Barefoot Running: The Beginning

After spending the summer reading and hearing about barefoot/forefoot running and finally reading the book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougal, my view of running and running shoes had altered significantly. After all, I can’t think of a single other sport other than distance running where we are taught to use our heels so much. Basketball players, football players, baseball players, wrestlers, sprinters and more are all taught to stay on ball of foot or on toes. Only in distance running do we get away from that. I fully believe that Bill Bowerman thought he was doing the right thing and for many years I’ve believed it, but now, I’m not so sure and I started to get the itch to find out if this really was the way to go.
The barefoot journey officially began for me on Thursday September 3rd, 2009. After I got done with work for the day I went home, got changed, laced up my running shoes and headed out for a run. I ran about ¼ of a mile up to our practice field hockey field, which was all grass and very soft, and took off my running shoes. I meant to start out at a slow jog, but before I had completed one lap of the field I was up to a normal running pace comparable to what I ran in shoes. The grass felt great on my feet and the field provided plenty of cushioning. I did 8 laps around the field for a total of one mile (measured by GPS) and then put my running shoes back on to complete my workout.
I ran another 3.5 miles of trails in my running shoes and was miserable the whole time. The heel of the shoe now seemed to be hard as a rock and continually interfering with my run. The shoes and orthotics that I had loved for the last several years and credited with saving my running were now being considered an evil. Mentally, I was already becoming a barefoot runner.
Latter in the day I noticed some tightness and minor soreness in my lower legs, but nothing unusual for starting a new workout. My feet felt great and I was raring to try and up the distance. I did have some concern about it, because chronic calf pain and tightness is what drove me into orthotics 8 years ago, but I was fairly optimistic that this was different.
The next day after work I decided to continue my quest. I again laced up my shoes but this time ran 1/3 of a mile to our baseball/softball fields where I again took off my shoes and started to run. Unlike the day before, these fields were a little less grassy, hard in places and had a number of places covered in acorns. I was a little worried how my feet would fair, but decided to give it a go anyway.
About ½ mile into my run my calves started to get real sore, primarily from the run the day before, but despite the surface being a little harder, my feet were feeling great. I stepped on a number of acorns, small rocks, sticks and other objects but my feet handled them well. I pushed through the soreness and completed 2.1 miles and then put my shoes back on and ran about a mile further back to my athletic training room. I don’t mind a little soreness but decided it would be a good idea to treat my legs and feet to a nice ice whirlpool to make sure that it stayed only a little soreness.
I knew that I pushed myself pretty far in the first two days so I decided to take a few days before trying again. And so the next day I took completely off of running to give my legs a little recovery time. Besides, I had a home football scrimmage that Saturday and my time was going to be somewhat limited.
For the scrimmage I put on my shoes, which, other than for running, I hadn’t worn all summer. By the end of the afternoon my feet were in pain. Every summer outside of workouts I wear nothing on my feet except sandals, and only wear those when I have to. Every fall when I go back to work my feet hate me for the first several weeks and this year looked like it was going to be more of the same if I let it. My runs had me somewhat convinced that there was definite credibility to the whole barefoot idea and I decided I’d had enough.
As soon as things were done for the day and I had all of my gear put away I went home and got on the computer. I quickly found the closest place that sold Vibram Five Fingers (VFF), which are a very minimalist shoe that I’d been hearing and reading quite a bit about all summer. They are nothing more than a very thin, flexible rubber sole that is held on with minimal material and allows your feet to function in a more “normal” manner including allowing your toes to be separate and spread out.
I drove over to the nearest store and bought a couple different pairs (KSO and Sprint). I walked out of the store in my sandals, but before I reached my car I changed into my VFF Sprints, which I wore the rest of the day. By the end of the 3 day weekend I was wearing nothing else, except for during my workouts.
That following Monday, which was Labor Day, I decided to give my new VFF’s their first break in run. I put my VFF Sprints on and ran 1/3 of a mile up to our cross country trails. I took a very rocky trail as a short cut up to the cross country trails wanting to give the VFF’s a real test. But, despite the large number of very sharp rocks littering the trail I had no problems running on it. The VFF’s had proven they could protect my feet.
I took the VFF’s off when I got to the trails and put my regular running shoes on and ran for another 3 miles in them not wanting to push my calf muscles which hadn’t fully recovered from Friday’s run. When I came out of the cross country trails I put my VFF’s back on for the run back to my apartment.
I’d now completed my first weekend in my VFF’s, done my first several barefoot runs and was feeling pretty good. Calves were still a bit tight, but no longer sore. Feet were feeling great, and I was optimistic that I was on the right track. I knew I needed a day off, but I couldn’t wait for the next step in the journey.

(originally published October ’09)

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About Douglas Sawyer, MS, ATC

I am an athletic trainer who is also a very avid athlete. My first love is running, but I also love cycling and triathlons and many other activities. I'm not a swimmer though, I just don't drown for 2.4 miles... As a athletic trainer I work with sports injuries. I currently work at a school with athletes in 7th-12th grade in a wide variety of sports. I can be found on twitter at two different names: @IronmanLongRunr - where I tweet about run, bike, tri, & more @Longrunr - where I tweet about athletic training
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