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Barefoot Running: Thoughts on My First Barefoot Run

The barefoot selfportraitImage by dhammza via Flickr

I’ll start this post by saying that I’m a firm believer in the value and benefits, both mental and physical, of minimalist running.  I run mostly in lightweight trainers (<10oz, currently the Brooks Launch), racing flats (currently the Brooks Green Silence), and the Vibram Fivefingers. It’s been almost a year now since I’ve run regularly in any kind of stability shoe (which apparently is the type of shoe I’m supposed to be wearing – at least so said the person at the running store where I bought my first pair of real running shoes), and my general preference is for a shoe with as low a heel as possible. If you want to hear my full thoughts on minimalist running, you can check out my podcast on minimalist running here.

Now, although I consider myself to be a minimalist runner, what to now I have not been is a barefoot runner. Before tonight, the only truly barefoot running I had done were a few short burst on a treadmill during some filming sessions in my lab. However, for some reason I decided earlier today that I really wanted to give it a try, and that tonight would be the night. Never mind that it was in the high 30′s outside, or that it had been raining most of the day – no, when I get an idea in my head I tend to just go with it come hell or high water.
So, after getting the kids to bed, I straped on my Vibrams, popped on the headlamp, and headed out the door into what was a very foggy, almost to the point of being eerie, night.  The first four miles of the run were just a nice easy jaunt in the Vibrams, like so many that I have done at night of late. My Vibrams represent freedom to me, and my runs in them are among the most enjoyable that I do. Often, I find that if I’m lacking the motivation to run, I’ll just decide to make it a Vibram run and that’ll be enough to get me out the door. The run was fairly uneventful aside from the fog, a few snowflakes, and the puddles that were scattered about from the rain earlier in the day, and I went back and forth over those initial miles about how long I wanted to go fully barefoot at the end. I though maybe a mile, but when I got to my “mile-from-home” marker, there was an older gentleman out for a walk, and I wasn’t about to shed my shoes and take off barefoot in front of him – I may be a bit crazy, but at least I try to hide it well. In what turned out to be a wise decision, I opted to run another 1/2 mile in the Vibrams and shoot for just a half mile fully barefoot.

I reached the half-mile-from home mark, crouched behind a tree (it was quite comical, really!) and pulled off my shoes. I honestly felt like I was stripping naked in preparation to streak the whole way home – that’s how odd it felt to be running barefoot in the dark on a cold, wet night. I didn’t really know what to expect other than that others had told me that barefoot running is all about the nerve endings – supposedly you can feel/sense a much greater connection to the ground underfoot when running sans shoes. I took off down the sidewalk in all of my barefoot glory, and my immediate thoughts were the following:

“Wow, it’s freaking cold when you run barefoot when it’s 38 degrees outside.”

“Man, those little pebbles hurt like hell when you step on them.”

and “OK, I’m losing all sensation in my feet – perhaps frostbite is setting in.”

I wanted to love this experience, I really did. Unfortunately, and I hate to say this to any of you who are barefoot running proponents, I didn’t find the experience to be particularly enjoyable. When I could feel my feet, the increased sensation I felt was mostly the stinging pain of the pebbles digging into my tender foot-skin. As things progressed, all I could feel was the stinging pain of the cold slowly removing sensation from the soles of my feet. When I stopped after returing home, all I could feel was the stinging pain as my feet slowly thawed out. You might say that I was stupid to run barefoot in these cold conditions, and I would very much agree with you. You might say that it will be better if I try it when it’s warmer outside – maybe, but I suspect those pebbles will still hurt like hell. To be quite honest, what I learned tonight is why humans tend to like to wear shoes on their feet – they make walking and running a lot more comfortable. And I’m not arguing that you go out and buy a heavily cushioned running shoe – I’m perfectly content to run in my completely uncushioned Vibrams, and I honestly don’t see a lot of benefit to running barefoot over running in my KSO’s – biomechanically, I’d guess that it’s basically the same experience.

I never really had much intention of becoming a barefoot runner, but I’ve always believed firmly in trying things out before passing judgment. I can now say that I’ve tried barefoot running, and I realize this was just one short run under non-ideal conditions, but I’m having a hard time seeing any benefit to barefoot running that can’t be obtained by wearing Vibrams or something similar. And the benefit of Vibrams is that they allow you to run over those little pebbles without the stinging pain, and you can wear them when it’s cold out so that you don’t freeze your feet (I’ve worn mine in temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit). I do strongly believe that humans evolved to run barefoot, but I also believe that there are situations where wearing shoes makes a lot of sense. As we as a species evolved, we invaded new habitats where the environmental conditions were vastly different from those where we originated. One of the adaptations that we possess as a species is the ability to use our intelligence and resourcefulness to invent devices that might help us to survive in those new habitats. When my ancestors arrived in Northern Europe, I’m quite confident that they were not running barefoot through the Swedish winter – it was a place where wearing something on the feet made good sense. Similarly, I think it’s great that people can run barefoot and love doing it, but I just don’t think that it’s for me. Will I give it another try? Perhaps when it’s a bit warmer, yes. But right now, I’m quite content to run with rubber under the soles of my feet.

Update 3/13/2010: Just added a podcast episode to go along with this blog post on barefoot running: http://www.runblogger.com/2010/03/barefoot-running-podcast-my-first.html.

Update 5/2/2010: I’ve now done a second, longer barefoot run in much better conditions – you can read about it here: http://www.runblogger.com/2010/04/barefoot-run-2-much-better-but-still.html.
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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. If I may elaborate on Tuck’s message, you essentially created a perfect storm for your feet:
    1) It was dark, you couldn’t see what you were stepping on very well.
    2) It was cold. Numb feet provide no feedback on how to change your stride.
    3) It was wet. That sucks the warmth from your feet almost immediately.
    4) You chose to run barefoot after running in a closed-in, moist environment for several miles at least. This makes for sweaty/wet, soft, super-sensitive skin that doesn’t hold up so well on rough ground.

    This is why even a seasoned barefoot runner will wear Vibrams or something for cold and wet environments. Saying you tried barefoot running after that experience is like jumping off a boat at sea in a storm and saying that you tried swimming without a lifejacket for the first time and it just wasn’t for you.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Andy and Tuck,

      Don’t get me wrong, I agree with both of you completely – horrible
      conditions to try it in (I’m stubborn when I get an idea in my head). You’ve
      made similar (excellent) points to what a bunch of my barefooting friends on
      dailymile and Twitter have, and based on these I do plan to give it again
      when it’s warmer (and brighter, and drier), but I guess my lingering
      question is what benefit is there to running barefoot over simply running in
      Vibrams? I understand the sensory feedback argument and how it might help
      adjust to a better stride, but is that benefit so much better when barefoot
      that it rises above the protection factor provided by the Vibrams? I’ve
      gained a lot from doing my Vibram runs, and don’t really see how much more I
      could gain by shedding them.

      Pete

      • Pete,

        I agree with Tim that barefoot running is the ultimate form tool. If/when you get another chance to head out for another go, I think you’ll find that there is a noticeable difference in your running form between the two – being barefoot causes you to run that much more gently and keeps you from doing too much too soon. However, as someone who gets along well enough in the Vibrams et al, you’re probably not terribly moved by that argument.

        I made the switch not due to nagging injuries but in an effort to find a more natural and enjoyable way to run. I have found that while running in VFFs is a whole experience unto itself coming from a traditional shoe, being completely barefoot is the pinnacle of that experience for two reasons:

        1)The amount of feedback is exponentially higher, which under proper barefoot running conditions can relax you and heighten your awareness that much more. All of the feelings of liberation and effortlessness that come with a more natural running stride are enhanced.
        2) Running on pavement you are absolutely and completely silent. This is something you don’t really think about until you try it. It’s exceptionally calming, and that whole “being in tune with the ground and your environment” thing achieves a whole ‘nother level.

        There are still those little “ow” moments with the occasional annoying pebble, but those tend to subside when your feet have toughened up and you’ve learned to relax your foot against the terrain instead of tensing up and fighting it. In any case, if you love running “minimalist” then by all means stay with it. It’s just important to note that under the right conditions running barefoot can enhance almost of the things you love about minimalism, and that with enough running “the right conditions” category expands significantly. Apologies if I’ve waxed a bit long here.

        Andy

        • Pete Larson says:

          Andy and SpaceCadet,

          Thoughtful responses from both of you – I hear what you are saying, and I
          appreciate your attempts at explaining the benefits of barefooting to me. At
          the very least, I’ll commit that I will try it again under better
          circumstances – I’m more than willing to admit that my first attempt was not
          a good representation of what the practice has to offer. One of the things I
          enjoy more than anything else about running is experimentation, and the
          beauty of experimenting with barefoot running from a cost standpoint is that
          it’s 100% free! I also have a short podcast episode coming outabout my
          barefoot run – you’ve both provided some good answers to similar questions
          that I pose in it – hope you have a chance to give it a listen!

          Pete

      • Tim Butterfield says:

        The Vibrams protect you from slight twisting or sliding motions you could feel if barefoot. The closest I could get with my Vibrams is by paying close attention to the sound of my feet landing and trying to notice any noise of the rubber on the pavement. While Vibrams are much better at providing feedback than regular shoes, going fully barefoot when conditions allow lets you dial in your form that much better. While going fully barefoot is admirable, I have heard of many people using barefoot training for just that purpose, as a training tool to dial in their form for when they use some kind of footwear.

        This post reminded me of a tag line I had read elsewhere: If at first you don’t succeed, sky diving is not for you. Thankfully, when going barefoot, you get to made adjustments and try again.

  2. I think you’re right: humans evolved to run barefoot. We didn’t evolve to run barefoot in New Hampshire (which, unlike the African savannah, experiences winter), or in a place that forced us to cope with mile upon mile of asphalt, or surfaces that are occasionally sprinkled with broken glass, the odd sharp bits of metal, and dog poop.

    I think part of what motivates the real purists in the barefoot community is a belief that natural is always better. There is at least some merit to this general position; there are indeed numerous examples in which we humans have interfered with nature without really understanding it by doing things that have proven counterproductive and sometimes outright destructive. But I reject the idea that nature cannot be improved upon as a universal rule. After all, it is completely natural to have a head full of lice and a body riddled with all kinds of chronic infections and parasitic infestations. I’m sure we’d agree that ridding ourselves of these things very natural things represents an improvement over what would otherwise be a common, natural state of affairs.

    And on that note, I’d remind shoeless barefoot runners that diseases like tetanus live in soil, and depending on where you live, so do lots of other parasites that are capable of infecting you through any open wound on your foot. As pointed out in this article, there really is a good reason why humans the world over have, independently of one another, converged on some kind of foot protection as a worthwhile investment.

  3. I feel the same way you do. I started running in VFF’s beginning this year, after several years of “shoed” running. I like the freedom and lightweight of minimalist running, but I’ve never gotten the bug to go all the way and ditch the foot protection entirely. I’ve tried it, and yes, those tiny rocks hurt (and cut sometimes). Biomechanically, I believe I’m getting the same benifits with the VFFs on, so why take the risk of foot injury, cuts, scrapes, or infection? Thanks for your post.

  4. I have had similar experiences in Massachusetts this winter – love the VFF’s, struggle with barefoot running – with cold, wet roads, gravel & salt. I hope the summer roads are better. Meanwhile, I went to a barefoot running workshop, which helps with my running style. Your gait adapts…

  5. Why, oh why would you start barefooting on hard surfaces, at night, and in the cold? How ’bout a nice soccer field in the summer daylight? Wow!

  6. double glazing says:

    First, I wanted to say that I have never tried walking, running or jumping with my barefoot. Maybe because my mother kept telling me before not to and also I find it very dangerous though I know that there are things that are better be tried before judging it.

  7. Blair Sutherland says:

    Great post! I just started running last summer and the only way I can run without low back pain is barefoot. I love to hear good stories about minimalist running.

  8. anonymous says:

    The benefits are:
    1 Thicker Plantar skin
    2 Better properception
    3 Stronger feet, muscle and tendon, and bone
    4 toes spread out more
    5 control of toe movement, through muscle in calf.
    6 I can’t prove it, but better, stronger joints.

    Did you read this?
    http://barefootrunning.fas.har

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the reply! Your first two responses make perfect sense, but
      wouldn’t 2-6 also be just as likely to result from Vibram running? I did
      read through all of the Harvard website, as well as most of Lieberman’s
      scientific articles – great stuff!

      Pete

      • anonymous says:

        I never had Vibram’s. I do have the Huarache sandals, both leather and the thin Cherry Vibram sole material. It is hard to put into words, but
        I can feel the difference between going barefoot and wearing them.
        It is not just the thickness, the sweat on my foot, heat dissipation when you run in warmer days. Even sude Tandy moccasins alter my stride.

        If you read KenBob’s site he talks of the different textures of the ground. And how your feet “interpret” them. When I first read that,
        I thought he was nuts, but now, after a year of going barefoot.
        I understand what he is talking about.
        link to therunningbarefoot.com
        (Not sure that is the correct one, but close)

        When I first started, the pebbles hurt, now it feels like a massage.
        Right now, I only run when the temp is in the high 40′s,
        but I can see me adapting to lower temps.
        (1 year barefoot, Living in the NE, USA I wore very warm winter boots all winter) (Thin flat soled flexible, but warm)

        To give it a fair shake, walk, run, skip barefoot for at least 6 months, you can always go back. I never will.

        Good Luck Peter.

  9. Cool that you ran with energy and tried barefoot even in such extreme conditions. However, as you’ve noted, you were probably setting yourself up for failure. I’ve found, through my own experiments, that I have to run barefoot quite regularly and go barefoot outside pretty much every day in order for a barefoot experience not be somewhat painful – my feet are hypersensitive otherwise. I used to be ok with barefoot running when I went out daily. Now, after returning to work and temperatures in the 30s and 40s when I run in the AM (instead of PM) I wear my VFFs.

    I firmly believe 99 percent of the population should run barefoot to gain an appreciation for the right stride techniques. However, they need to take weeks to get their feet ready before they even run 50 feet. And they should pick warmer weather. After learning to run barefoot, trying various minimal shoes probably makes sense for many.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Clynton,

      I think that’s my major problem – it takes a lot of time and dedication to
      be a regular barefoot runner, and it’s time that I don’t necessarily see to
      be worth the tradeoff if I can mostly achieve the same benefits just by
      running in Vibrams. Thanks for the response!

      Pete

  10. Amby Burfoot says:

    Peter: You candor is what makes you so readable. My old barefootin friend, Charlie Robbins, who ran 50 straight Manchester CT Road Races on Thanksgiving Day (many if not most barefoot) had a temperature rule, which I can’t state precisely. But it went something like this: Below 50 degrees, wear socks. Below 40 degrees, wear Aquasocks (reference to old Nike shoes for canoeing, kayaking, etc).

    • Pete Larson says:

      Amby,

      I consider last night to be a lesson in inexperience – as others have
      commented here, I chose about the worst possible conditions for my first
      barefoot run. I will try again, and your friend’s advice seems perfect
      given my experience. I appreciate the comment about my candor – guess
      that’s what blogging is all about!

      Pete

  11. yo, you got to do it a few times. You can’t quit smoking for a day and smoke the next day saying your a non-smoker. Those pebbles feel good. i’m probably masochinest <— spell check

  12. Too funny. Why didn’t you just go for a run barefoot in the snow or in ice?

    You managed to pick the worst possible combination for your first barefoot run: cold, dark, and wet. Even an experienced barefoot runner would be reluctant to head out under those conditions.

    I’m not an experienced barefoot runner, but my first attempt was similar to yours, taking off the Vibrams at the end of a run. Except I did it on a warm, sunny fall day. There were pebbles, but it was actually quite nice. That was it for the winter, however, but I’m eagerly awaiting to opportunity to give it a try again this spring.

  13. I did my first barefoot run today. I have flatfeet, and am overweight, so i am quite prone to getting shin splints.

    When i heard that barefoot running may help build arches in your foot i thought i would give it a try.

    So i only did one lap around my neighbourhood (usually the point when the pain of regular running kicks in) but this time the only pain i was feeling was from the blisters forming on my feet. My shins were not hurting, and neither were my ankles.

    I think once my feet get thicker callouses the small pebbles wont hurt as much anymore.

    Im going to have to invest in some gritty soap though. Getting the dirt off with regular smooth soap is a pain.

  14. Whotrustedus says:

    Well, I am officially a testament to the dangers of jumping into barefoot running too quickly.

    I had been trying to slowly add some barefoot distance into my regular runs. I would take off my Merrells near the end of my run. I had finished my last one mile, then two miles, recently. It felt great.

    This morning, I had the bright idea to start my run barefoot, carry a pair of VFFs in a fanny pack, and finish up my run in those VFFs. I had a plan to run about 3 miles barefoot and finish the last 2 with shoes. Well, when I stopped at the 3 mile mark and reached in to my fanny pack, I only found one shoe! I had apparently dropped a shoe at some point! I had a phone but my family was out of town. My feet felt great so I figured I’d just finish the run barefoot, and then drive back on my route to find the missing shoe.

    I finished the run and everything felt great. But as I walked around the house to find the car keys, I noticed some blood spots on the floor. I took a look at my feet and saw several massive blisters, most of which had just burst! I limped out the door to my car in flip flops, drove to look for my missing shoe, found the shoe, and came home.

    That’s when the fun began! The pains were excruciating! I cleaned and treated and bandaged all of the blisters. I found crutches to hobble around the house. If i can avoid infection, hopefully I won’t be sidelined long. But right now, I am in agony!

    I learned several lessons today. Most importantly, ease into barefoot running very, very, very, very (did i say very), slowly!

    • Whotrustedus says:

      Well, it took over 3 weeks for my blisters to heel.     If i could have stayed off my feet the entire time, it might have been shorter.  As it was, i know i tore the newly developing skin several times. bandages & socks & such only helped a bit.    The progress seems excruciatingly slow.      But it was fascinating to witness the body heal.  

      I’m back to my regular routine but I have had one surprise, at least for this layman.    The new skin is very tender and I almost feel like I’m starting over on my VFF Sprints.     No issues with muscles & such but I am way feeling the ground again, just like when I first started with VFFs.    I can feel all of the rocks & pebbles & such again that I had long since gotten past.    It is going to take several more weeks before the soles of my feet are back to the toughness they had before my big stupid event!  

      • Pete Larson says:

        My guess is that increased epidermal thickening reduces sensory input to the
        foot. You ripped off the epidermis, so your sensory receptors at the base of
        the epidermis and down in the dermis are now closer to the surface, hence
        the increased tactile response. As you build the epidermal layer back up,
        the sensory response will decrease I suppose.

        • Whotrustedus says:

          Geez  ‘o pete, my epidermal layer has barely thickened in the 4 months since i ripped them off.  i’ve been working diligently on stressing m soles to build it back up but is barely happening.  the balls of feet still seem baby soft.   the human body can heal quickly but this is one area is taking it’s merry time.  

          • Pete Larson says:

            Sorry to hear it Robert. I ran a full mile barefoot on concrete in Boulder, and went really well. Just two hot spots at the bases of my big toes. The rest of my soles seem to be pretty rugged, maybe from being barefoot most of the summer around the house/yard.

          • Whotrustedus says:

            thanks for the reply.  i have been running barefoot for a mile or so at a time every few days for a couple of weeks.   it is not comfortable yet.    i’m determined to toughen up the balls of my feet and i will succeed.   it is just taking much longer than i expected.    maybe being 55 years old has something to do with it.     a bit of barefoot running is actually quite fun! 

          • Pete Larson says:

            I agree – I think I’m going to start doing it more often…

    • Pete Larson says:

      I know the feeling – froze my feet on my first barefoot run. Care is
      warranted!

  15. Whotrustedus says:

    So, for those of you who are experienced barefoot runners, how come one has different hot spots on each feet from running barefoot?     I’ve worked up to 5 1/2 miles.     I have a couple of hotspots on my right foot, at the inside and outside of the ball of that foot.   But nothing on my left foot.     I am a rightie so I guess there must be some difference in my stride with my right foot vs. my left foot.   Is it as simple as that?      Any adjustments that I can think about making?

    • Pete Larson says:

      Stride asymmetries, even very small ones, are very common. As one example, if you commute and drive a car everyday, you are probably using your right leg differently to push the gas pedal, and holding it at an unusual angle for length of time – something as simple as this could generate a muscular imbalance leading to an asymmetry.

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