My friend Phil Odence has been blogging about barefoot running for well over a year, but it wasn't until last Sunday that I found the courage to try it myself. The suggestion of another friend that I use the local ball park's infield for a full-grass experience made me motivated to give it a try along with a recent reading of Born to Run, the story of the Tarahumara runners of the Sierra Madre who kick ass in ultra marathons running in nothing more than a huarache fashioned out of a strip of old tire.
The deal with barefoot running is this: running shoes with their gel inserts, foam padding, and other high tech advances have been murdering runners' feet since they were introduced in the 1970s. If one subscribes to the whole paleo-movement that argues that homo sapiens has been at it for 200,000 years but ruining itself in the last fifty with processed food and too much technology, i.e. running shoes, then eating and running around like a hunter gatherer on the veldt makes some sense.
I have been easing back into running over the last nine months through the local Crossfit gym which throws in a couple running workouts every week. Rowers are notoriously bad runners, I've heard the act referred to as the "rower's shuffle" by one Olympic gold medalist, but there's no denying that a good run is not only good exercise but good practice. I suck at it, but can remember a time, probably when I was eleven or twelve, when I was actually good at it.
I took the first step towards barefoot running with the purchase of a pair of Inov8 F-Lite 230 running flats. They look a little goofy -- like ballet slippers on my fat feet, but they are awesome for Crossfit.
These things are very minimalist with a mere quarter-inch of hard rubber sole between my foot and the pavement. The reasoning behind doing away with the foam and the shock absorbing principles of a traditional running shoe is two-fold: your foot needs to find the surface and padding it only delays that contact and second, all that orthotic padding causes the muscles in the foot to go soft and unused. A side benefit of Inov8's and their hard sole is on the ergometer -- serious indoor rowers have long held that padded soles diffuse the explosive power of the drive and that a rower is better off barefoot, an opinion voiced by Olympic gold medal sculler Xeno Mueller. The first bad habit to break is landing on the heels -- heel strike is bad and the entire POSE and Chi running disciplines try to teach a runner to land on the front of their feet and use the elasticity of their legs to cushion the impact, not the foam in their shoes. I can't get the hang of POSE running. You're supposed to fall forward and increase your cadence with your heels kicking up high towards your butt. It looks goofy but I try to keep some of it mind as I flap away. This before and after video might help visualize the difference between traditional and "new" running.
I've logged a few miles in the Inov8's, but on Sunday I drove up to Elizabeth Lowell Park, home field of the Cotuit Kettleers, parked, unlatched the infield gate, and started running around the inside perimeter of the field -- about a quarter mile all told or 400 meters. I did ten laps, finding that as my mind got over any fears of stepping on a foreign object I started to accelerate and settle into a very comfortable pace. Being barefoot naturally forces you to land on the ball of the foot, not the heel, and I definitely felt my toes starting to dig in and flex and add some power to the stride that I don't feel inside of an Asic or Nike.
All in all I liked it and will give it another try. I am not so sure about going barefoot on pavement, but Phil assures me it's great as long as I start out slowly over short distances.