Barefoot Running 101

My crash course in going "shoeless"

Since writer Christopher McDougall published the popular book Born to Run (Knopf, 2009), barefoot running has been a hotly debated topic in the running community. You see it in the increasing numbers of runners wearing minimalist footwear like the Nike Free and Vibram FiveFingers, and in articles covering the pros and cons of shoeless running. I read—and enjoyed—Born to Run, but I wasn’t swayed enough by proponents’ arguments to dabble in barefoot running.

As someone with nearly flat arches (a.k.a., an “overpronator”), I’ve always been told that my foot requires an extra-supportive shoe to keep me comfortable and injury-free. While experimenting with different kinds of shoes, I’ve found that the more my footwear resembles a cinder block with laces, the less discomfort I feel during and after my workouts. So I couldn’t possibly run barefoot.

But when my sports medicine doctor told me recently that my current knee injury—patellofemoral pain syndrome, with a side of damaged meniscus and a dash of arthritis—could be alleviated by running barefoot, I started to become a believer. Or, maybe, just less a skeptic. The doc explained that runners are more likely to land on their heels when running in shoes (“barefooting” proponents like to call this “shod running”), and landing on your heel causes much more force to drive up into your bone structure—which, in my case, is likely contributing to knee pain—than does a fore- or midfoot landing. Meanwhile, many people find that simply taking the sneakers out of the equation is enough to alter their footstrike, thus reducing those potentially painful impact forces.

The promise of eliminating injury was enough to get me to slip off my Sauconys before hopping on the treadmill on Sunday. (I’m not about to shell out $100 for a pair of Vibrams just yet, and since my soles are covered in skin, not Kevlar, I opted to run in socks on a treadmill rather than shoeless on roads.) The initial sensation of foot on motorized belt was a strange one; I could actually feel through my socks the moving parts underneath the belt. And whereas I rarely think about the movement of my feet when wearing shoes, this time I was conscious of how my feet fell onto the treadmill and, interestingly, how my right foot landed fairly straight while my left foot turned inward, pointing slightly to my right side, with every step.

I kept my pace much slower than usual—running about a 12-minute mile versus my usual 9:30-minute pace—and capped the run at just one mile. “Just a mile to start,” my doctor had advised. “When you finish, you’ll think, ‘This is easy! I could go all day.’ Then, the next day, your calves will be incredible sore, and you’ll know you were smart in running just one mile.” And right he was. My calves were screaming before that mile was done. I also noticed the balls of my feet feeling tender, since I had adopted a forefoot strike without even thinking about it. By the end of the day, I was sore but otherwise pain-free.

Since then, my calves have started to feel more like their normal, non-debilitated selves, and I’ve been able to walk, not hobble, through my day. My plan is to run barefoot on every other run. I’ll continue to post my updates here.

In the meantime, what tips do you have for barefooting? Are you a believer or a skeptic? Let me know!