Most of us who run have a lot of time, energy and miles invested in our current state of fitness and we don’t really want to sacrifice any of that as we start to run barefoot. We know that we should start gradually, yet we don’t want to cut our mileage drastically and lose our investment.
Our feet have got used to the protection that running shoes offer and our running gait has evolved with cushions on the end of our legs. If we start to run barefoot we become ruthlessly exposed to all kinds of damage from blisters to stress fractures. It is, however, those blisters that save us from overdoing it. A blister is a great tell-tale that we are not ready to move on quite yet, and therefore the soft skin on the soles of our feet is a great limiter to the amount of running we can do in the early days with no shoes.
My run today (see posting for 17th August) urged me to think hard about how to incorporate barefoot running into a typical running schedule; especially if using some type of transition footwear like the Vibram Five Fingers or the cheaper aqua shoes.
I’ve been very impressed with my aqua shoes. As far as my running kit purchases are concerned, they have to top the list for value for money. They allow a runner to adopt a barefoot running position without damaging the soles of the feet.
And therein lies the danger. Two days ago, I ran 5 miles in aqua shoes, a distance I’d not have been able to manage barefoot because the soles of my feet are too soft at the moment. Great, I thought, I’ll soon be able to run 10 miles in these, and once I can get rid of the blisters I’ll be doing the same barefoot (we runners can be a bit impatient). But, today I learned a lesson. My calf muscles were very tight after my run — too tight. Shielding my feet from the risk of blisters had exposed a weakness elsewhere. Those poor calf muscles need a bit of time to adapt in the same way that the skin needs time to harden.
More importantly though, it is the act of running completely barefoot that encourages a more runner-friendly gait. This takes time, especially if, like me, you’ve been running for a number of years. Those years spent in cushioned shoes have permitted me to run in a bad way. By that I mean that the shoes have masked many damaging attributes of my own running style. If we kid ourselves that we are running barefoot before we are ready (by protecting the soles) those attributes will still be present, just waiting to sideline us.
So, back to the original question. How does someone who has been running regularly in running shoes make the transition to running barefoot? The answer is simple although not easy. We’ve got to be sensible, quite literally, our feet have got to be able to sense the ground beneath us. That way, we will gradually adjust our running style to cope with — and even enjoy — the surface we run on, and our feet will develop the strength they need to provide our bodies with the natural cushioning they need.
I will still continue to use my aqua shoes, mainly because I’m beginning to dislike running in cushioned shoes, but I’m ever mindful that it’s not just the soles of my feet that need time to adapt. There are no short cuts because there really is no better way to get used to barefoot running other than to run barefoot.
But do it in moderation. I’m now 4 weeks into my barefoot running experiment and I reckon my barefoot running accounts for just 5% of my weekly mileage. That level seems to be sustainable. But even that small amount has improved my plantar fasciitis more than anything else has done in more than 2 years (including complete rest from running). Meantime, I’ll continue to avoid the use of my usual big-brand running shoes and enjoy the benefits my ever-strengthening feet seem to be giving me.