Opinions on barefoot running vary from
Running barefoot destroys your body.to
Running in shoes destroys your body. Quite possibly your mind as well, not to mention your soul.This is a bit broad for my taste. Nonetheless, barefoot sites such as Running Barefoot and the Dirty Sole Society pique my interest. I begin to experiment.
My aim is a happy medium. I start gradually, with a lap or two on the track. I work up to a half mile on asphalt, then a mile, then two miles. I discover that wet pavement is significantly more abrasive. It takes time for the plantar skin to toughen, although not as long as I expect.
As advertised, barefoot running improves my form and, consequently, my efficiency. The reason is that when barefoot, improper form yields immediate feedback in the form of pain. For example, when shod, heel strikes are easy since the thick heel padding in running shoes soaks up most, but not all, of the shock. The remainder goes on up the leg, typically straight to the knees. Barefoot, heel strikes are simply not an option. Rather than relying on artifical devices to limit shocks and stresses, proper form simply eliminates them. Both my mind and my body find this argument persuasive.
Barefoot speedwork is surprisingly comfortable. For the first time, I notice that shoes have significant weight. The gross weight isn't the problem; a bit of dieting would easily drop significantly more. The problem is that the shoes weight the ends of long pendulums. I acquire a visceral understanding of why barefoot might actually be faster.
It is a surprise to realize that running shoes have high heels. A typical running shoe lifts the heel about half an inch relative to the ball of the foot. This changes the biomechanics significantly. One important adaptation is to the lower leg. I find the Achilles tender and the calves tight as my lower legs adapt to the barefoot position. I alter my stretching routine to compensate. For my reward, I expect better ankle flexibility, which, among other things, should help my still-pathetic swimming. I am reminded again that everything really is connected.
One of the enjoyable aspects of running barefoot is the comments from passersby. These range from the offbeat "Are you from Hawaii?" to the helpful "You forgot your shoes" to the popular "Ouch!". Actually, I find barefoot running to be pain free with certain exceptions. First, I now understand that my lazy gait is why my running shoes have the tips scraped off. Each time I drag a big toe during the recovery cycle of a stride, I fervently resolve to pay more attention to this seemingly minor detail. Second, small hard objects are still a problem, and broken glass will always be a problem. I find that I pay very close attention to the ground when I run barefoot. Finally, my general conditioning still vastly exceeds the conditioning of my bare feet. I suffer each time I run farther barefoot than I should. Being somewhat bone-headed, I do this more often than you might think.
The first time I manage three unshod miles, I decide that my future holds barefoot road races. I imagine zipping shoeless through T2 at triathlons. I even begin to contemplate a barefoot marathon. Time for a reality check; how about starting small?
The July 1999 Mason-Dixon Triathlon put on by the Triathlantic Association ends with a 3 plus mile run on smooth pavement. Perfect. The swim course is advertised as seven tenths of a mile, but fortunately turns out to be half that, at best. The bike course is incredibly hilly. A bit whacked from the hills, I nonetheless pop off the bike and blast through transition. As I run past the timing station, the volunteer tracking splits calls out my race number: "316, no shoes". "That's me", I think, "the no shoe guy". The run works out well with the exception of the steep downhill at the end. I simply cannot keep my cadence high enough for my soles to be comfortable.
I chat about my feet with a few other triathletes out on the run course. One conversation was long enough that I actually turned around and ran backwards for a bit so as to face my fellow runner. "Where are your shoes?" "In the car". "Why?". "I knew that if I left them in the car then I wouldn't be tempted to put them on in T2". "Would you like one of mine?" "Thanks! But I'll pass".
Another runner made his inquiry as he blew by me. Given his speed, I knew this would have to be good. "Because it's faster", I said. "Check it out on the web". I expect he just thought I was nuts.
Afterwards, Becky and Cathy overhear other triathletes laughing about the "barefoot idiot in the desert rat hat". Yep. That's me. But it could be you. "How does he do that", they said. It's easy; you just put one foot in front of the other. Nothing could be more natural. Think about it.