My Barefoot Running Experience (or how to do everything wrong)

Posted on June 5, 2011


“Sometimes you can only do something right by first doing everything wrong.” — me

After chatting with me about “barefoot”* running, and for want of a fun excuse to get back into running period, my friend Derek bought “Barefoot Running Step by Step” by Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton and Roy M. Wallack. Since Derek wasn’t in any hurry to read it and because I’m a huge book mooch, I begged to borrow it from him so I could read it before participating in the Spartan Race next month. I want to do it properly and injury-free, dammit.

Last night I was called upon to fulfill my offer to babysit for Derek and his wife. After their kid went to bed, I spent a good long while digging into the book. I also took it with me to Bridgehead this morning and kept reading it over a free gi-fucking-normous cappuccino (which I only have when I’ve wracked up a free coffee/specialty coffee).

I can’t put the book down.

The book has rocked my world and caused me to feel a great deal of embarrassment about my own approach to running this spring. What embarrassment, you ask? Why, let me tell you. . . .

I ran a 10k charity race “barefoot” with Vibram FiveFingers back in early May, and I injured my feet both two weeks before that race and then again during it — around the 5k mark. What I thought at the time to be inadequate time spent adapting my feet to running barefoot was actually tendinitis. Stupidly, I pushed through it during the run itself, walking only intermittently between from the 5.5k – 7k marks. Fucking stupid. Mark Sisson would have bitch-slapped me and any real barefoot runner would have shamefacedly averted their gaze. I didn’t listen to my body and deal with the warning signs of an impending injury. I broke a Primal Law, perhaps one of the most important: Avoid trauma/don’t make stupid mistakes.

Anyway. My first mistake was actually to transition from shod running to barefoot running via a perceived intermediary: minimalist shoes; in my case, Vibram FiveFingers. In reading “Barefoot Running Step by Step,” I learned very quickly that was a foolish approach, and one that cost me. Thankfully, no permanent damage was done.

(This probably doesn’t need to be parenthetically noted at this point, but just in case it does, the subtext of this whole post is “Learn from my fuckwittery — don’t emulate it!”)

Let me underline bold this for you folks: Do not use VFFs to learn to run barefoot; you should only use VFFs after you’ve learned how to move properly barefoot. Barefoot, then “barefoot.” If you have any interest in barefoot running, take this fucking lesson to heart. It would have saved me months of training time and likely precluded a recurring, utterly needless injury.

I’m only 120 pages into “Barefoot Running Step by Step,” but here’s my favourite line so far from the book:

“…the ultimate goal [is] simply moving forward, and moving forward simply.” It’s a MovNat-like concept specific to running.

I can’t recommend the book enough. If you have any interest in running barefoot (and I would personally encourage any and all of you to try it out), read this book first and throw aside the almost-ingrained idea that you need to buy a pair of VFFs before trying to run barefoot.

Although I seem down on VFFs, I’m not. I love mine and wouldn’t be without ’em. However, I truly wish that I’d gone fully barefoot first and migrated to minimalist shoes for walking and general propriety/social and commercial interactions (like going into coffee shops, bookstores, the office, etc.).

Here is my advice to you, based on my mistakes:

  • Barefoot, then “barefoot”
  • Posture, posture, posture. Hint: It starts with your head and works its way down!
  • Tension/tightness in your calves and feet while barefoot running is not post-workout muscle soreness. You’re fucking something up. Cut that shit out and re-evaluate your posture and running technique. You probably aren’t bending your knees enough!
  • On that note, practice various barefoot running drills as a warm-up to refresh yourself re: posture and technique and to loosen up a bit.
  • Start small. Don’t go until you can’t go any farther.
  • Don’t be afraid of hard surfaces! In fact, start your transition to barefoot running by standing on gravel and getting used to transferring weight and balance across your feet.
  • Your heel should contact (brush or “kiss”) the ground when you run. It’s not all on the balls of your feet or, Grok-fucking-forbid, on your toes.

There’s lots more, but just buy the book. I was trying to think of how it felt to read “Barefoot Running Step by Step.” It sounds stupid or silly, but reading it feels like being dropped off to spend time with that friendly and wonderfully eccentric uncle you only get to see once a year (and whose carefree lifestyle your parents don’t approve of, which only makes the visit all the better). Ken Bob’s just chatting with you about something he loves; it’s written in one of the most relaxed narratives I’ve ever encountered.

For me, my next steps are to actually run barefoot and to do it properly. Proper form is critical, and I won’t be in a rush. That said, four weeks should be plenty of time for me to be ready to rock the Ottawa Spartan Race!

For you guys, here are some great videos I’ve found that will either encourage you to start your own barefoot journey or to improve if you’re already a convert:

  • Dr. Daniel Lieberman, the “barefoot professor,” the guy in whose lab Barefoot Ken Bob is running in the next link (this is a great video explaining the science behind barefoot running)
  • Barefoot Ken Bob running on a lab treadmill at Harvard (note the bent knees, which perhaps the biggest thing when switching to barefoot running)
  • Erwan Le Corre trail running (note the upright and relaxed posture, which starts with your head position; viz., head up, facing forward)
  • Dr. Mark Cucuzzella (great instructional video, complete with drills. Don’t fear hard/rugged terrain!)

* “barefoot” in quotations used to note minimalist-shoes running and not actual barefoot running. Very important separation!