I started running for exercise, willingly, back in 2010. Granted, I ran while in the Navy, but not for the enjoyment and I also ran when I was a kid. Growing up in the country, I spent a lot of time barefoot. As I think about it, it's kind of funny. My country neighbors used to champion barefootedness and say "It will help make your feet tough and strong." But, with my boys growing up in the suburbs and trying to go shoeless, the neighbors would say, "You're not going to wear shoes?"
Several years back I rolled my ankle really badly on a trail run, then again the following year. Following that I began to develop plantar fasciitis and other issues with my feet. All of this led to me taking a break from running for a long time.
- I tried orthotics (shoe inserts).
- I tried different types of supportive shoes (the expensive ones).
- I tried different ways of running.
Nothing really worked. Thinking back on it, I've always had issues running. My legs would always ache afterwards. My feet would be sore. My hamstrings would be tight. I honestly thought this was just how it was supposed to be.
Until Things Changed
I went to a doctor who did a scan of my feet. He said, "You're not a runner. Your feet aren't good for running." He was the second doctor who told me this. My arches were bad, my ligaments were loose, I overpronated...my feet sucked. He, like most pediatrist I had seen, recommended all of the things I had already tried.
Then it hit me: My feet didn't suck, they were weak. They had it easy for way too long. What would happen if, rather than finding ways to coddle them, I made things harder on them. What if I wore very minimalist shoes, went barefoot more often, and worked on strengthening my feet?
So, that's what I did, and all of the research I've found tells me that this is the way our feet are meant to be. Free. The same goes for running.
My First Barefoot Run
There is a nature preserve not too far from my house. It has a few grassy trails along the treeline that make for a perfect place to start barefoot running.
I had been going shoeless for several months at this point, so my feet were starting to get used to less support. But, running is a totally different experience. You can crack bones and do some damage if your feet aren't ready for this. I was.
The first thing I noticed was how hard I struck the ground. The feedback was jarring and, with my headphones in, I could hear the deep thud with every stride. My stride had to change to account for not having any additional padding. It forced me to use a more midfoot strike. By my second lap the thud had lessened considerably. Not only could I hear how my feet hit the ground, I could feel it and see it. I could see the position of my foot and watch how it reacted when it hit the ground.
The best thing, though, is that I wasn't sore or tired afterwards. I felt good; refreshed. That has continued to be the case over the last year and a half of running barefoot.
Check out this longer podcast episode on barefoot running.
Check out this article series on your feet.
This article isn't meant to be exhaustive on the subject of barefoot running. Rather, I hope to get you thinking about pursuing it on your own. There is already a lot of information out there. I look forward to the dew on my feet and splashing in the mud. I run where the animals do and that bit of wildness is something I need in this world of concrete and steel.
Whether you've ran for years on blacktop, or you don't consider yourself a runner, the experience of barefoot running is so unlike "running" that it will cause you to have a different perspective and appreciation for how our bodies are made.