So begins my barefoot running journey

I love listening to audio books on long drives. I was heading to Toronto for a movnat workshop about a month ago and so picked up the Born to Run audio book. If you haven’t read (or listened to it), I highly recommend it. It is partly a book that puts forth a thesis and supports it with convincing (but probably one sided) physiological arguments. But it is also a book that weaves a great tale about life and people and running. Unfortunately I didn’t get to listen to much of it on the drive to Toronto as a big snow storm cut that drive short (going in May now instead). But I’ve since listened to the book in bits and pieces as I drive around Ottawa. There have been many days when I arrive somewhere and remain in the car because I don’t want to “put the book down”.

This book came to me at an opportune time, as I’ve been thinking about getting back into running. I used to run regularly, but for the last 5 to 10 years, I have done very little distance running. Initially it was because I was focusing my training on sports performance for Ultimate, which is a field sport requiring intermittent bursts of speed. Distance running is a very poor choice in terms of training for sports like ultimate (or soccer, tennis, basketball, hockey, football…) because it effectively trains you to run slowly in sports that require speed. I no longer play ultimate at a competitive level, and don’t aspire to. I still play at a fairly high level, but my training focus now is more broad. I still train to be able to perform, but performance has taken on a new meaning. For me, it now means being fit enough to be able to do the activities I want to do. And over the winter, I’ve been thinking that I’d like to take up both cycling and running again.

I actually only started running again about a week ago. I decided to start running to work, which is less than 2 km from my house. I pulled my old running shoes out, put the orthotics in, and ran out the door. I went about halfway, walked for about a block, and then ran the rest of the way. It was pretty cool. But I noticed two things:

  • when I looked in the mirror, I could see that I supinated (standing on the outside edges of my feet) in my shoes.
  • I started to feel some discomfort in the outside of my calf on one side.

There was a time when I wore orthotics for everything. This was one of the many prescriptions I received during 20 years of on again/off again hip pain on my left side that eventually led to surgery 3 years ago for femoro acetabular impingement, a labral tear and early arthritis. About a year after surgery (which was a big success), I started to ween myself off the orthotics. Very slowly. I started with “barefoot” warmups for my own training, and then spent more time walking around without shoes at home. Eventually I stopped wearing the orthotics for any strength training, and then stopped wearing them for normal daily living. I kept them a bit longer for long walks, tennis and ultimate. During this time, I also spent a lot of my training time in the gym with single-leg training. Until very recently, I actually had no plan to go beyond that. A little more history: I was born with a partial clubfoot that was corrected with special shoes when I was a baby. It wasn’t quite 100% corrected, and I’m pretty certain that there is a relationship between the partial club foot and the hip trouble I had. And considering that, I figured that I am one of the people who has a structural issue in my foot and therefore would need orthotics forever.

But as I looked at how I was standing in my running shoes with the orthotics in them, having just been listening to Born to Run, I started to second guess. And I decided it was time to give this barefoot running concept a try. Well, more specifically, the minimalist shoe concept. I don’t want to actually go barefoot, but there are now many shoes out there that have little to no support. If you believe the message from Born to Run (and I do), then you will be of the opinion that most running shoes are actually bad for us, and that when it comes to running shoes, less is more. I then looked over at my funky casual Adidas: they are pretty minimal – no support to speak of. So the next day I ran to and from work wearing them.

Two cool things happened:

  • that little lateral calf pain went away
  • I noticed that I naturally started to run with a midfoot strike instead of a heel strike, just like they suggest in Born to Run (for those who don’t know what this means, stay tuned for a future blog article about a great running biomechanics presentation I attended last year or…read Born to Run).

So it’s true what they say! I was encouraged.

And I decided I would take a stand: I’m not going to go spend a tonne of money on expensive “minimalist shoes” sold by the same big brand running shoe companies who introduced these horrible running shoes to us in the first place. I would just wear my scrappy 2008 casual runners. No purchase required. I’m so sticking it to the man that soon I’ll be living in the woods! Or am I? The next day I went for a trail run with my best friend. I ended up wearing my old running shoes because the casual shoes have pretty worn treads and a funky aeration screen on the bottom, making them a poor choice for trail running. I wore them without the orthotics and I was happy to see that the calf pain did not return. But they felt clunky, and it was a struggle to keep the midfoot strike. So much for my stick-it-to-the-manedness: a couple of hours later I was at Sports 4 trying on minimalist trail running shoes.

The guy at the store tried to convince me to get a “transition shoe”, because we need to introduce minimalist shoes gradually to avoid a host of other injuries. I pointed out, that I am still in the process of ramping up running in general, so gradual is not a problem. The notion of transitioning to a transition shoe so that a few months from now I have to transition again, this time to a minimalist shoe, seems absurd. Or more accurately an attempt by the shoe companies to get me to buy new shoes more often than I need to. Eventually I convinced him that I don’t need the transition: I already do lots of barefoot or socked-foot training, and will only be running 1 – 3 km initially with the shoes.

I ended up getting the New Balance Minimus trail. Look how cool they are:

minimalist running shoes

And they only weigh 3.5 ounces. Crazy!

I got some support for that decision a few minutes later. I was walking down bank st and a woman at the bus stop who had been at sports 4 when I was talking with the sales guy stopped me and told me that she thinks I was right to skip the minimalist shoe. As it turns out she is a physiotherapist and had recently attended Blais Dubois’ running clinic. I had previously heard good things about Blais Dubois’ clinic from Richard Gregory, a fantastic osteopath and athletic therapist in Ottawa, so when she spoke about it, it did not come across as a random argument. I felt reassured. Both in my choice of shoe and my constant feeling that Ottawa is a small city.

I’ll fill you in on how I’m making out with these saucy shoes in the next article. If you want to be notified when the next installment of my barefoot running journey gets posted, let me know in the comment section below.

Click through to get to  the next entry in my barefoot running journal.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS is a personal trainer in Ottawa.

14 thoughts on “So begins my barefoot running journey”

  1. Interesting question. And are you running on concrete or pavement? Pavement is much softer than concrete. I wonder if ceramic is harder than concrete? I’m not a materials engineer, so I have no idea. But that would be my guess. I’m generally of the opinion that barefoot on concrete is not the best idea. Often people talk about the benefits of barefoot running, it is generally in reference to our history or to remote tribes. In both cases these are people who ran in nature, where the ground has give, and it is uneven. I believe this is an important difference vs running on concrete or pavement. This is merely my opinion of course.

  2. Hi elsh, i’ve a question that i cant get the answer anywhere on the net, at least by far.

    Why it is different to run barefoot on concrete and ceramic? I’ve tried both, and i can tell you running on concrete is amazing! It healed my injury, but when i tried to do inside the house, on ceramic, instead of getting the benefit i got from running barefoot on concrete i hurt my feet.

    Whay is wrong and what is the different?

    Thanks a lot elsh.

  3. Hi Elsbeth,

    Thanks for the plug! I have a lot I’d like to add to this article. I’ll try to be brief:

    1) minimalist shoes unquestionably can cause a different set of injuries then PECH shoes(Pronation control, Elevated and Cushioned Heel) if not integrated gradually. Specifically Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and metatarsalgia. If any of these 3 conditions are present, they should be treated first before moving to a transition shoe.

    2) when moving to a minimalist/transition shoe, make sure your first run is 5-10 minutes in the new shoes, then put on your old shoes and finish your run. Next run, increase this by 5-7 minutes in the new shoes etc. Failure to do so will test your ability to adapt. I’ve seen a rash of stress fractures this spring in new impatient minimalist runners.

    3) a 2-3 km run is not the same as a 10-15 km run. So for those who are running trails or longer distances, make sure you go gradually!

    4) Blaise Dubois has put together a great course. His sampling of the research is however sometimes slightly biased. Keep an open mind and read the research yourself to make unbiased conclusions about running biomechanics and injury prevention.

    Enjoy the minimalist runs and stay healthy!

    Rich

  4. I looked at some of your posts. IMHO, you’re spending too much time trying to find the perfect footwear. You already have them, and they’re free!

  5. What to do more barefoot? Give me a shout. I’m always looking for running partners. I’ve been barefoot now for 2 years. I did 400km this winter.

    Give me a shout. I’ll run city or trails

    Take care,

    Rod

  6. I’m completely delighted that you’re 1) running again and 2) trying out the minimalist shoes thing. I find that running in my vibrams feels a lot more like childlike bounding than like my old sneaker plodding. If I weren’t 2 months away from hip surgery, I’d be taking up trail running too. ;)

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