I was fortunate enough to have grown up with a pool in my front yard. To get to it, it was a walk over the asphalt and onto gravel rocks my dad used to cover the driveway. At the beginning of the summer, I recall how much it would hurt to walk in my bare feet down the steaming hot asphalt and then onto the loose rocks. While walking on that gravel, I would pick my feet up hurriedly like I was tiptoeing through the house at night and trying to be quiet. But by the end of the summer, my feet would be toughened up and I could place my full weight on each of my bare feet as I wended my way down to the pool. And then the cycle would begin anew in the next summer, after my feet had grown soft again over the course of the school year, in their encasement of sandals or sneakers.
Now, as an adult, I’ve been toughening up my bare feet again, but this time deliberately, without the chlorinated reward of a jaunt down to the pool. I’ve become a disciple of ‘barefoot’ running, with the word ‘barefoot’ apostrophied because I’m not fully barefoot, though the slip-on shoe I’m wearing gives no arch or heel support, and thus maintains the mechanics of fully barefoot running and walking. These slip-on shoes have become all the rage within a certain sub-set of back-to-the-earth and wannabe revolutionary yippie types and you’ve most likely heard of them or seen them being worn and ridiculed them: Vibram FiveFingers. Little monkey feet shoes. They do feel pretty sweet, even if they admittedly look ridiculous.
One might wonder what the point of wearing shoes is at all if one truly ascribes to the barefooting ‘aesthetic’. If you are eschewing reliance on modern industry (vis-a-vis the running shoe), then isn’t using synthetic ‘barefoot’-ing shoes just the same thing, with different mechanics? Well, if someone really wants to trump capitalism, and be completely anti-industrial or whatever, then run completely naked, dude. But for those of you who are on the Spectrum, have some kind of OCD aversion to filth, or are otherwise simply terrified of trotting on syringes or something, the VFFs serve the purpose of effectively protecting your sensitive soles from stray bits of glass, while still allowing for the full range of impact sensation and motion that barefooting entails. The VFFs can also be viewed as a fashionable concession to our New Millenial times: we are technologically savvy, but hipster in a back-to-basics manner. We sport sweat-wicking REI clothes and hike to work. We sprint through subway tunnels, Chacos and laptop bearing manpurses aswing.
So I’ve elected to give the barefooting a go over the summer, and I purchased myself a pair of VFF KSO. And I knew that barefooting was not something to take lightly. I read the cautionary passages from researchers and doctors stating that you should ease into barefooting merely as a supplementary procedure. And I really did mean to go easy into that dark unknown. But on my first ‘run’, almost immediately my calves started killing. Not to mention that the bones underneath the balls of my feet hurt everytime they hit the concrete. Cuz this is New York City, by the way, so these bare feet are hitting pavement.
Adapting to this new form of running has been much harder than I foresaw. I have had to take multiple days off after almost each attempt. First it was the calves. Then the feet themselves. Then a heel. Then a side of the foot. Then the bottoms of the feet. Then the calves again. Until I realized that I’d been doing it all wrong!
I did my research, as I am wont to do, and had read that barefoot running mechanics generally entails a switch from heel strikes to the forefoot. So, earnestly, I began running up almost onto my toes. It was killing me. This is why my calves were turned into burning knots of pain. Then I read some more up on it, and realized that I had been over-compensating. I needed to come down a little more balanced on my feet, not all the way up on my toes or just on the balls of the feet. Plus, I just needed to just relax and stop dreading each and every footfall and thus tensing up and unnaturally altering my gait (thanks, by the way, to Barefoot Ken, over at The Running Barefoot, and Barefoot Ted, for their insight into the mechanics of barefoot running on their respective web sites).
What I can say is that every single run I have done barefoot over the last few months has been a wholly new and intense experience. My form is finally beginning to adjust (naturally), and my calves and ankles and other supporting muscles that are not worked out in ‘normal’ shoe-clad running have been strengthened enough not to hurt every time out.
If something on my foot hurts too much, then I just plop my running shoes on again and go out for a run with the extra padding. But even when I run in shoes now, I still adhere to the barefooting form, which actually makes running in shoes more strenuous, given the extra weight. And when I land inappropriately, I almost cringe thinking about the impact that might have caused had I not been ensheathed in that extra padding!
There are times when I grow frustrated, because barefooting takes away that complacent layer of comfort, where you can kind of ease into a run and just zone out. You have to be incredibly aware of yourself while barefooting, aware of every foot strike, aware of your posture and form, aware of what is on the path ahead of you.
But the added sensory dimension of barefooting makes up for that. I find myself joyfully gunning for soft dirt patches and spongy grass like a dog, savoring layers of fallen leaves. And I’ve discovered that the faster I run, the less impact I make on my feet. I literally can fly while barefooting, and it feels crazy, like I’m falling headlong forward without brakes. I can also shoot up hills, without that extra drag of heavy shoes.
I’m still trying to figure out how to best handle steep downhills, though. Without that extra padding with which to sink into my heels, I find myself gingerly padding my way down, frightened of going too fast and coming down too hard.
The worst barefoot run I’ve had was when I was visiting a friend down at the Jersey Shore. I thought to myself, “Perfect! I’m on the beach! This is what barefoot running was made for!” So off I ran, pretending to ignore the myriad seashells strewn every which way. I went a ways down the shoreline, and then turned around and started back, and began noticing that the bottoms of my feet were smarting. I picked up my foot and took a look, and lo and behold, I’d been scraping the skin off my feet on all those shells and wet sand! I had giant blood blisters bubbling up on every contact surface. I began hobbling my slow way back up the shore, and then my sunscreen–mixed with sweat–began running into my eyes. So now not only could I barely walk, but my eyes were stinging so much I could barely open them to see. Compounding that, I realized that I had no idea where my mate’s umbrella stood in a vast sea of umbrellas. It really was a nightmarish trudge back up that shore, in which I felt the full weight of my hubris and folly. Oddly enough, though, I went on a barefoot run again two days later, and it was the first barefoot run I had that actually felt good. It’s been easier ever since! (Calluses, calluses, calluses)
So why did I elect to commit myself to re-learning how to run, even though I’ve been running–injury-free–since high school? It really has to do with the philosophy of barefooting. Thanks to a great little book called Born to Run, the concept has really caught fire. The core idea is, we didn’t evolve with running shoes. We evolved to run barefoot. So in padding up our feet, we are in fact severing one of our primary feedback systems into sustainable running form. All those natural sensors in our sensitive little soles are triggering us to balance and center our weight, pull in our flailing limbs, and reduce sloppy high impact footfalls.
It’s not for everyone, and it’s not something that is easy to adapt to after a lifetime of shoe wearing. But once you’ve developed the correct form and supporting muscles (and calluses), it really does add a whole new dimension and awareness to running.
The barefooting ethic does not only apply to running, of course. Walking around barefoot is also just as enlightening. For those people who feel silly wearing Vibram FiveFingers and looking like monkeys or ninjas, there are shoes out there that give the barefoot experience but look somewhat more socially acceptable, such as Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot line of footwear. I went to their Manhattan store and got a pair of slip-ons that look almost nice enough to wear with my dress pants while teaching. Wearing fancy dress shoes every day nearly destroyed my feet last year, so I’m going to try mixing it up with my Dharmas to give them some respite. But it remains to be seen how ‘barefoot’ mechanics will serve me after standing on my feet in the classroom all day, going up and down the steep flights of stairs, and walking to my grad classes later.
So the verdict? ‘Barefooting’ has become a cherished part of my life’s repertoire. I caution anyone who is ready to dive on into it that it is not something to take lightly, and that in the course of transition, you are in danger of injury if you don’t listen to your body. Tread lightly, and go with joy.