One year ago I injured myself doing a tempo run in minimalist shoes. My calf muscle went and I was forced to walk 3km home in agonizing pain. On that long walk home I started thinking that something had to change. Does it really need to be like this? Why do runners just accept that being injured is par for the course? I took a week off of running, iced my aching calf and did a little research. I got myself a copy of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and it really inspired me to get back to running. What intrigued me was that it seemed to echo my sentiment that you can run pain-free – if you’re willing to be patient and put in a little work. You can’t just ditch the shoes and expect to be able to run 10 miles barefoot. Elite marathoners from countries like Kenya and Ethipoia have been running barefoot all their lives, so they already have really strong feet. Mid-pack runners like myself have been wearing shoes all their lives and have underdeveloped foot muscles. I really needed to strengthen my feet if I was going to successfully transition out of my neutral-cushioned shoes and into barefoot running.
The Plan… Or How I Began the Barefoot Running Transition
I heard numerous stories of people getting injured by doing too much, too soon, so I was going to take it slow. My plan was to dedicate a full year to building up my foot strength and gradually increase my barefoot running. Just before I embarked on this journey, I registered for a half marathon, a 30k, and my first full marathon. I couldn’t start from zero if I was going to run these races and cross the finish line. In hindsight, not signing up for any races and starting from nothing would have been the way to go.
My first barefoot run was on a treadmill in my basement. I walked 5min, ran 5min, walked 5min, ran 5min. I did that a few times during the week in between my regular marathon training, and I was also doing foot strengthening exercises every other day. The next week I increased my barefoot running time by 1 min. The next week I upped it by another minute, and placed a mirror on the wall so I could make sure my form was correct.
After two months of building I was able to run 5km without stopping and without any burning sensation on the soles of my feet. I ended up getting a pair of Vibram FiveFingers for Christmas (the Bikila LS), but I didn’t run in them for 2 weeks – I just wore them around the house to get used to the feeling.
Three Months In
My feet were now stronger, and so was my core (an unforeseen, but welcome benefit.) About half of all of my runs were done on the treadmill using a combination of barefoot and FiveFingers. The rest of my runs – including my Sunday long run – were done outdoors in my Saucony Kinvara 2’s.
The snow was just starting to melt and I did my first run outdoors in the FiveFingers. It was such an amazing feeling! I did find it very different than running on the treadmill but more enjoyable. It’s hard to explain but they made running more fun. I was still doing long runs in my Kinvara 2’s, and even though they’re low profile I was really starting to notice that my form would fall apart after a while and I’d have to pull it together. All of my other running was in the FiveFingers or barefoot on the treadmill.
Six Months In
I had finished all of my spring races, including my first full marathon, but I still felt like there was room for improvement. I picked up Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton’s book, Barefoot Running Step by Step, and it took me to a whole other level of running. Ken Bob’s tips made me re-evaluate my form, which I thought was perfectly fine. I made a few adjustments based on what I learned in the book and I became faster, stealthier and more relaxed. I also stopped getting blisters under my big toes!
One Year Later
One year after the barefoot running transition, I’m either running barefoot or in the FiveFingers exclusively, with no lingering injuries and no pain. Plus, I’m running more than ever, I have strong feet and I feel fantastic! The cushioned shoes have been relegated to yard work and dog walking. I actually have a hard time now putting on my old shoes because it’s strange not being able to feel the ground. Transitioning out of traditional running shoes was the best thing I could have done. Sure, I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but I think I’ve learned from them and I’m a better runner for it. If you’re willing to put in the effort, its totally worth the ride.