08 November 2009


(continued from this post)

In accordance with proposed new FTC rules regarding product endorsements, let me just say right up front: I paid cash at retail for my Vibram Five-Finger (VFF) shoes. No one compensated me for their use or endorsement at any time in the past & I have no expectation of receiving any compensation in the future.

When I first got my VFF shoes in late August, Wisdoc, being as supportive as she honestly could, laughed and said: "Well, honey, they are sort of..." she paused, "fringe. You're certainly making a statement, putting yourself out there." It's good to be married to someone who can keep you honest. But I knew that what she was saying was true. All you have to do is read some of the websites that are oriented toward barefoot running. Some are hard-core (barefoot only!), others encourage flexibility (minimal shoes are okay, too). I'm including a number of these sites for future reference:

Running Barefoot
Barefoot Ted
Barefoot Runner.com
Barefoot Running Shoes
Running Barefoot Yahoo! Group
Minimalist Runner Google Group
Runner's World Forum

There are more, but those sites have lots of information about this whole 'fringe' phenomenon. If you're starting out, look especially at training, easing into, and technique discussions.

Here's the key article on the topic. The point being made is that high-tech running shoes (elevated heel, shock-absorbing mid-sole, orthotic inserts/insoles, stabilizing technology, cushioning, etc.), besides being heavy, interfere with and possibly hinder the body's (foot's) natural proprioceptive functioning, thus increasing the risk of chronic plantar, Achilles, ankle, knee, and even hip injury. The feet and ankles and calves have natural shock-absorbing and stabilization capacities. Relying on shoes to perform these functions weakens the body's own adaptive mechanisms. Further, as a matter of straight physics, because each step barefootin' or wearing minimal support shoes such as the VFFs is lighter when compared to shoes, mid-soles, orthotics, etc., the body exerts less effort and, therefore, uses less oxygen over distance. As one friend said, "it's kind of like cheating." Well, yes and no. You still run the same distance, you just don't carry as much weight per step (x # of strides x distance covered).

Still, you have to be careful when you change over; there are risks of other sorts of injury such as puncture wounds, contusions, blisters, scrapes, etc. But, the point is, when you run barefoot or minimally shod you are more conscious of each step and pay closer attention to the placement of each footfall—that's the point of proprioception. By adjusting each step to the varied terrain (which you don't have to do in padded, structured shoes), you avoid repetitive motion injuries. Think of the VFFs as a second skin on the bottoms of your feet. You'll be amazed at how much protections they actually provide.

Also, you change the way you run. This is big. And it requires some discussion.

Mainly, you learn to strike the ground differently. Instead of heel-striking, you strike the ground with your mid-foot—balls of the feet and arches. This strengthens the muscles of your feet. My feet are actually larger now because they are more muscular. It also uses the calf-muscles; that's why if you don't ease into it, you can really get sore calves. My calves and ankles are larger now, too, more muscular. The advantage, though, is it takes pressure off your hips and knees. With my old running shoes, my knees locked on each stride, absorbed upward force, and it felt like I was jamming my thigh bones up into my hip. Now, I feel my core muscles working and my glutes are stronger.

The key to remember here is NOT to extend your leg out in front of you and land on your heel and roll your foot forward as feels natural in stabilizing and cushioned types of shoes. You should land on your mid-sole underneath your center of gravity. The idea is that each time you strike with your heel you are technically 'braking' or halting your own forward momentum. When you land mid-sole or slightly on the balls of your feet, you propel yourself along almost like your feet are wheeling.

One other thing, if you run barefoot or, like me, wear your VFFs in public—say, at a race or popular jogging route—you have to be prepared to be 'that guy.' As in, 'did you see that guy with the shoes?' People are always curious, and since there have been articles in a number of running magazines and McDougall's book is getting a lot of publicity, they want a first-hand report. And me? I'm always willing to oblige. It's a great ice-breaker.

I don't do a lot of pre-run stretching. I like to walk about a half-mile before I start, to loosen up my hamstrings and my feet. Then I jog the first mile more slowly than I know I can. But, I do feel the need to do a few stretches for flexibility. Here they are:

Then I do some foot exercises

And then I have to make sure my 'calves aren't too tight, bro''

So, last Saturday I ran a 15K road race. I finished, running the entire way! It was easily the longest distance I'd run since I was in my twenties. It's Sunday and I've got some lingering minor calf soreness. I had a little bit of foot pain in the ninth mile, but fortunately the road for that last mile had a broad, grassy shoulder. I ran on the grass and the foot pain went away almost immediately. I still have some adjustments to do w/r/t my stride, but that is par for the course when using the VFFs or going barefoot. Every stride is an adjustment.

Next week I'm running another 15K, but this time it's a trail run. I don't expect to have the same foot pain. And I prefer—no, I love—trail runs. Here, check out the course. It looks magical.

Finally, here's the bottom line on all this 'fringe' activity for me:
  • Things that are larger: my feet, ankles, and calf muscles.
  • Things that are smaller and tighter: my waist (from 36" to 33"), my glutes, my thighs.
  • Things that are stronger: all the above plus my toes, my arches, my Achilles, my knees, my core, and my cardio-vascular system.
  • Things that are longer and more flexible: my hamstrings! (Don't ask me why; I don't know.)
  • Thing I have to get used to being: 'that guy', i.e., the one with the funny toe shoes.
  • Thing I haven't seen in probably 15 years: the left side of 170 lbs on my bathroom scales!
  • Things I can do now that I couldn't do this summer: run 10Ks and 15Ks relatively pain free.
  • Things I aspire to do that I haven't ever aspired to do: run a mini-marathon and possibly a full marathon.
  • Thing I forgot I was addicted to: the morphine-like endorphin firing in my brain when I run long distances.
Oh, and as for that 'fringe' crack: Wisdoc and I used to run a lot together when we first met in Philadelphia, along the river, by the museum, around U. Penn, Haverford cross-country track, St. Jo's, etc. Now, because of her schedule, she only gets to run in the morning's on our running machine. But she does it barefoot. Last week, after hearing me go on and on ("and on and on" apparently) about my VFFs and all the new strides I've been making in my running over the last couple of months, she made me take her to REI and buy her a pair of these 'fringe' shoes. Turns out, her New Balance shoes were making her knees hurt whenever she got the opportunity to run outside in them, too.

Go figure.

Drop me an email or leave a comment and I'll be glad to answer any questions I can.


Jason Robillard said...


Awesome post! I love the resources you listed in the post... you make an excellent case for barefoot/minimalist shoe running! I'll add your blog to my blog list at barefootrunninguniversity.com ASAP.

Keep up the good work!

(Last Place Jason from RW forum)

Monica said...

I just bought my VFF's on Saturday, because my hubby has had some for about 4 months and loves them. I sure know about the calf muscle soreness! Your post helped explain to me why my second toes are also sore! I still find that I land on my heel more than I probably should, I kind of thought that my body would automatically adjust. Any tips on this?

Jim H. said...

Hi Monica,

Thanks for commenting. Sorry it took so long to find your comment.

The only thing I can say is don't try to do too much too soon. Barefoot KenBob's site is pretty much the best place to go for advice. Also, in the forums listed in my post you can find a bunch of posts on the issue. Definitely, landing on the balls of your feet (not your toes) and not your heels will help.

Jim H.