Barefoot Running: The First Steps in VFF’s

My first real run in my VFF’s (Vibram Five Fingers) came after a long day of work in which I wasn’t able to get out for a run. Dark was settling in for the night and I’d finally finished everything that I needed to get done. My legs were restless from having missed their run the last 2 days and I decided to get a quick run in. I hadn’t intended running in my VFF’s again so soon. Even though 2 days before they had proven they could protect my feet, I’d still only run 2 miles barefoot and had a good deal of calf pain and tightness to go with it and I wanted to get at least 3miles in. But after changing for my run I realized I still had my VFF’s on, my legs were feeling good, and decided what the heck, let’s give them a go.
So, on Wednesday September 9th, 2009, I took off on my first VFF run on pavement. Initially I tried to pay close attention to where I was stepping even though it was too dark to really see the road clearly, but quickly gave up trying as I realized the VFF’s were doing a great job protecting my feet. About a mile into my run my calves started to tighten up and get sore again and steadily progressed to painful. I also noticed that the bottoms of my feet were starting to get very hot, especially on the down hills. However, nothing felt like I was really injuring myself so I continued to push on through the growing pain and discomfort.
Halfway through the run I discovered that letting my heel touch the ground helped lessen the amount of calf pain. I’d been running without letting my heel touch on all of my “barefoot” runs but evidently my calves weren’t up to the demands being placed on them. I was pretty sure that heel wasn’t supposed to touch, but figured it would be ok to let it lightly touch for now until I developed a little more strength. The pain in my calves lessened considerably with this change but didn’t let up entirely, but the burning on the bottom of my feet continued. I was sure I was blistering the bottoms of both feet but decided to ignore it and finish the run. I couldn’t let my quest for the truth be sidetracked by a little skin loss.
After my run I got online to look for a little more info on barefoot running. I quickly found some videos on YouTube that I studied carefully. Contrary to my first thinking that correct form meant keeping the heel from touching down at all I was seeing a lot of videos where the runner’s forefoot hit first and then the heel gently touched briefly to the ground. This was a big flaw in what I was doing which I could quickly change.
I also found that the blistering I was confident I had on the bottom of my feet was very minor. The skin was bright red and very irritated but hadn’t fully developed the major blistering I had feared. From watching the videos I figured that part of the problem was that I needed to shorten up my strides a bit more, especially when going down hills.
Even though my first VFF run was full of mistakes, I learned a lot from it and was ready to try again.
Two days later the school that I work with had a number of activities going on one of which was an orienteering exercise. Everything went well with it until the end when we had a couple of kids get lost in the woods. My feet and calves were still bothering me from my run on Wednesday, but I knew the woods better than most of the people on campus and so I set out running through the woods in search of the kids. It was a wet rainy day and I had my VFF’s on as I scrambled along trails, crossed streams, swampy areas, scrabbled up rock formations and just about every type of terrain. The VFF’s were working out great and my legs and feet felt fantastic. We were in touch with the kids via cell phone so I was slowly zeroing in on them. I can only estimate how far I ran based on time and basic knowledge of where I was but I estimate I ran approximately 2.5-3miles while hunting for the kids. Fortunately, the kids found their way to a road and another teacher was able to drive out and get them.
My next run came 5 days later on September 16th. My calves and feet had fully recovered and I was itching to give my VFF’s and “improved” knowledge of barefoot running a go. Never being one to enter into anything cautiously and being confident in my running I increased the distance again. I decided to increase my distance from the previous week by over ½ a mile. The run I planned started with a long downhill which was very steep toward the end. This would really test my new theory on the hotspots on my feet and how to rectify.
I started out on my run with my heels gently touching, my strides shortened and confident I was finally figuring this thing out. By the time I’d gone ¾ a mile and reached the end of the downhill section my calves felt great and my feet were feeling pretty good. I’d still developed a little bit of a hot spot on both feet, but significantly less then the last run and I was confident of no blistering. The rest of the run went without any problems. I finished it feeling great and excited about my progress.

(originally published October ’09)


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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