They’re just shoes: minimalist shoes, barefoot shoes, toe shoes, gorilla feet, whatever, they’re still just shoes. For something so simple they’ve taken me on a wild journey over the last 14 months. It was a journey that truly started about 2 months prior to my first sticking toes in them. They transformed me as a runner, an athlete, an athletic trainer, a biomechanist and just as a person in general.
The journey started with a simple discussion on twitter where I was talking about the benefits of orthotics and another person argued that they were actually bad for you. His argument claimed the muscles of the feet, if allowed to strengthen naturally would better do the job. We went back and forth, citing sources and examples, neither giving in. But the wheels in mind had started to turn.
I started nosing around on the internet and then read the book “Born to Run” that had been recommended to me by same person who had put me on this path. The more I read, the more I researched, the more I believed. Soon, I was ready to give “barefoot” running a try myself.
I started with a couple short runs barefoot around the grass athletic fields at the school I work for. I loved it! I loved the feel of the grass on my feet, the freedom of my toes, and even loved the acorns I stepped on, despite the pain from the last. I was hooked and couldn’t wait to get my first pair of Vibrams and hit the road with them.
By the end of August, 2009, I had purchased a couple pairs of Vibrams, one pair of Sprints and one pair of KSO’s. I started with a couple cautious, short runs, which caused some soreness in my Achilles and feet, but felt good enough I pushed for more.
This turned out to be a wrong choice and I found myself suffering back to back foot injuries from pushing too hard, too fast. My feet swelled and I could barely walk. Things had gone terribly wrong, but I was still convinced this was the right path.
I temporarily gave up running in Vibrams and gave my feet a chance to fully heal. I was wearing the Vibrams daily, just wasn’t running in them. After about three weeks of running healthily in running shoes I started back into the Vibrams. This time I was going to be very slow about it and build gradually. No more than two runs a week and no more than three miles. I was determined to stick to this plan until ALL discomfort running in them fully dissipated.
Somewhere in the following weeks I found the correct form, my feet and lower legs the strength they needed and things took off. The distances started growing and I was running in nothing but my Vibrams. I was soon up to 8 miles, 10 miles, 13 miles, 15miles… My legs and feet felt great.
I started racing in them. First a 25k, then a slight step back to a half marathon, then a full. Tri season hit and I wore them for a sprint, an olympic, a half iron and finally for Ironman.
There was no looking back, I was hooked and I hadn’t felt this good in years. My running form had transformed. It wasn’t fully ingrained in me but it was getting there. When fatigued or running on soft surfaces I found that if I didn’t pay attention I would revert to a heel strike, but this was happening less and less.
Everything I thought I’d learned over the years about correct running mechanics had proven wrong or at least not fully developed. My approach to working with my athletes has changed. This has opened up new avenues for injury rehab and prevention. I’m not counselling my athletes out of shoes, but I’m adjusting their mechanics to correct for problems they are having. I’m having greater success with treating and rehabilitating shin splints, ankle instability, lower leg muscle tightness and more. My running is improving again and I feel rejuevenated and I look at running and runners in a different light. My custom orthotics and heavy motion control running shoes are gone. I no longer fit in any of my old shoes and I even had to move a size up in the Vibrams when I purchased new ones last week, the muscles in my feet have developed that much.
They may be just shoes, but they have made all the difference…