Barefoot Running: The Seed Sprouts

I returned from the week of training in the Bahamas feeling good. My legs and lungs were back to preinjury levels and my feet felt great. My final run there were in my VFFs and the 5 miles in them felt great. What better time to give barefoot running another try.
So, Wednesday January 6th I put my VFFs on again and headed out for another run. It had been 3 days since my last run in them. My plan this time around was to have a minimum of 2-3 days between runs until I figured this thing out. I didn’t want to get injured again and I figured the time between runs would give my body plenty of time to recover.
It was a cold day but my Injinji and my VFF KSOs kept my feet plenty warm. I ran a short 3.2 miles and hit the showers. There was some soreness in the top of my feet and at the base of my toes, but it was minor and of little concern. I was headed to Boston that weekend for an athletic training symposia and I knew that I’d have one more day of running. I’d run the next day in regular running shoes before taking the next 4 days off which would give plenty of healing time for them.
The next day I went for a short run in my shoes and felt ok. My feet were achy and a little sore, but didn’t feel like they were getting any worse. Actually, they felt slightly better as I ran. Didn’t make sense that my feet felt better with running, but that was consistent with what happened when I was injured back in the fall.
The following Tuesday I went out for my third VFF run of the year and my first run since the previous Thursday. I wasn’t making much progress, but I wasn’t getting injured either. I had some tenderness from the last run that lasted a couple of days, but my feet had been feeling great since. I knew it would again be several days before I was able to run and so I decided to increase the distance a touch and make things a little more challenging. Most of my runs had been on relatively flat courses, but I decided to run a fairly hilly route this time and see what happened. Back in the fall I seemed to have my greatest difficulty with my feet when running hills, both up and down them. I wasn’t worried about the distance, but the hills could prove to be a test.
Because of the cold I was again wearing Injinji socks under my KSOs. The route I’d chosen was 4.4 miles, completely on the roads and it took me up and down several pretty good sized hills. There was some soreness at base of my toes on the uphills and pain in the top of my feet on the down. Neither was that bad, but it showed I definitely needed to figure out how to run them correctly. After my run there was only minor aches and soreness in my feet. It lasted the rest of the day and through the next but again felt better after I’d gone for a run in my running shoes.
I’m not sure if it was the support from the shoes, the cushioning, compression or what, but my feet felt better after running in them. The interesting part is that even when I was wearing shoes, I knew that I wasn’t running with a heel strike anymore. I was running with a fore/midfoot strike, so it wasn’t likely that the foot strike was causing my problem. I was confident that it was still something wrong I was doing with the push/lift off portion of the stride and this is where I decided I needed to focus on my next run.
I wasn’t able to get out on a run the next couple of day and I was going to be out of town again and unable to run that weekend. I took the following Monday off as well before getting back out for another run. Clad in my KSOs and Injinjis I set out for another run. I was really trying to make a point of lifting my feet instead of pushing off. It felt unnatural but my feet felt slightly better. Unfortunately every time I stopped focusing on my running I went back to pushing off. But I made it through another 3.3 miles in my VFFs with minimal soreness.
I ran the next 2 days in my running shoes before trying my VFFs again. In them I was also focusing on lifting instead of pushing but instead of feeling like I was on track to figuring barefoot running out I felt awkward and silly. But, my feet were feeling good and I wanted to get a second VFF run in for the week. I managed another 3.2 miles on a relatively flat course. It was a far from perfect run but it was a pretty good one. My feet still felt it, but it was the best that they’d ever felt after a run. The soreness was there, but a lower level and I knew it was going to be hard to refrain from running in my VFFs again the next day.
But, as much as I wanted to I learned my lesson and took the next 3 days off. My feet felt great the entire weekend and the following Tuesday I put my VFFs on for another run. The plan was to run around 3.4 miles at an easy pace, but things quickly changed. About 1 ½ miles into the run I realized there was absolutely no pain or discomfort in my feet whatsoever. I also noticed that my form had changed and it felt almost natural and easy. My feet were lightly gliding over the pavement; I was no longer pushing off. Something had finally clicked. I started picking up the pace, testing my new form.
Before I knew it I was 3 miles out and realized I better not push my luck too far and turned back for home. According to my Garmin 305 I totaled 6.1 miles on the run, yet I had no pain, soreness, aches or any other problems in my feet. They felt great! It was too soon to say for sure, but I think I finally figured this “barefoot” running thing out.
Excited from my success I decided to try running in my VFFs again the next for 3.2 miles, and again the next day for 3.4 miles, and the next for another 6 miles for a total of 18.7 miles in 4 days.
My feet felt great through the entire 4 day stretch. I did develop a little soreness as the week progressed, but it was different from before. In the past it felt like I was doing something wrong and possibly causing injury, but now it just felt like the muscle soreness you get after a good hard workout. It faded as the day progressed and left me feeling fantastic the next day. I did find that I couldn’t just take off and run and totally forget to pay attention to what I was doing, if I did I found I reverted to my old running form and I would start to get soreness back in my feet again. As soon as this would happen I would refocus on what I was doing, adjust my running technique and the pain would disappear.
Between weather, work and several other factors I ended up taking the next 3 days off completely from running, no running in VFFs or shoes.
Monday came and I went out in my VFFs again for 4.4 miles, again Tuesday for 8 miles, Wednesday for 3.25 miles and Thursday for 6 miles. And every one of the runs felt great with each one my feet and legs feeling better than the one before. I wasn’t able to run again that Friday and Saturday, but Sunday came and I decided it was time to try and push the distance a bit. I already had my longest ever VFF run on Tuesday, but it wasn’t enough for me, I wanted more and more I got. I went for 11 miles and felt fantastic while doing it. This brought my weekly total to 32.65 miles all in VFFs and almost 2 weeks since I’d run in shoes.
The following week I ran 30.7 miles over 6 days and the following Monday I pushed my longest VFF run to 13.5 miles and I would end up running a total of 49.9 miles in 7 runs that week culminating with a new personal VFF distance best run of 15.5 miles on Sunday.
The following week I kept the streak going running, but due to severe weather and extremely heavy snowfall the days and mileage were somewhat limited. I ran 2.7 miles on Monday, 6 miles on Wednesday, and then did the stupid. I ran 5 miles on Thursday, but due to the weather ran on a treadmill. This is where the stupid comes in. I decided since I was running on the treadmill that I didn’t need the same protection that I did on the roads and decided to run truly barefoot. Fortunately, the injury I did was literally only skin deep. I severely blistered the bottom of my feet. I felt it happening but I’d decided to run 5 miles before I set foot on the treadmill and decided to stick with the plan despite my feet. I wasn’t causing serious injury, but it didn’t feel very good anyway.
We lost power the next day, so no treadmill, and the snow was coming down thick and heavy, so I was forced to sit it out. Not that this was a bad thing, the bottom of my feet could use the healing time. The roads were cleared well enough the next day that I was able to get in another 5 miles. It wasn’t a big week distance wise, but it was bringing me to the close of a month of being shoe free and strictly running in VFFs.
Despite the blisters and all of the miles I’d done over the previous my feet still felt fantastic. I still had to focus on my form somewhat while running, but I was confident that I’d gotten this thing figured out. My new running technique felt natural, it was now a matter of training my body and fully breaking the bad habits that I’d developed over the last 20+ years of running.
I knew I had one last thing I needed to do before I could call myself a barefoot/VFF runner and that was to run a race. So, despite the blisters I signed up to run a 25k road race that Sunday, but that’s a subject for the next post.

Adding this link well after publishing this post (also just put on a previous post), but wish I’d have read this back in August when I started this whole adventure:

(original post 3/10)


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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