefinger model sports a thin EVA midsole. These sandals are comparable in terms of sensitivity to the earlier models of Vibram Fivefingers – the KSO, the Sprint and the Classic – that only have 3.5mm of Vibram rubber and no midsole of any kind.

And unlike the Vibram Fivefingers, these sandals are not hot boxes; they are obviously much cooler in hot weather. The black Vibram sole does get warm, though, when walking in the sun, but nothing like a pair of Fivefingers.

Eventually I’ll be trying these while running, but for now it’s cool enough at night for the Fivefingers. By July, when even temperatures in the wee hours of the morning can be in the high 70s (Fahrenheit), I hope to have the lacing dialed in. But I’ll post a full review of my sandals from Invisible Shoe one day soon.

In the meantime, how long until the hipsters discover these? Will it take three years, like the Vibram Fivefingers? One wonders.

And Thus Running (almost) Barefoot

My hairy legs and hobbit feet, encased in Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks.So after most of the last year or so of not wearing shoes – teaching English sans shoes, doing a lot of walking and hiking in flipflops, Vibram Fivefingers or actually barefoot, etc. – I decided it was time to try barefoot running in the Fivefingers.

I’m no stranger to running, but we’ve been estranged, running and I, for some time; I haven’t run regularly (i.e., at all) since 2004. That summer after having completed AIDS/Lifecycle 3, I decided to supplement my 200+ miles a week on the bike with running (not having run regularly since college). I had it in the back of my mind back then that I wanted to try and do an Olympic-distance triathalon the following year. That never happened; too many distractions, such as moving across the country and training to be a whitewater rafting guide.

I kept up my cycling through all that, but the running tapered back off; eventually everything tapered off (except the spread of my gut) when my pusher got me hooked on World of Warcraft. Anyway, now that I’ve been getting back into cycling again, having used a bicycle to get around Bien Hoa, Viet Nam and Sai Gon, I thought what the hell, might as well start hoofing it again as well. I lost a lot of weight in my year abroad without even trying; not too keen on gaining it back now that I’ve returned to the land of cheese and saturated fat.

I’m pretty much starting from scratch though, even though I’ve logged a lot of miles on my feet over the past year. While I can’t claim to be in great shape by even the fattest (heh) stretch of the definition, I’m not a complete blob at the moment. So it’s been a happy surprise that after a week of very basic training, I’m a lot less sore than I expected to be. As I type this, my ankles are indeed pretty sore and my knees let me know about it when I walk up or down stairs, but it’s the good kind of sore: the-lactic-acid-buildup-because-you’ve-been-kicking-ass kind of sore, not the you-went-too-hard-because-you’re-a-noob-and-hurt-yourself kind of sore.

I know, I know, it’s actually not the lactic acid that causes the muscle soreness, but you know what I mean.

No Pain, No Gain: Tough it Out, Walk it Off

Ah, I can hear the echoes of athletic coaches past.

Of course ankle soreness is to be expected with new barefoot (or nearly barefoot) runners. The range of motion one experiences in the ankles is reportedly much greater barefoot than when shod in poofy-soled running shoes, so those little muscles and ligaments are relatively weak. After a few days of jogging on them – let’s be honest kids, I’ve been jogging, not running, to begin with – those little muscles and ligaments are, as the kids say, “all like – ‘Dude WTF?'”

While I anticipated this, I also expected the usual aches and pains that one experiences when one starts running after a long sedentary period of ass-sitting-upon (having been through this several times before). But having run three days this past week, the next day other than some lactic-acid-type soreness in the lower quads, the only soreness has been in my ankles.

Where’s the really sore knees and achy patellas? Where’s the shin splints? So far they’ve been non-existent. It’s all the more amazing to me because I’ve been jogging on pavement wearing my Vibram Fivefingers (the relatively non-stinky leather ones, fortunately). Granted I’ve been going really light – 10 sets of intervals of one minute of running with two minutes of walking, but still – no shin splints? I always get shin splints when I start running. I was all prepared with bags of frozen peas in the freezer, but so far – knocks on wood – I haven’t needed them.

The tibialis anterior, aka the meh muscle in my left leg that is always slacking. I would have thought my heels would be sore as well – I haven’t been running on the balls of my feet, but just trying to jog with a natural stride, landing somewhere between a heel and a mid-foot strike and rolling forward onto the balls of the feet and pushing off. I’ve found the best way is to not think too much about it, and let the foot do what Mother Nature designed it to do. I do try and make sure my knew is slightly bent though when my foot strikes the ground; this seems to be make a big difference.

I do still have problems with tightness and weakness in the long, skinny muscle that runs along the outside front of my lower left leg, but I’ve always had that problem. At the moment it’s as sore as my ankles. And shall we get technical for a moment? You know we are kids; nerdy is as nerdy does: I refer to the tibialis anterior muscle, which dorkiflexes dorsiflexes the foot.

Even when I was a young man back in high school, whenever I would start running in the summer in anticipation of football season, tightness in this muscle would bother me. I have to spend extra time warming it up before I run, even when I’m in shape and conditioned to it. Not sure why; I’ve never had a problem with this muscle in the other leg. No amount of conditioning ever seems to get this little ‘meh’-scle up to par with his peers. Meh.

Upon Further Re-dork-iflexion

Anyway, in light of this remarkably pain-free (re)start to running, I think whatever tiny, lingering doubts about running barefoot/pseudo barefoot I may have still harbored are hereby officially dispelled.

Of course, the trick is, now, not to get over excited and go out and blow the doors off one day because I feel good, and consequently injure myself or develop the aforementioned shin splints. In any event, I think I’m going to keep recording my progress here, just for self motivational purposes.

And in case anybody is wondering, I’m using the noob beginner’s program at Runner’s World to get back into the run of things. There is also a program over there for people who want to begin barefoot running, but I figure after the past year my feet are as conditioned as they are going to get by walking and hiking around; it’s time to hit the pavement, so to speak.

Maybe some day I’ll actually even condition the soles of my feet to run truly barefoot, and dispense completely with the Fivefingers or any other sort of foot cover. Maybe I’ll grow a shaggy beard then too.

In the meantime, to avoid the hotboxes that are Vibram Fivefingers when the Middle American summer truly sets in – I figure I’ve got about three more weeks before even running at night will prove too hot to wear them – I’ve invested in a pair of of self-made running sandals. I could have gathered the materials myself, but I’m lazy, so I ordered a kit from Invisible Shoe; it arrived earlier this week.

Once I get these made and log some miles in them, look for a review.