Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Barefoot Run?

Not me!  
I'm a minimalist footwear guy.  I have been since December 2010 after I read Chris McDougall's "Born to Run".  I get it.  Before that I recall reading in Galloway's Book on Running about occasionally going for a barefoot run on a golf course to help strengthen foot muscles, but I never thought about running distance (i.e., more than 50 feet) barefoot, and certainly not on anything except grass.

When I started training in Vibram Five Fingers in March 2011 I began to wonder if that 4mm under my foot mattered all that much.  I bought a book on barefoot running - Michael Sandler's "Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth".  I made several attempts to go barefoot, but then I became preoccupied with training for a Fall marathon and I shelved the idea until after that goal was achieved.  In the meanwhile I took up some of the recommended exercises, mostly clutching and lifting objects with my toes.

When I crossed the Finish Line at Steamtown, I grabbed some food and took off my Nike Free Runs and socks.  Thus began my barefoot journey, about 15 minutes after my race ended.  I walked a mile barefoot.  Uncomfortable, but nice too.

The key to getting going with barefooting is to start slow.  REALLY SLOW.  The uninitialized foot is baby soft, with no need for toughness in a life of being shod all the time.  I started with a 1/2 mile of baby steps two days post-marathon on a smooth surface (nursing marathon soreness).  I've grown that now to 1.5 miles and can stretch it to 2 if I can grab some grass.  I look forward to ditching the VFF's altogether at some point.  

But WHY???

I admit, in the beginning (and I'm still beginning) it's a battle that doesn't seem worth it.  You can't go fast, every little pebble and twig is going to hurt, and then there could be blisters!  But then you resign yourself to press on....You just get a run going and you get that pebble, or rough patch of road, and it's really uncomfortable.  Then you get little stones that stick to your feet step after step and won't release.  But after each run barefoot there's a sense of accomplishment.  It's not about speed or goals or anything, just getting "grounded".  Sandler talks about that in his book.  I read that and said fooey - until I did it.

The foot has an abundance of nerve endings, and we keep them from feeling anything at all when we slip on a sole (yes, even a VFF).  Sensory deprivation is a form of torture, and yet we deprive one of the most sensory parts of our bodies any sensation at all.   I tweeted earlier this week that getting a barefoot run had become my 4th primal need (you can figure out the other 3 on your own).  For me it boils down to 2 things:

1.  Getting grounded, getting in touch with the earth and regaining balance
2.  Feeling the ground, awakening dormant nerves, building connections in the brain by a magnificent inflow of new and exciting stimulation

And I know it defies reason.

The need to go barefoot grows stronger after each run and my brain now demands it.  It's become a drug that fills me with endorphins and soothes a craving I never could have imagined.   I never got that from barefooting on the treadmill, probably because it wasn't the earth itself.  You must remove the insulation between your body-electric and the ground to understand that barefooting is more (much more) than just a run without shoes.  

My run yesterday started in VFF's, and once I got to smooth pavement I couldn't wait to slip them off.  A dozen or so steps barefoot and then the surge of emotion, like a drug addict finally getting a fix.  I breathed deep, soaked it all in, then tempered my immersion in the sensation (I still had a run to do after all!). 

There is a child-like joy in my life now when I reflect on those runs.  I'm not a sappy guy but there are few things as beautiful as giving your body the gift of a new sensation (and without drugs!).  It's helped me find a bit of peace, and that's something I never expected.  

Oh, and yeah, there's as much a difference between barefoot and VFF's, as VFF's and conventional running shoes.  

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