My Journey to Becoming a Barefoot Runner, Part 3: The How to Begin

When I started this journey, I’m pretty sure I started a little backwards.  I ended up with the best possible outcome, but that’s not to say I didn’t encounter some major speedbumps.  So, I believe a cautionary tale is in order:  If you think that you can go out and run the same distance barefoot or in minimalist shoes as you do in your conventional running shoes right away, you better check yourself before you wreck yourself  For real!   Thanks, Ice Cube, for that throwback to the early 90’s.

First, (after I sprained my ankle again) I went out and bought a pair of Vibram Treksports.  Here’s a picture of my muddy feet in them:

  When I first bought them, I didn’t try to run in them right away.  I’d been wearing cushioned shoes for so long, that I couldn’t even stand barefoot in my bathroom to get ready for work without pain, so I knew running in these was pretty much a death wish.  I walked around most of the day in them and realized, oh, I have a pinky toe!!  Apparently that appendage is actually a separate entity from the rest of the foot.  It blended in for so long, I was surprised to hear it screaming at me from the ground.  OUCH! You’re stretching me out!  But I was excited to see that I could walk around pretty well in them despite recovering from an ankle sprain.

A couple of days later, I finally got up the nerve to go for a quick run in them.  I strapped them on, and stepped onto the sidewalk feeling like an alien.  Awkwardly, I began slowly running down the sidewalk.  I imagine I looked something like one of these guys, this absolutely cracks me up: 

That day, I ran 2 minutes in one direction away from my house, then 2 minutes the other direction away from my house, so I was never far from home in case of a disaster.  I ran for a total of 4 minutes, and oddly enough, my ankle didn’t hurt.  A few hours later, the calf soreness set in…

The next day, walking was a chore.  I was having trouble with stairs, and thought about borrowing a cane from a patient.  Over the course of the next couple of months, I slowly built up to running 3 miles, then 5 miles.  My first 5 mile day, I was ecstatic.  My this time, alien running was really feeling good.  I was light, energetic, and best of all, no ankle pain.  I felt so good, that the next day I went out and did it again, the same 5 mile route despite the lingering soreness in my calves.  This is where the problem resurfaced, the problem of being both a runner and a PT.  There’s that deranged runner on one shoulder shrieking, “WHEEEE!!!  This is fun, do it again, again!!”  And then the sensible PT on the other shoulder saying, “Come on, you know better than to do this, you’re not ready!”  It seems that the runner always wins the first round.

The next day, walking was not even an option.  I had successfully acquired my first too much too soon injury from minimalist running, also known as TMTS in running lingo.  Retrocalcaneal bursitis, welcome to your new home in my ankle for the next few weeks.  Oops, I got a little too excited and and ran two back to back 5 mile days.  You see, the reason for most injuries resulting from minimalist running are due to user error.  It’s not the shoe’s fault.  Or your foot’s fault.  It’s your own damn fault, you deranged runner.  🙂  I spent plenty of time icing the golf ball on my heel over the next couple of weeks and realized that I needed to listen to my body.  Afterall, this was something brand new, and you have to respect that.

The easiest way to avoid the TMTS injuries is to take the shoes off.  That’s right, nudey foot time.  Strip down to your bare soles.  Even if the Vibrams or other “barefoot shoes” feel like nothing on your feet compared to what you’re acquainted with, they still disguise the precious feedback coming in from the sensory nerves in your feet.  Have you ever tried to find something in your purse or your pocket when you’re wearing thin liner gloves?  It’s like being blind!  I always end up getting frustrated and taking the things off to find my chapstick.

That being said, when we first introduce our bare feet to the ground, it’s like waking up and seeing the sun for the first time.  Holy hell, that thing is bright!!  We will be using muscles that have been sleeping for years in your shoes, heck I’d be sleeping too if I didn’t have anything else to do.  A good rule of thumb that I’ve used when we begin running this way is this:  If it hurts, acknowledge the pain and where it is.  Continue running for another 10 seconds or so, and if it still hurts, head home.  Preferably, stay close enough to home so that you can get there easily.  More importantly, Michael Sandler, author of one of my favorite books Barefoot Running, says, “Stop barefoot running when you stop having fun.”

If we begin barefoot, we won’t get  far because our soles won’t be tough enough to get the job done.  If we begin in minimalist shoes, we have more chance of being injured because we will not get the sensory communication from our feet, leading to overdoing early on.  Beginning barefoot for short distances allows our skin on the bottom of our feet to toughen up, while simultaneously strengthening the muscles and tendons.  Strengthening the muscles and tendons gradually will facilitate the gentle tugging on the bones they are connected to, in turn strengthening those bones and preparing them for the increased weightbearing load that they were originally designed to hold.  Have you ever heard that resistance training (lifting weights) can help to prevent osteoporosis?  Bingo!  The bones respond to the gentle tugging from the muscles and tendons by building stronger bones, resulting in a stronger overall body and increased bone density.

Now don’t misunderstand, we can begin this journey in minimalist shoes instead of totally barefoot, but know that injury/soreness is more likely, and we have to learn to rein in our deranged runner tendencies.  Heck, I did it, but I’m a physical therapist who still was dumb enough to go through 2 separate but short episodes of retrocalcaneal bursitis (“WHEEEE!!!”) and some killer top of the foot pain for a week or two.  While these brief discomforts were nothing compared to the chain of injuries I had before, they were still discouraging.  But in my case, I really didn’t have the option to go back to shoes, so I stuck with the alien running.  Lucky for me, because I’ve been totally injury free for a year and a half.  All of my TMTS injuries (3)  were in the first 5 months of running inVibrams and lasted 2 or 3 weeks at most.  All my fault, I might add.  1. Back to back 5 mile runs in the first month or so.  2. Half marathon followed by launching into full blown marathon training the next week (top of foot pain coupled with retrocalcaneal bursitis on the other foot)

In the case of minimalist running, it’s no secret that there is a new crop of injured runners experiencing ugly things like stress fractures and the above injuries.  But on the bright side, this is easy to prevent as long as we educate ourselves and retrain our bodies to run properly by giving ourselves enough time to build strength in the muscles that have been napping for a while in our cushy shoes.  In my next post, I would like to go into preparation, form, and progression of barefoot/minimalist running.  In the meantime, a great book to read is Michael Sandler’s Barefoot Running.  The book along with the DVD, which I also highly recommend, can be found on his website, http://www.runbare.com/.  Here is a picture of my copy of the DVD!  It’s filled with great philosophies and instructions on form as well as preparation exercises.  Also, visit Minimalist Mondays You Tube channel which is a program hosted by local PT, Sanatan Golden and local podiatrist,  Dr. Ray McClanahan.  They are doing a fantastic service for the community, and I will certainly reference several of their exercises next time when I talk about preparation.

In closing, here is a funny video about us barefooters:

One Reply to “My Journey to Becoming a Barefoot Runner, Part 3: The How to Begin”

  1. I am not positive the place you’re getting your info, however great topic. I must spend a while learning much more or working out more. Thanks for magnificent information I used to be in search of this information for my mission.

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