I can’t claim to be the world’s first barefoot runner. I’m certainly not the fastest. I can’t offer you decades of personal insight and experience without shoes. I’m more like you. Perhaps the reason you’re here reading this is because something is missing from your life or your running. For me discovering barefoot running not only solved the staleness in my relationship with running, it reconnected me to a much deeper part of my being: something each of us carries physically in our body and genes, as well as deeper in our soul.
I’ve made mistakes along the way – oh yes, lots of learning by doing! This is what I’d like to share with you: the deeper knowledge earned through blood, sweat and tears. Despite the frustration, and frankly, physical pain, it’s been totally worth it for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Some barefoot aficionados might tell you how they were able to throw away their shoes and, virtually overnight, solve both their knee problems and run ultramarathons. That’s great. I’m happy for them. Maybe you can do the same. But personally, everyone I know has had to start over, pretty much from scratch. Will it be worth it for you too, even if it means going back to basics? There’s only one way to find out! But I’m willing to bet the answer is a resounding yes!
Life in shoes:
As a kid I was fed like a foie-gras goose. Man, was I fat and out of shape! After leaving home for university I decided to do something about it, and within a few months I had taken up running. It felt good. And so I’ve kept at it ever since, putting in a few mediocre marathons and a triathlon along the way. It’s always been a part of my life, through good times and bad. While girlfriends and I split up, running remained my constant companion. Wherever I went, running went with me too; on any trip or holiday I’d discover the local area the best way possible: on my feet each morning. Without question I put in a pretty consistent 30 miles a week for the next 20 years.
Something began to change in my late 30s. Physically, I wasn’t feeling the high as I’d used to. My legs often felt dead. I’d lost something deeper inside too. Could it be the process of ageing? They say that anyone who still runs seriously by the time they’re 40 is either running away from something or is running in search of something. For me, too, running was losing its emotional pull, and, increasingly, I was finding inner peace (as well as those feel-good endorphins) through meditation instead. The daily run was becoming a chore. The spring in my step was feeling more and more like a worn-out pair of trainers.
Eureka! Barefoot shoes:
Back in 2010 I chanced across an article about barefoot running and minimalist footgear. Somehow, mention was also made of the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri) Indians of Mexico and their almost superhuman ability to run hundreds of miles at a stretch without modern shoes. Quite honestly, I can’t remember the exact content any more. In retrospect, though, I realise it must have been written in the wake of the bestseller Born to Run, which had been published just a few months earlier. The article, too, may well have been written by the book’s author, Christopher MacDougall, himself. I don’t know. What did stick in my mind was the idea of trying out something different. Nike was yet again discontinuing the running shoe I had been using. I had to find something new in any case, and shodden running hadn’t been providing much fulfilment for a couple of years already. Although the idea of running completely barefoot hardly even crossed my mind — you can’t run barefoot in a city! – the article did mention something called Vibram FiveFingers (essentially, a protective rubber glove for your foot). It seemed reasonable and enticing.
As it so happened, I was already scheduled to visit New York a few weeks later, so I googled a shop which stocked Vibrams. I ran into Midtown wearing my old Nikes and left in a pair of Vibram Bikilas. It was unbelievable. I felt like an Apollo astronaut bounding on the moon in huge, gravity-defying and impactless steps. I was already in love after a block. Like a man on the moon, there was also something beautiful and slightly other-worldly about the whole process. Although, like everyone else, I’d run short bursts barefoot before – across the apartment, garden, on the beach – the extended and continuing fluidity of such motion was an entirely new experience. It was almost like flying. I floated up 6th Avenue and into Central Park, gliding with the birds. Thoughts of doing the 6-7 mile circuit… But after another five minutes I began to feel my calves tightening up. Oh well, better play things safe and call it a day. So I just headed over to the Upper West Side where I was staying. I’d been on my feet maybe 11-12 minutes.
It seemed an almost pathetically short distance compared to my daily 10k. It seemed as though I really was playing things safe! If only I’d known it was a dangerously long distance to start with…
The problems begin…
That was my last day in New York. The next time I put on my Bikilas was back home in Budapest, Hungary. I can’t remember the precise details, but from a base of about 15 barefoot minutes a day, I increased my time to 20-30 minutes within a week or two. Such an increase seemed perfectly reasonable at the time – except that I wasn’t listening to the messages my body was trying to give me. That first run back from Midtown had left me with sore calves the next day (and the next…) but the feeling of running almost barefoot was so liberating that I couldn’t stop. After a few weeks of perpetually tight calves – but nothing unbearable – I noticed that the area around the inner arch side of my left heel was becoming a little tender. Although theoretically I’d heard of plantar fasciitis, I’d never paid much attention to it. Quite honestly, I’d been running injury-free for more than 10 years, even in shoes. I just didn’t get injured. On top of that, isn’t running barefoot supposed to be good for you? That’s what everyone was saying, at least – and their arguments made sense too.
The tenderness didn’t go away. After a while, I began to feel my heel through the day as well, until at some point it crossed the threshold into the broad category of ‘pain.’ I couldn’t run hills or run on uneven trail surfaces any more, without exacerbating the situation. Before long, I had to reduce my running times. Having reached 40 barefoot minutes at a stretch, I was back down under 20 minutes to keep the pain at bay.
I’d take days off – sometimes several – but whenever I’d start up again the pain would return. And that’s how I lived and ran for the next year, completely unaware that these ‘barefoot’ shoes had allowed me to transfer bad running technique over from my days in Nikes.
In the minimalist shoes community there’s a saying about traditional trainers, that: ‘shoes don’t cushion your heel, they cushion pain.’ The same is potentially true for minimalist footwear as well. Even if you’re landing with a barefoot-style strike (with the mid- or forefoot), it doesn’t mean that you won’t get injured, that you’re not damaging your body. My Vibrams felt wonderful. Now I realise that they felt too wonderful. Even today they feel no less wonderful, but now I’m aware of the potential dangers. Just as important, I’m also aware of what proper form feels like in my body. Good form does not take necessarily care of itself when you switch to barefoot shoes, because regardless of how minimalist they are, your foot will never receive full feedback from the ground. Only now do I realise that I was overstriding, landing ahead of my centre of gravity, putting continual and undue stress on the arch of my foot, plantar fascia and Achilles tendon.
The following spring I decided to take my Vibrams off and try running without anything. Just as that first run in New York had been a revelation, so too was running truly barefoot. This was a subtler experience, of connecting more deeply with the Earth.
Today, running in any shoe – minimalist or otherwise, no matter how comfortable – feels a little like making love using condom. Hey, I’m not going to complain about it (!), but running completely bare(foot) feels like the real thing, the way that nature always intended it: a fully sensual experience. For the first week or so, while my feet adjusted, it was actually too sensual, and the soles of my feet were overloaded by the pure intensity of sensory input surging through once dormant neural pathways. Anything but the smoothest pavement felt prickly or even downright painful. And so I was back to basics yet again, managing only 10-15 minutes before it became too much. At the end of each run, my soles buzzed with pins and needles, as if electrically charged. It’s no wonder that the soles of the feet contain as many nerve endings as the hands and face.
I also noticed something else: that on days when I was running bare, my plantar fasciitis and the growing Achilles tendonitis in my right ankle felt less aggravated than on days when I ran in my Vibrams or XeroShoes (the ultimate in minimalist footwear). After a few weeks of alternating between barefoot and Bikilas, I switched to consistent barefoot running. From that point on, my injuries began to heal properly. It took about six months for the plantar fasciitis to clear up completely, while the Achilles tendonitis has come and gone, gradually improving, depending on whether I’ve run hills or tried to increase my distance too soon.
Barefoot running did bring some dangers of its own, though. Although everyone asks about ‘stepping on glass,’ the risk is actually quite small, even in a city. Over the last year, I’ve had only four incidents involving puncture wounds of any kind: twice stepping on thorns, once on a bee stinger, once on a piece of broken car glass/plastic. None caused me to cut short a single run. Yes, the moment of piercing hurts, but after that endorphins from the running counteract the pain, speed healing and prevent bleeding. Even though one of the thorns penetrated a centimetre into my foot, it didn’t bleed, and by the next day there was only a feeling of slight tenderness and bruising. Even when I stepped on the poor bee, the pain dissipated within the next 5-10 minutes. By the end of the run, there was no trace whatsoever of inflammation or any other symptom. (In comparison, I normally feel a bee sting for about a week.) It’s no surprise that, after running for millions of years across the African savanna, nature has equipped us here for accelerated healing.
For me, the only physical setback caused by running barefoot was the bruising (or perhaps stress fracture) of the metatarsal behind my little toe, directly at the point where my foot makes contact with the ground. Again, the cause is the same: too much, too soon. Body is always weaker than spirit…
Another factor is at work. If shoes have protected and cushioned our feet all our life, it’s only understandable that they should lose the ability to react quickly and instinctively to changes in the surface of the ground. Increasingly, I find that my foot actually has a mind of its own, adapting to the shape of the ground without my consciously having to think about it. In the old days I’d land on a protruding root or pebble with full force, and it would often bruise me before I could react. Now my foot is able, almost miraculously, to transfer weight elsewhere or morph itself around the obstruction. Perhaps this is one function for the plethora of nerve endings down there.
So let’s size up the problems of barefoot running. In my own case: plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal, puncture wounds, bruises, severely reduced mileage and speed compared to that in trainers. It’s all forced me to deal with questions of ego, questions about why I’m running in the first place.
The moment you begin to do anything with regularity, the moment you begin to take any activity seriously, it becomes so easy to define yourself by what you do rather than by who you are. It becomes tantalisingly easy to compare your results, your accomplishments, your distances, your times – and want more. You, your ego, become attached to things which don’t even really exist. What’s a number, be it a distance or a time? It’s completely meaningless. The only thing which really matters is being there, living, experiencing, while you’re actually doing what you’re doing.
Since beginning to run barefoot, I’ve never been slower in all my life. I’ve never run such feeble distances either. It would have been so easy to say: ‘I’m faster, more impressive in my usual trainers. Let’s go and buy another pair of Nikes.’ The thing is, I don’t care. I don’t care any more if someone overtakes me. I just let them go… I don’t care if I’ll ever be able to run as fast or as far again. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. None of it matters. The only thing I care about is the next footstep. I love each one – even when it hurts. The thing is, I’ve never been more present in my running. Maybe it’s the sensuality of it; maybe it’s the fluidity and the lack of jarring impact. Maybe it’s the cellular memory of running free in the wild. Maybe it’s something even deeper. Whatever it is, something about barefoot running brings me into the running like nothing else. And being at one with running, I become one with myself, which in turn brings me into a state of oneness with everything. This, for me, is the joy of barefoot running.