Friday, July 29, 2011

(Nearly) Barefoot Running: Why?

There is lots of online discussion about barefoot running, including running in very thin shoes such as Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs).  There are many aspects to the discussions, including topics such as benefits, risks, how to transition, how to train, and many more.

My favorite running information source is RunBlogger Pete Larson, who has had many interesting recent posts on this and related topics.  His coverage tends to be observation-driven, with occasional guest posts by true experts and highly respected authorities (most with PhDs).  And his readers post some great comments and links.

His blog, along with my own research, convinced me to incorporate VFFs into my own training regimen.

My goal has not been to give up my "running slippers" or my racing flats, since I'm too much of a committed road runner for that.  Plus, I've already had one metatarsal stress fracture and I'm not looking for another, so I like the idea of having some padding between my feet and the ground.  Finally, I've looked at the soles of barefoot runners (generally thick, cracked leather), and talked with them about their experiences (frequent discomfort, especially on gravel and hot asphalt), and I'm not inspired to emulate their dedication.

Given the above, why should I do any VFF running at all?  My reasoning is simple but not obvious, so please bear with me.

The online discussions tend to center on two primary tenets:  Barefoot running is more "natural", and traditional running shoes can damage some runners.  My personal experience emphatically supports that last point, but I'm a "broken" runner, so my case isn't typical.

So what about that "more natural" claim?  The arguments for it are passionate, with some interesting evidence I found to be persuasive but not conclusive.  However, my curiosity was spiked: What would change if I tried running in VFFs?  How would they affect my comfort and performance?

I got my VFFs right after Christmas, while I was still recovering from my stress fracture, though I didn't start running in them until early this spring.  When I did start with them, I ran only on soft surfaces (sand, turf, padded track), and only for 5 minutes at a time. I slowly built up to 20 minutes running, about 2 easy miles, then stopped adding both distance and speed.  These days, I run in them only twice a month.

Why so little use?  Because I immediately learned what was most important to me: Running in VFFs reveals where my gait can improve, and provides instantaneous feedback as I find and incorporate the needed improvements.

From my perspective, having less between my feet and the ground gives me much more sensitivity and input from my feet, and I become much more aware of irregularities and imbalances in my stride.  Conversely, swaddling my feet in socks and shoes (even minimalist shoes) is equivalent to making my feet slightly numb.  Occasionally experiencing the "direct" sensations from running in my VFFs also helps me be more aware of what my feet are doing while wearing shoes.

I use my VFFs as a way to check that my shod stride is OK, since the first 100 yards in VFFs will let me know if there is any discomfort or awkwardness I should address.  Rather than thinking of my VFFs as running shoes, I view them as another training tool that provides important information, right up there with my Garmin Forerunner 305.  Somewhat similar to how I sometimes ride a spin bike instead of my road bike:  Doing a given activity with different equipment and/or in a different environment permits subtle aspects of the activity to be sensed and focused upon.

I believe many of us can benefit by becoming "more natural" runners.  A good way to do this is to run barefoot or in VFFs.  But I do not believe we need to completely give up our regular running shoes and socks to achieve the desired results.  I suggest the following three-phase process:
  1. Starting out, do lots of short and easy barefoot/VFF runs to let your stride stabilize and find a comfort zone.  This may take 1 to 3 weeks.  If possible, try to limit regular running shoe use during this time: For example, do this in the off-season.
  2. Continue light/easy running for the next 1 to 2 weeks.  During each run, frequently switch back and forth between shoes and barefoot/VFFs until the transition between them is smooth and effortless.
  3. Return to normal training in shoes, and periodically do some short/easy barefoot/VFF runs to ensure the stride is still OK.
I'm presently doing 15 minutes of VFF running twice per month.  I believe I may be getting 99% of the positive benefits of barefoot/VFF running with none of the negatives.  Plus, with such light use, my VFFs are going to last forever.

No comments:

Post a Comment