Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole

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Why Form?

Just for the sake of argument, let’s just talk about running form for a moment. Barefoot or natural running form, that is.

Let’s talk about the rigamarole on correct and incorrect barefoot running form. Because, as it seems, you can’t just slip off your shoes (or slip on a pair of natural running shoes) and go out trotting along the sidewalk however you choose. There are all these rules and guidelines you need to know first. If your foot doesn’t land right under your center of gravity, if you’re pushing off from your toes, if you’re leaning too far forward, if your arms aren’t right….well, then you’re headed right for an injury.

And don’t get me wrong, I believe that for the most part these form regulations are helpful and their implementation has improved my running life.

But just for the sake of argument, why do we have rules for natural running form? Many of us carnal barefoot running beasts do it because we believe in the evolution of the human body (creationists need not apply, I suppose) and look to nourish and utilize it as our ancestors once did. One obvious point to make is that our ancestors didn’t have the interwebz and therefore couldn’t google “correct running form” or watch videos of others gliding along on treadmills and emulate them. Nor did they have certified running trainers or dozens of authors writing volumes on the subject. No, our ancestors just ran after their prey, ran to get to a destination, ran just out of joy and celebration (I can only assume). They didn’t study how they were supposed to run, they just did it. And we, the people of Modern Day Earth, have descended from the very genetic material of those persistence hunters and fruit gatherers. So, besides the one requisite that you run like you’re supposed to, don’t heel strike, etc., why does your modern body need extra help?

Because if you think about it, it makes sense to assume that given two unhindered feet, your back and legs and arms would simply fall into place. And if not right away, then shortly thereafter. And if you were lucky enough to have always run naturally, then by the time you’re an adult there would be really no room for bad form.

But, let’s go back a moment to the person who just shed their shoes last week. She is maybe several inches taller than me (most people are), has longer legs, or perhaps is a man instead. This person is different from me, right? He or she has differently-sized pulleys and levers, different weight distribution, different joint flexibility and muscular strengths. Why should this person run exactly like me? CAN they run like me, even?

Perfect running form, how I understand it, is a balance of optimized energy efficiency with a reduced chance of bone and soft tissue strain. But if my bone and tissue makeup is different from yours, that would stand to reason that my perfect form would also be different. Maybe not by a lot, but likely some. Perhaps I need to lean forward more because I have a lower center of gravity, or something like that. I really think when it comes down to it, “perfect form” is utterly unique to each and every runner.

So how can it be taught?

I dunno. All this talk about certified barefoot running coaches. Why hire one, really, when your bare feet know a heck of a lot more about your personal good form? And they are absolutely free of charge! And besides, I’m pretty sure my legs have a thing or two to say about that 186 bpm cadence rule, and probably none of it is very nice.


What You Can Learn from a Pair of Cushiony Running Shoes

Let me just start this blog with the following points: I consider myself a “minimalist runner.” But, more importantly than that I am a runner, and one who practices good form. I have said this before: I am at the point in my belief system where I don’t think it’s as important to run barefoot as it is to run with good form. Some believe it may be easier to learn good form while barefoot, and there may be a lot of truth to that. However, I think the notion that you must go barefoot to do it right carries with it an air of exclusion, division from the rest of the running world. Like others before me have said, there shouldn’t be “regular runners” and “barefoot runners.” We are all people who share a love for the same activity – the only necessary difference is what’s on our feet. I have always had a little trouble with barefoot runners having to be separate. Even from the beginning, my opinion was that I would rather have a whole world of runners learning about the importance of correct form, than a few hundred people converting to barefoot and the rest of the running world shunning their extreme views and missing the whole point. I mean, why wouldn’t you want everyone to learn how to run better? Why let a few millimeters of foam stand in your way?

I would like to say that I came to these conclusions after much inner debate and deliberation, and because of running barefoot for a whole year. But no, I must admit that what taught me the most about barefoot running were:

  1. my summer-long hiatus from running due to injury
  2. my Saucony Kinvaras

Saucony Kinvaras. They're loud. They're pink. And they're not as evil as you think.

Currently, I am not running barefoot. I am not running in my Vibram Five Fingers, or even in my Merrell Pace Gloves. I am running in Saucony Kinvaras. Kinvaras have been heavily marketed as a lightweight minimalist running shoe. But really – they’re not. They have squishy-bouncy soles, zero ground feel and a 4mm heel-to-toe drop (not much, but still). So, like most runners who prefer to be barefoot or minimally shod, I sort of object to the concept of the Kinvara as a “minimalist” running shoe. With that said, I am perfectly happy running in them for the time being. Why? Well, as I was coming back from my injury I decided to take the advice of my podiatrist, and ease the muscles of my foot back into their job more slowly than barefoot running would allow. But more importantly, I am just too damn paranoid of re-injury to run barefoot right now. So yeah, I was willing to drop the $70 on a pair of shoes to ease my mind as well as my feet. And when I’m good and ready, I will go back to running barefoot and in minimal footwear, and all will be well with the world.

What I know now is that when you’re running you must take heed of your feet. You must be sure to care for them, from the inside out, because without them you cannot run at all. My time being injured has taught me to respect my feet. To respect their workload limits, and more importantly, to run more for pleasure, health and meditation than for some constant self-imposed pressure to always improve. It was getting me nowhere, anyway.

Some people have asked me why I don’t just stay away from running at all until my foot is completely ready for barefoot running again. The answer is simple: because I don’t have to run barefoot to run. This is what my Kinvaras have taught me. When I first put them on in the store I was convinced this purchase was going to be the end of my credibility as a minimalist runner. And by the way, that attachment to my credibility was the reason I’d kept wearing unsupportive shoes all summer and subsequently prolonging my injury.

But when I took my first few strides in the Kinvaras I realized that they didn’t keep me from running with my usual form, as I had been told to expect. With the exception of the squishiness that had just enough give to satisfy my bum foot, I could still avoid heel striking. I could still stand up straight, lead with my chest and land with my feet under my center of gravity. All of a sudden, barefoot’s monopoly on good form seemed like a bunch of bunk, and for a moment I felt the disappointment of a child learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

That moment of clarity brought on the completion of a shift I needed to make in my thinking. Finally it didn’t matter to me if I was shunned from the barefoot community for running in shoes that had more than 6 millimeters of sole, because the people who were stuck on that rule were going about it all the wrong way. They were preaching to a small, exclusive group of followers who would conform to the letter, and all who fell outside their canon need not apply. My resistance to conformity was the exact reason I fell in love with barefoot/minimalist running in the first place, yet here I was feeling compelled to conform to a group of non-conformists. So you know what? Fuck ’em. It was time to break away.

It was also time to quit worrying about stupid unnecessary things like distance, speed, pace, competition, blah blah blah. I run to run. This is my hobby. I’m not a career racer. I don’t have to run any faster or farther than my feet are willing to take me today. And I don’t have to be an ultra-marathoner lest I be named a hobby-jogger. I don’t care about any of that crap anymore. In three weeks I am going to be running in a race called the Devil’s Chase. I chose it because its 6.66 mile distance is gimmicky and fun, and because I can wear a goofy costume. And I plan to not give a shit how long it takes me to finish or if I tire and have to walk some. I’m going to put on a ridiculous outfit, run a few miles with a couple of my friends, and then I’m going to hang around Salem, Massachusetts, the center of the Halloween Universe, and I’m going to smile. If you’re looking to find me, I’ll be the one wearing bright pink marshmallow shoes and running with fantastic fucking form.

That, my dear readers, is what running is all about.


Walk this way….run this way.

Choose your weapon or free your sole.

Yesterday afternoon I had my first appointment with the sports podiatrist. She told me I have injury to the intrinsic muscles of my foot. She put me in a walking cast for 1 week and told me to take 800mg of Advil twice a day for four days. She also told me that I’ll be able to run the half marathon I signed up for, in the beginning of October.

I remain skeptical.

Of course, being that she (like most of the medical community) isn’t a fan of barefoot running, she made the cursory attempt to convince me that I shouldn’t be running barefoot. Though, with that same breath she touted the advantages of barefoot form, and told me that I should try to mimic that form in supportive running shoes. It made me think the following two things:

  • Why does everyone hate you when you’re barefoot? You’re born barefoot – why is it so difficult to imagine living and exercising that way?
  • Maybe there’s some truth in what she is saying.

I’m not going to expand on the first point, because really it’s just more of a complaint. But I will say that nobody has ever been able to satisfy that question for me, and it is sort of frustrating. That’s a post for another day. I’d like to talk more about the second thought. In the year that I’ve converted from a hobby-jogger to a runner, I’ve stood firmly on the extreme deep end of the barefoot spectrum:

  • Barefoot is best, but minimalist shoes such as Vibrams or Merrels are acceptable.
  • There is a right and wrong form in which to run.
  • Arch support is your foot’s arch enemy.
  • A bare or minimally shod foot is a strong foot.
  • Everyone running in those cushy built-up Asics trainers is a damn fool.

I started running barefoot and minimalist because I read Born to Run and it inspired me to change the way that I run. To run smooth, light and strong. To run for health and happiness, like the Tarahumara people of the Copper Canyons (who don’t actually run barefoot at all, by the way). Caballo Blanco became my hero. But somehow along the way I completely forgot his message:

“[Running] is about form and it’s about running free. It’s not about what you wear or don’t wear on your feet.”

And it’s the same message that Christopher McDougall preaches to the crowds that gather to hear him talk. It’s the same thing that Mr. McDougall said to me when I briefly ran alongside him in Boston this spring. It doesn’t matter what you wear on your feet. Just have good form. Run smooth. Run light. Run free. In my forced hiatus from running this summer, I have thought a lot about what I should change in the future to prevent this from happening again. But being that I am so very prone to injury (I’ve barely ever gone an active year without something happening to my feet or ankles), and being a supinator (I land on the outside of my foot and fail to roll inward enough, which means no shock absorption) it’s tough to say that anything could change my future. However, since I have no plans to ever stop running, I am willing to adapt and find what the right thing is for me.

But what is the right thing for me?

  • Barefoot runners say that Barefoot is best, no matter what issues or ailments you may have.
  • Shod runners say get some cushioning shoes with curved lasts to force your foot to pronate when you run, with a pair of $400 orthotics stuffed inside.

I am finding that I agree with neither of these inflexible viewpoints. Life experience has taught me that being on one extreme end or the other of any issue is never as beneficial as seeing the positives of both sides and then falling somewhere between. Of course, there isn’t much of a supported middle ground when it comes to barefoot vs. shod running. For example, if I strap on a pair of Nike Frees I’m going to get an egg in my face from both sides. If I don’t shun one side in favor of the other, I have no home. And that sort of sucks because whomever I turn to for advice and support will just start by telling me I’m doing it wrong. But if I just remember what my first motivator taught me: “it’s not about what you wear or don’t wear on your feet,” then isn’t that where I belong? If I follow the Caballo, who runs in just about every kind of shoe there is, and also barefoot, then how can I go wrong?

I believe running is a sport of one: and that is why I love it. I run for myself. I motivate myself. I compete against myself. The only person I have to answer to is me, and I should run in whatever suits my feet, my body, my stride. What I should take away from others is the importance of good form and the inspiration to learn more, to work harder. And after using all the information I know to find what’s right for me, what others say about my footwear is of no importance.

The only thing that is important to me is to run. Run free, run happy, run smiley.

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At least backpedaling is exercise.

So, today I went back on all my beliefs about footwear. I bought these.

I’ve been injured for almost ten weeks and I’m still not better. Today the pain creeping over the top of my foot was enough to make me limp. So I figured it’s about time. It’s about time I give in to the fact that my foot needs to be protected, supported, immobilized if it’s ever going to heal. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point because it was hard for me to reconcile my idealized opinions about barefoot walking and running with the thought of wearing a shoe that’s exactly the opposite. It sort of feels like talking with my mouth and backpedaling with my feet, as it were.

Nevertheless, I found myself at the local mall during my lunch break, looking for….something. A gel insole, a sneaker, a shoe, anything that would stifle the formidable ice pick slamming into the center of my foot with every step in my (really cute, flexible, otherwise extremely comfortable) Vivobarefoot kicks. I tried on 14 pairs of ugly sensible shoes at DSW and walked around a bit in each pair. Some were too narrow, some were too stiff, some had really weird cushy heels that made my ankles wobble. Then I put on these monstrosities by Born. Clog-like shape. Cushy insole with significant arch support. Cast-like stiffness to the leather upper. The back half is so built up they almost qualify as high heels. I struggled into them, stood up, and took three steps. Five. Ten. I couldn’t believe it…the pain just wasn’t there. I guess these shoes had just the right amount of whatever-it-was-my-foot-wanted. I’ll be damned.

So the lesson here is sometimes you gotta say to hell with over-engineering the solution to the problem, and just go with the thing that happens to work.

That’s not to say I consider these fugly shoes my solution. In fact it’s the opposite. After several weeks of seeing a physical therapist and watching her pay attention to only one of the many ouch spots of my foot, getting no firm diagnosis of the problem and seeing no real improvement other than from the resting I would have done anyway, I decided to get a referral for a podiatrist. The hard part with that, of course, is that the good sports podiatrist I know of through a friend doesn’t belong in the network of doctors to which my PCP is willing to refer me. Unfortunately, the only podiatrist she can refer me to is more familiar with corns and nail fungus than sports injuries. After some persistence and much time spent getting bulldozed by the receptionist on the phone, I secured the referral and an appointment with the sports podiatrist next week. Hooray for small triumphs.

Wish me orthotic-free luck!