Thursday, January 27, 2011

Getting Back to Barefoot Basics

So you think you are interested in trying out barefoot running? How exciting! Barefoot running for me has evolved from a curiosity to a bit of an obsession but I don't place myself in the same camp as the die hards. I am still undecided as to whether barefoot running is going to be feasible in this town for marathon training because we have so many months of terribly cold weather. The conditions make it tough to maintain the foot conditioning required to go longer distances.

Many people ask about barefoot running when they really just want to go minimalist and that’s OK. By minimalist, I mean you prefer less shoe such as a flat or a rubber covering like the Vibram Five Finger. I also include the famous Huarache sandal in this camp. The Minimalist approach is a lot simpler to do. But be careful, though you CAN come up to speed in less time you need to be very careful because can easily over do your abilities. For you may get up to your shod speed and distances before your body has adapted to the bio-mechanics. Consider the impact all the years in shoes has had on the muscles in the foot bed. The shortened calf muscles and Achilles tendon. I know a few friends who have developed Achilles injury from over use of Vibrams. In minimal shoes the heal is gone and your Achilles tendon and muscles need a good amount of time lengthen and strengthen.

If you want to go totally barefoot, I recommend you go pretty much cold turkey. This will definitely make the transition go faster. Start by doing some walking on challenging surfaces to condition the soles. When you do start going a bit further, carry a pair of shoes (no socks are needed) with you. This is true especially for longer runs while you are just getting started. You will thank yourself if you get a ways out and have trouble.

I find the most difficult surfaces are the roads less traveled. The low traffic rural fractured rock composite that Peoria loves to put down in neighborhoods. These areas tend to have unswept or non-existent sidewalks. Be prepared to experience a few bad days. You will develop a few blisters, scrapes and cuts. I can remember when I was just starting looking at a few roads with disdain. Give yourself a break. You’ve been running a LONG time in shoes. Barefoot nirvana won’t happen nearly as fast as you envision it happening, but it will happen if you stick with it. Be stubborn!

I now have a bunch of barefoot 5k’s, 2 half marathons, and 2 marathons completely barefoot. I am 1 for 2 in the half marathon meaning I wasn’t quite ready for the road course for the Delevan, IL 1/2. For this one I had to put on shoes (but I finished). For the marathon, the first was in Baltimore and with no expectations I ran with shoes in hand just in case and put them on at mile 24. If I hadn't had them I problably didn’t need to do this but was afraid of damage. My feet looked no worse after it than after any other marathon with shoes. I ran a marathon in Huntsville 4 months later in 2009 and totally shredded my feet. The difference was in the road surfaces. In the future I feel Chicago would be a GREAT marathon course for barefoot running. Had I not gotten injured I was going to attempt a 3 hour pace last year there barefoot. All those cars make for a very smooth roads.

To build up your distance, try to run on sidewalks at first but only if they don’t have a bunch of cinders and gravel deposited from the snow plows. After that, pick some of the smoother roads that are composed of more asphalt than rock. By that I mean the darker black ribbon smooth roads you find around towns in Illinois like Morton and Chilli. In my opinion, Morton and Chillicothe have some of the greatest barefoot roads (as does Kona Hawaii ;-)). As far as trails, the EP trail is very good as are the paved parts of the Rock Island Trail. The gravel parts are a bit tougher to learn on because of the fractured gravel (it’s sharper than natural pebbles). When you do run in the street, if possible get more out in the road than on the shoulder. The cars wear a smooth track that really helps when you are learning. Finally, treadmills…. What can I say. I have one and run barefoot all the time on it in the winter but its not quite the same as a street. Your feet soles will not maintain the toughness but the feet will get stronger.

Finally, don’t think that you can’t get injured or that it will solve all your injury problems because it won’t. You will still have running injuries albeit hopefully less severe if you run far and fast. I’m coming off a heal injury that really bummed me out because I was starting to run about as fast without the shoes last summer as I could with shoes and that was getting exciting. Now I’m only running 1 or 2 days a week as I try to climb back on that horse. It’s taken me about 2 years to get to this point but I no doubt did a lot of stupid things causing me to progress slowly.

Regardless of whether you go completely barefoot or minimalist, your knees and hips will thank you but at times the skin on your soles will curse you . I figure a scrape or cut is far less serious than a hip or knee problem. Also be prepared for many folks (including your spouse) to just think you are nuts. For me that part is probably deserved for many reasons. Running barefoot is just one of them.

Here’s a great blog for you check out. Barefoot Angie Bee

Good luck and hope to see you out there this summer!

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