5 (painful) lessons about barefoot running

Lawrence finds barefoot running's not for everyone

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About five years ago, I read an article on barefoot running which really connected with me. Being an instinctive kind of person, I did a little bit more research and then stumbled across the Vibram Five Fingers running shoes and ordered a pair.

Well, the strange ‘glove-like shoes’ arrived just before I was about to set off for a two month trip to Australia, so I put them into my case together with my ‘normal’ running shoes that had served me so well up until that point.

On the way to Australia, we stopped off in LA which gave me my first opportunity to try out my new shoes. I popped them on my feet, which felt kind of weird, and wandered down to the hotel gym and ran on the treadmill, surprised at the amount of attention I was getting! It was very strange at first, but did feel more natural as I was running on the front of my feet, going against the advice I had been taught to run heal-to-toe.

To cut a longish tale short, once I was in Australia, I wore them outside and quickly got used to them. My legs felt so much lighter which enabled me to run faster than usual and I regularly experienced that flow-type movement that felt like flying!

I quickly became an advocate and though I knew that the advice at the time was to alternate with traditional shoes at first, my conventional shoes increasingly felt like concrete blocks on my feet and were soon left in the cupboard while my Vibrams were used every day. Well, every day until the last day when I suddenly got a sharp and persistent pain in my heel and had to stop running for a week! Given that I had run for miles, including six marathons in my ‘normal’ shoes and had never had an injury, it didn’t take a genius to realise that this change in footwear must have had some connection.

However, despite the advice from both my physio and podiatrist (who both thought I was nuts), I loved the barefoot running experience so much that once the injury healed, I was back in my Vibrams. They remained my running footwear for the next four years, during which I suffered from a raft of issues. Despite this, I persisted until I was running in Hong Kong and got a sharp pain in the top of my foot that turned out to be a stress fracture. I wasn’t able to run for eight weeks which was a BIG deal, made far worse by the advice of the orthopedic specialist: “Stop running.”

I didn’t listen to his advice, but after the eight weeks, I’d pretty much decided that ‘barefoot running’ wasn’t for me and retuned to my ‘old faithfuls’ while I searched for a better alternative. That alternative finally came in the form of the Saucony Kinvara, a lighter ‘natural running shoe’, but with more support than barefoot options. I have now been wearing them now for well over a year and I love them; I don’t want to tempt fate, but I haven’t had one injury in all that time.

Perhaps I can’t give all of the credit just to the shoes, as, at the same time, I started taking a supplement, MSM which has had a very positive impact on my running. You can read more about my experiences with MSM here.

So, if you’re thinking of trying out barefoot running, or indeed, if you’re looking to make any change in your footwear or running style, here are a few lessons learnt from my four-year experience:

 

  1. We are all different, so while books like Born to Run highlight the clear benefits of barefoot running, some of us (ie me) are not built to run barefoot and, as my experience shows, it can cause problems.
  2. Instincts are great, but tapping into other people’s experiences to validate your ideas before you jump in is sensible! In short, do an appropriate amount of research to guide you.
  3. Start slowly and build up so that your body can adapt and get used to the new shoes and the impact on your running style.
  4. Listen to your body. I had aches in my knees, but ignored them as I wanted to keep running. That led to other issues that stopped me running for a longish period.
  5. Bone health isn’t only about the shoes – nutrition plays a big part, so take supplements to keep your bones strong. The MSM supplement has made a remarkable difference to my running, but again, it’s not for everyone.

 

If you’ve tried barefoot running, I’m really interested to hear about your experiences. Are you an advocate? Let me know by writing a comment below.

 

 

Lawrence Mitchell

Written by Lawrence Mitchell | 7 articles | View profile

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