Stepping In To Barefoot Running

The Works Sport KiltIf you’ve found your way here, then you’ve probably heard a little bit about running barefoot and are intrigued enough to want to know more. Like most people, you probably have all sorts of questions running through your head:

  • Won’t I step on glass?
  • Will me feet get ugly?
  • Do I have to grow a beard?
  • What will my girlfriend/boyfriend think?
  • Is it OK to wear shoes when I’m running barefoot?
  • Can I ever wear shoes again?

Every barefooter before you has had similar questions and have found a variety of answers (especially to that beard one). In this post we’re going to talk about some of the risks and rewards of running barefoot, what you need to do to get ready to take your first steps, and a few other tips and tricks to get you started off right.

So, to begin, let’s start by dispelling a myth.

Now, you may have heard that running barefoot will cure your plantar fasciitis, put an end to injuries forever,  grow hair on your chest, bring about world peace, etc. I’m afraid that as much as I would like all this to be true, if you’re looking for a magic cure-all, then you may be disappointed. Like any physical, outdoor activity, there is a chance you will aggravate an existing injury or even obtain a new one. Transitioning to barefoot (or minimal shoes) is notoriously risky and if done incorrectly can cause serious damage (see pretty much every article on this site for tips on how to minimise this).

However, though running barefoot isn’t a 100% cure for running injuries, it does offer a number of very worthwhile benefits.

To begin with, it’s FUN! Really, really fun! I honestly think this is the top reason why so many runners find their way into running barefoot. It’s hard to overstate the enjoyment of throwing off your shoes and running down a beach, or sloshing your way along a muddy trail.

What barefoot running offers is a change from the increasingly common mentality of needing to experience pain and discomfort for the sake of exercise. One thing that barefooters seem to have in common is the uncanny ability to smile throughout their runs. It sounds cheesy as hell, but it really does give you a spring in your step, and can bring back the enjoyment of running to those who have lost it.

Apart from sheer pleasure, there are many physical benefits to running unshod as well. Once you learn how to do it correctly and safely, it is a great way to stretch and strengthen your feet. Our poor feet spend a lot of time in shoes that, frankly, aren’t fit for feet. The damage caused by office shoes in particular, especially high-heels (or so I hear) is appalling.

By running au naturelle every now and then, it’s possibly to strengthen the arches of your feet and even reverse some of the damage caused by shoes. Your feet will start to change, and many barefooters, myself included, have experienced widening feet as their toes spread apart. Once you get to this point, the idea of cramming your piggies back into a pair of hush puppies is abhorrent.

What I’ve found really surprising about learning to run barefoot however, has little to do with feet at all. As you scan the ground in front of you for broken glass, thorns, dog poo, etc, something strange happens to your brain. You start to notice more, be aware of your surrounding more, and even begin to feel more ‘present’. It’s something akin to mindfulness meditation, and can have a major affect on you, even when you’re not running. Barefoot running is meditating without needing to meditate, and even more than shod running, can snap you out of a funk like you would not believe.

Now there is one concern that new barefooters have that can’t be dismissed. It’s the totally justified fear of stepping on something sharp. The fact is that when you leave the protection of a pair of shoes behind, you open your soles to the possibility of damage. At first this seems like a really dumb idea, but in practice, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Think of it like parenting – you can wrap your kids up in cotton wool to protect them from ever getting hurt, or you can let them roam free and collect the bruises and scrapes that will be inevitable. By protecting the child, they never learn how to deal with bumps and bruises, so when they eventually grow up and get their first scrape, the world seems to be coming to an end. For the free-roaming kid, they’re likely to get bumped around a little bit initially, but they learn from the experience and develop the skills and resilience to manage or avoid similar situations in the future.

The same goes with feet. Sure, you might get the odd scratch or bruise, but this will make you more aware of your surroundings and more careful about how you run. It forces you to treat your body and environment with respect which, in the long term, pays off huge dividends. And don’t forget, your feet evolved to do this, so they’re actually very well equipped to deal with outdoor terrain.

Initially, when the shoes first come off, your feet will likely be soft and weak. You’re going to feel every little stone and stick, and it’s probably going to be a little bit uncomfortable and even painful. But by slowly exposing your feet to more and more time in direct contact with the ground, your brain will learn how to filter out the unimportant signals and focus in on what’s important.

Many people think that by running barefoot all the time, you just end up with big, nasty callouses, and that this toughening of the skin is what makes it easier for long term barefooters to cope with the sensations. In fact, after seven years of barefoot running, I have got very little callousing on my feet, and in fact I think it’s actually less than when I always wore shoes. Despite this, I can run on gravel now that would have stopped me in my tracks in the early days.

Barefoot running is not for everyone, and that’s fine, but it can be a very rewarding way to spice up your running, improve your foot health, and allow you to feel more attuned to your surroundings. You don’t have to do it for every run, and you don’t have to run marathons unshod either. All you need to do is take off your shoes, slow down, and enjoy the experience.

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

Barefoot running is not for everyone and has associated risks that may not be suitable to your individual situation. Please see out disclaimer regarding information shared on this site.

Barefoot Runners Don’t Get Shin Splints

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

Shin splints are one of those ailments that, legend has it, is cured by barefoot/minimalist running, yet despite this, I’m frequently asked to explain why new runners still get them.

Anyone who has had shin splints knows just how painful they can be – in extreme cases, making running impossible until they heal. The pain is usually felt up and down the front and sides of the lower legs, and can range from being slightly sore to excruciating.

To understand why shin splints may not magically disappear when you slip on a pair of Vibrams, we need to know what they are. The excellent book The Runner’s Body explains that shin splints are actually a symptom of injuries to the tibia.

They can be caused by a number of factors, but the main culprits are doing too much too soon, over training, and bone density issues caused by ageing and/or diet.

The pain we feel as shin splints is actually the bone itself being strained. When we exercise, our bones get torn up a bit, and microfissures develop. When this occurs, the body heals itself, making the bone stronger. This is perfectly natural, and desirable. The problem occurs when we overdo it, and the pain increases as more healing as required.

There are several things you can do to avoid getting shin splints, and some of them are side-effects of learning to run barefoot, which is possibly where the myth started.

Easy Does It

The first and best way to avoid getting shin splints (or any other overuse injury), is to start small, and build gradually. Allowing your body to heal naturally between runs will make you strong over the long haul. This means not only starting  with low mileage, but also taking 1-2 days of rest between runs.

Good Form

Good form is also really important, and the sooner you can learn it, the better off you will be. When we take off our shoes or remove the padding, we need to use our body to cushion the repeated shocks from our footfalls. This is true for both running and walking, and is where a lot of inexperienced runners get into trouble. Again, take it slow, put in the time up front to learn good running form, and it will save you a lot of pain down the track.

Training Methods

How you train is also important. Some exercises, such as uphill running, are excellent for preventing shin splints. It’s hard to overdo it on an uphill, so using them to build up bone and muscles is highly recommended. Conversely running down hills can make matters worse as most runners tend to brake as they run downhill, or else sprint down at full pelt.

An important thing to keep in mind is your cross-training. Running isn’t the only sport that can cause shin splints, and combining it with another high intensity activity can lead to problems. Activities such as box jumps ans sports like basketball that feature a lot of jumping can make overdoing it much more likely. You can still do these sports, but be mindful of impact forces, and learn to use your whole leg to absorb the impact forces generated.

Eating Right

Lastly, it’s really important to eat a healthy diet. When you’re doing a lot of regular exercise, your body needs a lot of raw material to allow you to get fitter and stronger. For runners, this means not only having a good helping of carbs and proteins, but also getting the right vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, for growing strong bones.

Of course shin splints aren’t unique to new runners. Many experienced runners have gone down this road, especially during training for a big event. The key is listening to your body, knowing your limits, and increasing effort gradually. With a bit of care and patience, shin splints should cease to be a concern for the duration of your running life.

So You Want To Run In Minimalist Shoes

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

So I spent most of this weekend fielding questions, comments, tweets, and emails about the recent Art Of Manliness article that came out last week. There were some excellent points raised, and I got the feeling that this is a topic that interests a lot of people.

One of the major themes that came up over and over was the question of injuries related to running in minimalist shoes. If you read the comments you will have seen a number of anecdotes from people who have hurt themselves learning how to run in them.

To address these comments, and in an effort to make it easier to understand the risks involved in minimalist running, I’ve put together this post, which I hope will help new runners avoid making injury-inducing mistakes.

Minimal Running Isn’t Barefoot Running

I think first off, that it’s important to make a distinction between minimalist running and barefoot running.

Barefoot running means that your bare feet are touching the ground as you run. This means no socks, no shoes, nothing.

Minimal, however can mean pretty much anything else. If we go by what the shoe companies tell us, minimal shoes can range from those made from the thinnest materials, such as paper all the way up to padded shoes that supposedly mimic barefoot running (such as the Nike Free).

When you run barefoot, the amount of sensation that you experience is huge, and though you get used to the signals and what is felt as pain initially dwindles, you will always retain the full range of sensation, no matter how long you run barefoot for. This increased sensation acts as a built-in checking mechanism that ensures that you don’t overdo it and cause yourself serious injury.

Similarly, when you slip on minimalist shoes for the first time, you will feel a whole new world of sensations. You may be able to feel the individual pebbles beneath your feet and get a range of motion that was impossible in regular running shoes. The problem is though, that this newfound sensitivity doesn’t last.

Before long, minimalist running can lull you into a false sense of security. They knock off a few of the rough edges and allows you to run further and faster than you would in bare feet. This may seem to be a great advantage, and treated with care, it is, but complacency breeds bad habits. Once you grow complacent, it’s easy to push yourself a bit too hard, or run a bit too far, and this is where injuries happen.

Avoiding Injury

It’s because of injuries and the reduced sensation that comes with minimal shoes that a lot of ‘true’ barefoot runners avoid them, and actively discourage people from using them. Exchanges can become heated, but largely this is an effort by barefoot runners to try to save people from themselves.

It’s human nature to push boundaries, and to (over)indulge in experiences that feel good. Minimalist running allows us to do both, which is where the problems start.

So can you run in minimalist shoes without getting hurt? Sure! But you have to be sensible. One of the major tenets of this site, and what I tell every new barefoot or minimal runner is to listen to your body. You really have to make a conscious effort to do this on every run.

On top of this, you will need to pay extra attention to keeping your feet strong. Walk barefoot as much as possible. Do feet and lower leg exercises regularly.

Most importantly, know your limits. If you can’t run a distance with perfect form, you shouldn’t be running it. This is where a lot of minimal runners get into trouble. It’s fun to sign up for races and push yourself to the limits. Everyone who has completed a race knows that they go a little faster on race day, and push a little harder. This is true of barefoot running, as much as anything, but the key difference is that in minimal shoes you can exceed your body’s limits a lot easier than you can barefoot, and this puts you at risk of injury.

The Second Transition

This site is targeted mainly at beginning barefoot and minimalist runners, but since we’re talking about the risks involved in minimal running, I think it’s a good place to bring up something that’s very common, yet little-discussed. I call it the Second Transition, and for most minimal runners, it seems to occur around the two year mark.

What happens is that the runner makes it through the initial transition into minimal running, and it becomes a habit. They will be running regularly, racing regularly, and generally having a great time of it. Encouraged by past successes, they will slowly begin to ignore the warning signs, and before they know it, an injury hits.

The injury involved will often be quite serious because of the distances and/or speeds that have been reached by the runner. I’ve heard stories of metatarsal fractures, ruptured Achilles tendons, and even plantar fasciitis.

This seems to be a turning point for many minimalist runners. It is here that they will either give up minimal running, be forced to take a break due to injury, or else take the next step and transition to barefoot running.

I lucked out in that I had heard of this phenomenon and transitioned to barefoot before it happened to me, but many people aren’t as lucky.

I don’t mean this to frighten you, but it’s important to highlight the dangers of becoming complacent and over-reaching when wearing shoes, even when you’ve become an experienced runner.

It’s Not All Bad

I don’t want to end this article on a down note, and deter future barefoot runners from giving it a go. Minimal shoes are an excellent way to give you the confidence to try out a new sport in a more familiar and comforting way.

Used correctly, you can have many years of injury-free running ahead of you, and I sincerely hope you do. Just keep in mind that barefoot and minimal running are more than just a fad or a neat party trick. It’s a serious sport and one that needs to be treated with respect.

So, get out there, enjoy yourself, and don’t forget to listen to your body!

Running Shouldn’t Hurt

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

If I had a nickel for every article I’ve seen or every quote I’ve heard that talks about how running is “all about conquering pain”, I’d be able to buy a pair of minimal shoes in Australia.

Running should be a pleasant and fun experience. Sure, there will be times when you want to push through fatigue or need to walk off a stitch, but on the whole, you shouldn’t be hurting when you run.

I think that this perception of overcoming pain contributes greatly to the incredibly high injury rates we see among runners (30-80%, almost the rates of the current Xarelto class actions lawsuit info about injured people). Rather than stepping back and asking themselves why they hurt, in many cases runners will try to push through it, often with disastrous effects.

This marginalising of your body’s response to injury is present across the board, and can even be found in some barefoot running circles (albeit on a much smaller scale).

The fact is that pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. More often than not, if you listen to what your body is trying to tell you, you can correct the problem before it gets any worse, and it will stop being a problem for you going forward.

As with everything, there are edge-cases, such as Olympic performances, where overdoing it may get you that little bit closer to the podium. Sure, this will work, but it will ultimately catch up to the runner, and may even end in an unecessarily early retirement due to injury.

Barefoot running is all about getting in touch with your body and learning what it tries to teach you. We all have inside us the tools and instincts required to be phenomenal runners. All we need to do is pay attention!

Did Humans Evolve To Run On Pavement?

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

One of the major barriers to the uptake of barefoot running is the perception that humans weren’t meant to run on flat, hard surfaces, such as paved streets. I’ve been asked this question countless times, and though I know it not to be true from personal experience, it’s often hard to convince people otherwise.

I spent a bit of time this weekend researching the subject, and discovered, that like all thing barefoot, there is precious little research on the matter. I did, however unearth a small study from 2000[1] that examined this question for shod heel-to-toe runners.

What it found was that there was no significant increase in the forces applied to the body due to the change in terrain. Interestingly, however, it also found that on harder surfaces, such as asphalt, that there is a reduction in loading rate.

Basically what this means is that as the surface becomes harder, the body adapts its form to compensate for it, allowing the knees to absorb the shock a little bit more gradually.

What I fiind fascinating about this is not only that the body can, and does, adapt to its surroundings, but that it also still manages to do this in shoes. The loading rate reduction is very reminiscent of Daniel Lieberban’s study[2] from 2010 that found a similar reflex in barefoot runners.

Of course these studies are very small and I would LOVE to see some proper, large-scale studies into some of the more common barefoot running questions, but at this point, all signs seem to be pointing towards us being evolved running machines that are well and truly able to adapt to all kinds of terrain (barefoot or otherwise).

References

1. Dixon SJ, Collop AC, Batt ME, (2000) Surface effects on ground reaction forces and lower extremity kinematics in running. Department of Exercise and Sport Science, University of Exeter, United Kingdom http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11079523

2. Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, Daoud AI, D’Andrea S, Davis IS, Mang’eni RO, Pitsiladis Y. (2010) Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463: 531-5. http://barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/Nature2010_FootStrikePatternsandCollisionForces.pdf

Have you checked us out on Facebook yet?

How to not break your toes in Vibrams

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

One of the main reasons people decide to try barefoot or minimalist running is the promise of reduced injuries. Unfortunately, a quick Google search will turn up a heap of anecdotes about people suffering tarsal and metatarsal fractures in minimalist shoes. To the rest of us this essentially means that if you run in Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, you run the risk of breaking feet and/or toes.

I don’t know about you, but assuming these stories are real, to me this is very scary. Running barefoot or thin-soled shoes should be a pleasant experience, not one that would send you to the hospital. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I have a theory on why it might be happening and what can be done to avoid it happening to you.

What I think Happened

When the barefoot/minimalist movement began to take off a couple years ago, there was a lot of discussion among runners regarding the negative aspects of heel-striking. The merits of the forefoot strike were equally lauded as the next big thing in running. Then along came the Vibram Five Finger range, with their distinctive toe pockets.

What I think may have happened is that the message of landing on the forefoot somehow got mixed in with the excitement about shoes with toes, and got translated into “run on your toes”. From that point, what began happening was that people would go out, buy a pair of ‘toe shoes’ and start running on their tippy-toes. The reslut is that new runners may be putting too much pressure on their toes,  or landing way too hard on their forefeet.

Running up on your toes is a recipe for disaster. They simply are not designed to bear the weight of your entire body while running. They are thin little bones surrounded by tiny muscles and it’s no surprise that before long they would start to hurt or even break. On top of this, it reduces the surface area used by your feet to dissipate the energy used when running. This increases pressure on a single area, which can lead to serious problems.

How to avoid toes injuries

So the simple answer to avoiding this is that if you are new to running barefoot/minimalist, don’t run on your toes. Try to land with your feet nearly parallel to the ground, with the ball of your foot touching down a fraction before your toes, then allowing your heel to lightly brush the ground.

By landing lightly with a foot that’s nearly flat to the ground, you’re increasing the surface area involved in the landing. This increased surface area will help your body dissipate the energy of the landing, which in turn will reduce the chances of any one part of your foot being overloaded to the point of injury.

If you’re running in Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, it’s really important to focus on your landing for the duration of the run, as even though they might have only a thin sole, you’re not getting the full sensory experience that you would in bare feet.

Regardless of what you wear or don’t wear on your feet, it’s also essential that you listen to what your body is telling you. If you find yourself beginning to develop pains when you run, take note of them and try adjusting your form. Bend your knees, relax your ankles and increase your cadence. If the pain persists, stop running, walk for a bit and see if it goes away. If the pain continues, take a day or two off. Lastly if it doesn’t improve, go see your doctor.

By being sensible and working on your running form, you will be able to run injury-free and take full advantage of the equipment that nature gave you. Don’t let the fear of getting hurt stop you from enjoying this incredible sport, but don’t be complacent either. There are no guarantees that you will never hurt yourself, but as with most things in life, a little care and patience goes a long way.

5 Tips For Surviving Your First Run In Vibrams

By Barefoot Dawsy

There’s something about running in Vibrams that makes you want to run farther. Unfortunately, for most new Vibram wearers, this feeling can often lead to the dreaded sore calves that are the trademark of doing Too Much Too Soon (TMTS). The problem is that it just feels so good to run with light feet that can feel the ground beneath them!

The disadvantage to taking your first ‘barefoot’ steps in shoes versus actually barefoot is that Vibram makes excellent soles. What this means for you as a new runner is that you can run and run and your own soles won’t hurt at all. Try this barefooted, and your foot pads will be screaming.

At this point, the best advice is of course to go slowly, spend a good few weeks building up your strength and improving your form. This is great, and highly recommended, but the reality is that you’re probably going to get caught up in the moment and ignore the whole tranistion thing (shame, shame 😉 ).

With this in mind, I’ve put together a few tips to surviving your first Vibrams run. If you do nothing else but these things, you still stand a good chance of making it home with your Achilles tendons intact.

1. Stretch those calves!

Normally I don’t advocate stretching before a run, however if you are used to wearing conventional shoes, you’re  going to need a bit of rehab before hitting (caressing, really) the pavement. So, while you’re shopping for your first pair of Vibrams, making your mind up, etc, spend some time getting your calves ready. Every day, and especially before that fateful first run, do some simple calf exercises. 3 sets of 10 calf raises should be enough. This will let your Achilles tendon lengthen a bit and your calves develop a bit more strength. The longer you can do this before your first run, the better, so start now!

2. Take Small Steps

You’re making a big transition by moving from regular shoes to minimals, so you’re going to have to start catering for this. I can’t go through everything about proper form (see the rest of this site for details), but if you’re going to do just 1 thing to start working on this, it’s to take small steps. The smaller your steps, the more likely you will be to keep your feet under your centre of gravity. Doing this will reduce your tendency to heel strike and overstride, and will reduce the impact forces on your feet and joints as you run.

3. Take It Slow

You will be tempted to ramp up the speed on your first run. By all means, do a couple little sprints, but try to keep the speed down at first. The slower you go, the easier it is to tread lightly, make corrections, and to react to changes in terrain, etc.

4. Walk It Off

Waling is an excellent way to let your body recover from a run, and should especially not be excluded from your first minimal run. As a rule of thumb, once your run is done, walk for 30 seconds for every minute that you ran. This will help your muscles stretch out and cool down gradually, which will make all the difference to your recovery.

5. Take A Break

A lot of time with running, the day after is nowhere near as painful as the day-after-the-day-after. This is especially true when you’re wearing minimal shoes as there is very little protecting you from your own mistakes. When easing into running ‘barefoot’, make sure that you give yourself at least 2 days off after your first run.

There are thousands of tips that I gan give you to take with you on your first run, but if you stick to these 5, you will greatly improve your chances of making it home in one piece. Running in Vibrams (or better yet, barefoot) is a joy that has turned many a couch-potato into a distance runner (myself included), so get out there, and enjoy yourself!