How I Got to Barefoot

Published by RunningPoint on Wednesday, 02 Mar 2011 10:45 EST

I realized yesterday while writing my Back to Barefoot article that it may be interesting to some of you to read how and why I started running barefoot. As I have mentioned previously, I have had a pretty long relationship with running. It has most certainly been on again, off again over the years but every time I return to running I always wonder why I ever stopped the last time.

My first experience with running began 11 years ago. I was young and living on my own, and had just gotten my first real desk job. In the past, I had always had an active and physically taxing outdoor job which required no exercise outside of the workplace. The desk job was a total culture shock and I slipped into a pattern of sedentary work and copious amounts of snacking. One morning, I found that my pants were uncomfortably tight and decided that something had to be done. I was at my heaviest, roughly 220 lbs on a 5'-10" frame with my 36 waist 29 inch inseam pants cutting me in half. My father turned to running when I was a small child to shed a few pounds, and I figured if it worked for him why not give it a try. I went to the local mall and found the highest priced pair of Nike running shoes that were on the best sale and bought them (this is a habit that I continued until I started to learn about minimal shoe running, but I don't want to get ahead of myself). I usually set a goal of $50 maximum price price to pay for shoes. I started slow and ended up becoming a daily runner. Over a few years, I shed 50 total pounds and never felt better.

At this point I was down to 168 pounds. In fact, I felt so good that I decided to start lifting since my weight loss had left me looking and feeling a bit weak on the upper body side. Enter road block #1: lifting weights. I fell more in love with the feeling and results that lifting gave me and slowly phased out running. I gained muscle back and still felt just as good as I did when I ran all the time. There was only one real issue with lifting, I had a strange phobia of doing it in front of people. The thought of going to a gym was unappealing. I felt that I would just embarrass myself somehow, lifting too little weight, dropping a bar on my chest, etc. So I was left piecing together a cheap weight set and trying to adapt exercise to the equipment that I had. I became frustrated, but coincidentally at the same time I decided to go back to school to get an MBA at night. I decided to use the time between work and class (2 hours most days) to go over to the college campus and start running again.

This time I stuck with it for about a year and even started on a program to train for a marathon. Two things foiled this attempt to get serious about running: my wife and I found out that we were expecting our first baby and I got to a point very early on that I couldn't force myself to run the distance on the schedule. The baby part was easy to figure out, sketchy cell reception and the need to be close to my wife or my car to be able to rush home was enough to kill any plans to run distance. The part I had a hard time figuring out was why could I not push myself to increase mileage? I was at a point in life where I depended on the daily exercise to keep me going so I decided to conquer my fear of the gym and to utilize my free membership to the campus fitness center that was included in my tuition. I started by hitting the treadmill but finally got the confidence to hit the weights and again running was killed by lifting.

After graduation, I found myself without a gym and decided to actually pay for a membership and joined a gym close to my house on my route to work. My daily routine changed to include a workout 5x a week before work. I enjoyed the benefits of a larger gym with more equipment but found that no matter what I tried, I was losing cardio. My favorite way to train was circuit training, but this just didn't allow me to go out and do things in the real world without getting winded. So I decided to dedicate some workout time to the treadmill. I never enjoyed running on the treadmill and to add insult, my latest bargain shoes were a pair of Nike trail runners with a huge heel. Then one day at the gym, I saw a guy wearing some of the oddest footwear I had ever seen. They looked like really thick toe socks and I was instantly intrigued. A quick Google search at work told me that I had just seen my first pair of Vibram Fivefingers and that there was a movement starting where people actually ran in these shoes. 

I have been a longtime hater of wearing shoes when I didn't have to so this idea of minimal footwear was really appealing. I consumed myself in research about what options existed for minimal footwear and how traditional running shoes negatively affected the body. I literally had one of those light bulb over the head moments and realized that my shoes were sabotaging my efforts to train for that marathon. Part of the reason I couldn't push myself to more mileage was my clearance running shoes forcing me into an inefficient stride. I also thought back and could see that some of the reason that I quit running so easily and so many times was that it wasn't fun anymore. Coincidentally, it was always at my peak distance and frequency that I got fed up with running. I firmly believe that my body was telling me that I wasn't running as nature intended me to. I decided before I had ever touched a minimal shoe that this is the way I will run for the rest of my life.

Now I had to turn my efforts toward picking the right shoe to transition into minimal running. I searched all the usual suspects and was wowed by the different designs and absolutely floored by the high price of minimal shoes. Then I found the answer I had been searching for: aquasox. I found many blog posts about how people were astounded by high prices of minimal shoes and the alternatives they had chosen, most of which were aquasox (shoes meant to be worn in and around swimming pools or the beach). I went on a quest to find the perfect pair of aquasox for what I needed and ended up at the local grocery chain purchasing a pair on clearance for $2.50. I was elated because I had just turned barefoot running into a very low cost experiment and if I failed at it who cares.

I researched how to start barefoot running and found that I should start slow with short distances. I decided to add a treadmill run in the aquasox to the end of my normal gym workouts, and after just a few runs I was in love. Now I have been running long enough to know that a treadmill run is in no way similar to pounding the pavement so I was still cautiously optimistic. I stayed with the treadmill for a month and actually branched out to doing my entire workout in the aquasox. I felt my balance and strength improve because my feet were actually working as they were intended to, not as the shoe forced them to. Then on a beautiful day, I was presented with an opportunity to run outdoors and seized it.

I had read somewhere that you should always carry your gym bag and equipment with you in case you found an opportunity to work out, and luckily enough for me I followed this advice. I was out on some work business and passed a beautiful park that I had been by many times. This day I was drawn to pull into the parking lot and I found that there was a 3 mile loop trail. It was comprised of mostly asphalt with a few dirt sections. I quickly found a bathroom to change in, pulled on the aquasox, and took off. I finished that run knowing that I had made the right decision to ditch my old shoes and was instantly a runner again. Over the next few months, I began to stray away from the gym and return to a running based fitness regimen. I also continued to research minimal shoes and stumbled across the Invisible Shoes website and promptly purchased and constructed my own pair of huaraches because they were the absolute closest thing to barefoot I had found. The price was also low enough that I figured if I couldn't run in them then I can always wear them casually.

My first run in the huaraches was simply awesome. There was so much more ground feel and they were so light weight. My speed started to increase as my confidence did and soon I was running 9 minute miles with little effort and feeling slow. All you fast folks please consider that at this point I am at my current weight of 195 lbs (mostly muscle but certainly a bit of flab around the midsection) and with my short little legs I felt like I was really doing something running 9 minute miles. Barefoot running was my new passion. I extolled the virtues to my friends and family. My wife was sick of hearing about it and told me if I ever graduated up to "those silly toe shoes" that she would not be seen in public with me. Even my coworkers (some who run) were astonished when I started wearing my huaraches to work, thank goodness I work in a casual setting. Then disaster struck.

I was running one day and I stepped full weight on a sharp rock with my left foot. The pain was not bad at the time and I thought to myself that this type of thing is just part of learning to run barefoot. There was no noticeable after effects and I went along my regular routine of 3 runs per week. The problem started when I developed the skill to repeatedly step on things with my left foot only, and in the same spot every time. After many of these, the pain began to linger and again foolishly I took this as part of the experience of toughening my feet up. On my last barefoot run, nothing felt good. My foot hurt a bit starting out, I felt out of sync with my stride, and my huaraches were being a pain to adjust and I was stopping to fiddle with them which had never been an issue before. As I was running on flat smooth asphalt I felt a new sharp pain on the top of my foot and was forced to stop. I walked and limped back to the car with many thoughts shooting through my mind.

When I returned to work, I searched the internet for my symptoms and found that they aligned most with a stress fracture of a metatarsal. I continued reading and found out that this is a common running injury caused by multiple factors. Two of which were over-use and bad form. I reflected on this information for the next four weeks while I recovered and did absolutely no exercise and came to the conclusion that I was foolish to run through the pain of the stone bruise(s) and that if I was going to continue to run barefoot I would have to learn to listen to my body and accept that maybe I won't be able to run a rigid schedule at my peak pace. At this point, I decided that I would also need to have some real shoes to run in to finish my recovery and strengthen my foot back up to prepare for barefoot running the next spring.

I purchased 2 pair of shoes, the Saucony Kinvara and the Brooks Mach 11 spikeless XC flats based on favorable reviews and recommendations from my local specialty running store. I spent the long cold winter alternating between these shoes and built my mileage back up. A couple of weeks ago I found myself experiencing some shin pain and decided to back off before I really hurt myself again. It was during this little break that I decided since the weather was nice again that it was time to ease myself back into barefoot running. So I dusted off the aquasox on February 28th and went for a quick 1 mile run. I really realized how bad the shoes had affected my stride and was hooked on the feeling of freedom all over again.

So there it is, my opus from clearance shoe buyer to dedicated barefoot runner. Feel free to comment or add your own experiences.

For reference, my aquasox:


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