For years I’ve been doing all of my running in neutral-cushioned shoes, and for most of that time I’ve had some form of injury. Shin splints, runners knee, plantar fasciitis, you name it, I had it. I just assumed it was something I had to live with. That it was just part of the deal if I wanted to be a runner. After about 2 years of serious running, I decided that I was tired of being in pain after my runs and I was going to give minimalist shoes a try.
Transition to Barefoot Running… I Mean Minimalist Shoes
Minimalist shoes are exactly what they sound like. They are lightweight shoes with minimal heel cushioning and encourage a mid or forefoot landing. By switching to a minimalist shoe and learning how to land on the ball of my foot (as opposed to slamming my heels into the ground), all of my injuries should just disappear, right?
I picked up the most comfortable pair of minimalist shoes I could find (the Saucony Kinvara 2) and went out for a short test run (by short run, I mean about 15 minutes.) I read all of the warnings about doing too much too soon and was determined that I was going to ease into them slowly, and not hurt myself by being too eager. Coming back from that first run I was really excited. The Kinvara’s felt awesome! They really gripped the pavement and I was focused on a forefoot landing the whole time. They were so light compared to my Ride 2’s that it felt like I wasn’t really wearing shoes at all. I was still planning on running in my cushioned shoes on the longer runs and phase them out gradually. I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing. I was only using the Kinvara’s for the short runs and even some tempo runs with my running clinic. After 3 months with no pain I though I’d figured out the secret to running injury free and decided I was ready to do a long tempo run in minimalist shoes. What a stupid mistake that was.
Not So Fast
I started the run with 20 minutes at an easy pace before getting up to my tempo pace. I held tempo for 20 minutes before going back down to easy pace and back home. I felt pretty exhausted, but after about five minutes my right calf muscle got really sore. After another couple of minutes it got worse. Later in the day I couldn’t go up or down stairs. Why did this happen? I thought that two months was enough time for me to get the new technique down. In addition to the calf injury, I got the stomach flu, so I was unable to run for about two weeks. I was not happy but determined to run again soon.
These books made me realize that I might have been taking it slow, but my running mechanics were what did me in. I was putting too much emphasis on landing on the ball of my foot and not letting my heel touch the ground. This meant my calves were always clenched and most likely led to my injury. I needed to learn to relax more, bend my knees and just enjoy the run. One night I went down to the basement and ran barefoot on the treadmill. I alternated 5 minutes walking, 5 minutes running for a total of 20 minutes. Other than the slight burning sensation on the soles of my feet, I felt great! I decided I was going to do it once a week, increasing my distance by only a few minutes. I knew that these short, once a week barefoot runs weren’t going to be enough to build on so I started doing foot strengthening / stretching exercises 3 to 4 times a week for about 20 minutes.
As the weeks went by, my calves got stronger, my balance got better and the soles of my feet got tougher. I was still running outside in the Kinvara’s, but this time I was running with my new barefoot form. Knees bent, back straight, relaxed from head to toe, with my feet landing under my body. The old forefoot landing has now been replaced by a mid-foot landing and I make sure that my heel still (barely) kisses the ground and my toes are curled up.
It’s two months later and I just completed a 50+ minute run with speed intervals on the treadmill. The warmup and cool down were totally barefoot but the intervals were done wearing my new Vibram Bikila LS. I’d gotten them as a Christmas gift and wore them around the house for two weeks before I even thought about running in them. The Vibram FiveFingers do take a while to get used to (it feels like putting gloves on your feet), but they’re the next best thing to running totally barefoot. There’s only one catch… you first need to strengthen the muscles in your feet. The reason why a lot of people are getting hurt running in the VFF is that they don’t take the time to get accustomed to the new form and using different muscles. It took me two solid months of training to get to a point where I felt like I was ready, and I still do the exercises at least 3 times a week.
On The Right Path
The other day I ran outside for the first time wearing my Vibram’s. I didn’t bother bringing my Garmin, I just wanted to run and not care about distance or time for once. It was so much fun! Once the Spring comes I’ll try going barefoot outside, but until then, I’ll be on the treadmill twice a week. I definitely feel stronger, faster and more relaxed on my runs these days, and running barefoot has helped get me there. I highly encourage you to give it a try. It really does make running fun again, even if its only a few times a week. Just remember, even though you think you’re taking it slow, you’re probably not taking it slow enough.