Monday, May 03, 2010

Barefoot Running

I got some Vibram 5 Fingers (VFF) shoes at the end of December 2009 and during the past 4 months I've been experimenting with running in them, to get my feet wet in this barefoot running business that has been much in the news of late. (Technically-minded folks will note that if you're wearing these shoes you're not barefoot, but you're pretty darn close.)

I'll use this post to provide some background links as well as describe my first-hand experiences. I included a couple of self-photos of my KSO's: the first shot was taken during the first week I had them, and the second was taken about 3 months later, after wearing them during the run portion of the Golden Bearathlon. It was a muddy 10K trail run and the shoes cleaned up nicely in the wash. I don't do all my runs in these shoes now, but I'm gradually moving in that direction.

Goodbye Orthotics

Probably the most powerful thing I can say from my experiences would be this: Since I started running in the VFFs, I have dropped my dependency on the custom orthotics that I've worn religiously for the past 15 years. In 1995, I had the orthotics made and wearing them greatly reduced my running injuries; basically I never did a run or went anywhere without them since '95.

However, this has all changed since I've been running in the VFFs. These minimalist shoes are basically socks with some rubber on the soles -- you cannot wear orthotics in them (well, you could, but it would feel very clunky and biomechanically unnatural). So I've stopped wearing the orthotics whenever I run, even when I run with regular, heavy-soled running shoes. I have not encountered any chronic running injuries since, and I no longer need to worry about where my orthotics are at all times (though I still prefer them if I have to do a lot of walking/standing, e.g., spending the day at Disneyland).

Gradual Adaptation

I've been running for fitness for the past 30+ years wearing conventional, cushy, industry-standard running shoes (usually something neutral like the Asics Gel Nimbus). Since running in the VFFs, it's become apparent how woefully undertrained my calves were. By promoting a rear-foot strike (RFS) running form (i.e., landing initially on your heel, then rolling off the toe), standard running shoes effectively shield the calves from doing much work.

Before I acquired the VFF shoes, I spent 1-2 months working on a more fore-foot strike (FFS) running style using my traditional thick-heeled running shoes. This included some barefoot running on grass. I experienced lots of calf soreness during this period, especially after harder, faster training sessions. It took a while to switch my running form from RFS to FFS -- I'd say a solid two months before it started to feel natural. I was lucky enough to get some great coaching from local track coach Steve Kraft to help me learn this new running style, which has more elements to it than just foot strike.

Once I got the VFFs and started doing faster and longer runs in them, my calves experienced even more soreness. I took it fairly easy, running only on soft surfaces (like trails or rubberized tracks) once every 1-2 weeks in the VFFs, using my standard cushy shoes for all other runs. The first time I did a mile's worth of total speedwork in the VFFs, my calves were sore for a week, hard to walk or even bike for the first few days after. Additional feedback on my VFF running form from other experienced runners revealed that I was running too much on the balls of my feet, putting excessive strain on my calves. With practice, I was able to adopt a more neutral foot strike.

  1. Be extremely gradual in adding speed and mileage to your VFF runs.
  2. Get some feedback from a running coach or experienced runners.

Update, 19 May 2010: Here are a few additional thoughts and tips on barefoot or minimalist shoe running:

Are they comfortable?

This is the most common question I get from random, inquisitive strangers that notice my VFFs when I'm out in public with them. In short, yes they are quite comfy when just lounging around in them. But note that they give about the same degree of support as a pair of socks, so spending a full day standing/walking around in them on pavement will really wipe you out the first time you try it. About two months after I started wearing them I spent two back-to-back days wearing them while visiting Disneyland with my family -- this was definitely overdoing it.

The lightness of being barefoot

The lack of weight at the end of your legs while running is quite addicting. It leads to much less torque on your overall leg motion and permits a more natural gait and more efficient cadence. The low weight and lack of bulk of the VFFs also makes them highly portable. I actually biked with them in a fanny pack, along with a bunch of other gear, for the entire MS150 bicycle ride from Houston to Austin in April 2010. They were my apr├Ęs-cycling footwear.

Running shoe built-into your legs

Barefoot-style running trains your leg muscles, feet, joints, and connective tissues to learn to do more of the shock absorbtion that we've been delegating to conventional running shoes. Running barefoot or with minimalist shoes like VFFs trains your legs to acquire those shock absorbing powers, essentially building a running shoe into your body. Transitioning from a RFS to a FFS style and adapting to minimalist shoes feels like it has given my running legs another "gear" that I can employ regardless of my footwear. It is a more muscular style of running where the legs learn how to absorb the shocks of running and even obtain some elastic recoil from each foot strike. With a RFS running style where the shock of each footstrike is dissipated via the heel, shocks are absorbed primarily via the shoe plus your skeleton, which dissipates the impact energy and provides no recoil opportunity (and can in fact lead to loss of forward momentum via braking).

Easy does it

As Barefoot Ken Bob warns: Don't do too much too soon! There's a strong temptation to overdo it, especially as your feet and legs start adapting. But it really takes quite a bit of time to fully adapt to a barefoot or minimalist shoe running style. The transition is more difficult and longer for folks (such as myself) with a long history of RFS style running.

When starting out, pick the smoothest surfaces you can (such as grass, astroturf, or a rubberized track). Our soft, modern feet take a major pounding when running and bruise/blister incredibly easily. The first time I stepped on a rock the wrong way with the VFFs I got a bruise on the ball of my foot that was tender for several days, and even after 5 months of using the VFFs, I still get hot spots and bruises when I push the pace or terrain (though my feet now recover much faster). Over time, you will learn how to run more gently and your feet will toughen up, but it takes months (maybe up to a year), and you still must always be mindful of your terrain. The plus side of having barefoot/minimalist shoe running is it provides great feedback from the running surface that is otherwise masked standard heavy-soled running shoes. Especially when running on trails, each footstep is unique, giving you a deeper sense of connectedness with your environment and increasing the mental stimulation of running. It can be very reflexology-like. Run barefoot for best results here (feet and terrain-permitting).

Variety is the spice

Even if you are skeptical about the benefits of barefoot/minimalist shoe running and think it's yet another passing fad, you've got to admit that it is way different than what the running shoe industry has been doing for the past 30+ years and it gives a runner something new to play with. This helps inject variety to shake up your routine, get you out of your comfort zone, and can help keep your workouts from becoming stale. This all helps to keep you motivated, which is key to long-term success in sticking with your fitness goals.

Foot stretches.

Helps with tired feet, especially when walking/standing in them for long periods. Here are some stretches, all of which can be effectively performed while wearing VFFs (but not with standard shoes!):
  1. Flex and point toes, alternating and holding the stretch and point for ~5 seconds each.
  2. Foot circles or "alphabets" where you trace each letter of the alphabet with your foot (caps or cursive).
  3. Gripping with toes. Imagine you are trying to grab a ball with your toes. This motion is almost like pointing your toes while dorsiflexing. 'Grip' and hold for a few seconds. Relax by dorsi-extending and fanning toes.
  4. Top of toes on ground. Can be done when standing or sitting. Standing on one leg, bend other knee and point toes behind you, attempting to touch the top of foot on the ground behind you. Hold and breathe.
  5. Foot massage. While sitting, cross on leg and work one foot at a time. Use your thumb to massage the plantar fascia. Also massage the lower achilles tendon area around the sides of the heel.

Use powder

Applying talcum powder on the inside of the VFFs helps a lot in fighting microbial odors and easing foot entry. I like Burt's Bees; Dr. Scholl's also sells powders with antimicrobial additives. Washing the VFFs with a powdered detergent once/week on a gentle or 'easy care' cycle then air drying keeps them in good shape. Just throw them in with your other laundry.

Additional Links:


  1. Ahh, the KSOs love the mud :D

  2. Are you faster with or without shoes? Look at these pictures of Abebe Bikila and Zola Budd clearly preparing for a bare-footed heel strike:
    If they don't know barefoot running I don't know who does. Don't fall for the fad! Say no to FFS! Friends don't let friends FFS.

  3. Hey Antonio. I definitely am faster sans shoes (or in VFF's). The lightness of my feet and improved development of my lower leg & foot musculature has lead to a quicker cadence and an overall lower perceived effort level when running at the same pace as with shoes. The limiter for me at this stage is the toughness of my feet, even with the VFF's. It takes years to develop the sole calluses that permitted Abebe to run like that.

    As for whether Abebe and Zola are in fact heel striking when barefoot, I would prefer a slow-motion video analysis rather than a few isolated still photos. Here are some slo-mo clips of Abebe running:

    Abebe at 1960 Olympics (barefoot), starting at 1:25.

    Abebe at 1964 Olympics (shod), starting at 0:33.

    In the 1960 barefoot clip he is clearly forefoot striking on his left foot, and maybe more mid-foot with his right (video quality isn't great). In the '64 clip (much better quality) his foot strike is more heel-first, enabled by the running shoes. Even with shoes, he's not nearly as heel-centric as a typical RFS-type runner where the heel strikes first and slightly ahead of the body's center of mass. Abebe with shoes is actually landing more neutrally on his feet right under his center. Either way (barefoot '60 or shod in '64) he won the event, so clearly there's more to running success than choice of footwear. :-)

    Regarding FFS: As I mentioned my original post, when I started doing longer/faster runs in my VFFs, I was too much on my forefoot. It took practice to shift my footstrike to be more neutral, to be where most of the foot surface still makes contact with the ground, but the forefoot leads the way ever so slightly. The heel still makes contact, but think of it as just "kissing" the ground towards the end of the strike. This all happens within a few 10's of milliseconds, so it takes a while to develop the necessary neuromuscular coordination. I like to think of this style as more neutral foot strike (NFS) rather than FFS.

    It's quite likely that what works for one person won't work for another. One benefit of running barefoot or in minimal shoe is that you can actually feel what your feet are doing during their brief contacts with the ground. Standard thick-soled running shoes severely mute this perception. The increased level of foot-to-brain feedback makes it easier to experiment with footstrike (and other aspects of running) so that you can discover what works best for you.

    BTW: Standby for additional updates to the original post. I have a few other notes I'm planning to add soon.

  4. I thank you for your new experience because it let's me learn about a new product in the sport market. Glad to hear you have abandoned your orthodics and it makes great sense. My Qi Gong master always said, "walking barefoot strengthens the feet enough so that foot problems disappear." I have always listened to him and your running confirms it.

  5. I ran in the 2010 Bay To Breakers 12k wearing the KSOs -- my longest distance yet in these shoes. Here's a race photo of me in action.

    I actually carried a pair of regular running shoes with me (Asics Tarthers) just in case my feet couldn't take more action in the VFFs. Turned out I didn't need them. By the 5th mile, my soles were getting hot spots, but by then I was in Golden Gate Park and could run on trail or soft grass for a little relief.

    My feet/legs recovered pretty quick from this event and have achieved a new level of adaptation. I'm almost at the point where I can do every run in the VFFs, but not quite. I'm even dabbling with running totally barefoot. Small doses actually feel good.

  6. In reaction to the excitement and growth of the barefoot/minimalist running community, there is the "Barefoot Running is Bad" blog -- a good example of internet-powered self-correcting.

    I wouldn't classify myself as among the dogmatic "nutters" that BRiB targets, since I primarily view barefoot running as a training tool and for injecting variety into my workouts. However, I do feel that minimalist shoes like the VFFs are quite revolutionary and are worth experimenting with for experienced runners. Just keep your initial workouts short, flat, and soft, and don't throw away your usual running shoes.

    Update on my progress: I'm at the stage where I can do nearly every run in my VFFs (KSO or Bikila), except for long runs on rocky trails. I ran in the Bikilas in two race situations: the Escape from the Rock triathlon (20 June 2010) and the Treasure Island sprint triathlon (11 July 2010).

    For the Escape, I used the Bikilas only on the last 5k run down to Baker beach and up the sand ladder. This run really had too much hilly/rocky trail for me to go full speed on the downhill portions and feet got a bit bruised. The run for the TI race was dead flat on asphalt, so the Bikilas totally rocked (tho my calf was still sore from some speed work I did a few days before the race). I was the only VFF runner in both of these races, but others told me they have started training in them.

    It definitely helps to toughen your feet by walking around barefoot on various surfaces. As your souls get stronger, the rougher surfaces actually start feeling good, like a massage. Just keep a close eye on your path. Most sidewalks are really no problem.

  7. Check out the "On Running" show on To The Best Of Our Knowledge. It covers the history behind the recent interest in barefoot running, and some studies supporting health benefits of running in general (shod or otherwise).

    Progress Update: I wear VFFs pretty much exclusively now, while running or walking around. I've started doing some speed work on the track in mixed footwear (Asics Tarther, VFFs, or bare). I can definitely see improved leg strength and speed which I attribute to the additional time I'm spending in the VFFs. For example, I am now able to run a sub-6 minute mile for the first time in 10+ years (and without doing much speed work at all this summer).

    I continue to do small bouts of barefoot running on pavement or a track (quarter to half mile). There's a major difference between running in VFFs vs barefoot: my soles just can't take the abrasiveness from direct contact even on fairly smooth surfaces. I believe it's not a technique issue, given all my VFF running, but that there's a certain amount of sole toughening that must occur in order for your feet to be able to withstand the abrasion. This is something that the barefoot running gurus rarely mention, but I think is a major factor enabling one to run bare for significant distances on any terrain.

    I'm toying with the idea of doing the 100th Bay To Breakers barefoot next year. We'll see...

  8. I ran the Christmas Relays in my VFF Bikilas (partnering with friends from my awesome tri team, the GGTC!). I had run it last year in conventional running shoes about a month into my transition to a more forefoot strike. My time this year (30:14) was 3s faster than last year despite less consistent training. My mile splits were also more even this year.

    I ran he whole race this year on the soft, damp gravel trail next to he bike path around Lake Merced. This might have cost me a little bit of time, but the softness was much nicer on my calves, which survived the race without any post-race soreness (icing also helped with that). I also had no trouble with blisters or other hot spots on my soles, though they were a little tender for a couple days after. So I'd say it's taken me about 11 months to fully adapt to VFFs in sub-10k race situations.

    The VFF's were a rare sight among the serious runner types that tend to do this race -- I believe I was the only one wearing them (out of ~400). To give you a sense of how serious these folks are: the top runners are averaging sub-5' miles over the 4.46 mile course and are capable of doing a sub-6 minute "Beer mile." Gotta try that sometime...