Barefoot Running Stories

I’ve got a great guest post today by Barefoot Andy on running reflections, injuries, and lessons. No further ado:


by Barefoot Andy


I’m Andy, or Barefoot Andy, or even Budding Barefoot Andy to be a little more realistic! It brings me great honor to be able relay some of my lessons learned, injuries, and indulgences to a community that I hope to support and push forward.

I have a fond memory of running endlessly on a beach as a child, being overwhelmed with a feeling of joy of the activity. Then college came, and save for some gained weight and a diverted soccer career, I had mostly a single reason to run: to get back in shape! I shed the excess weight and built a toned body. It seemed so easy to get in shape that I stopped doing it after college, letting other responsibilities, and indulgences, take priority. Having taken a few years off from running, I found myself back at the beginning. I re-built my mileage but did not listen much to common training principles. I had been running without issue for years, after all!

There were no sudden injuries, but eventually I started to feel an ache behind my knee, one that would be annoying at first, nagging at times, and eventually cause for alarm. I had induced an overuse injury. Doctors I spoke to could not find any issues and the best advice I got from a podiatrist was “change your running habits”. And so I did: I stopped running.

Fast-forward about two years and you get to the date of September 8, 2009. At this point I considered myself running-handicapped, certain to never enjoy a good run again. But the spark was still there, because on this date I ordered Born to Run by Chris McDougall. Born to Run was refreshing. The book consumed me, and my passion to run was ignited with a new flame: another way to run, with less injury, and greater enjoyment. Within a few days I had finished the book and was planning my resurgence into the world of barefoot running!

The principles of barefoot running began to impact my beliefs. I analyzed what might be happening to my running style by wearing shoes and I was soon convinced that the repetitive jolt of running in shoes were dampening the feedback from my feet, leading to all sorts of trouble! I was sold on barefoot running, and began my transition immediately.

To begin transitioning, I put on a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, the Sprint model. I began training at a park near my work, a three mile loop around a lake, a paved asphalt trail. The first run out was mesmerizing! I could tell I was using muscles in a much different, and more significant way. I made it a mile, a distance that I later decided was insane! My calves burned for three days after that.

I continued a somewhat accelerated progression until one day I ran ten miles in my VFFs. My feet felt terrible near the end, but my previous overuse injury had been gone for two months. I wouldn’t say that I was experiencing the joy of running yet, but my progress excited me, and in this case I overdid it and ultimately injured myself. The ten mile barefoot run exposed a weakness in my training plan: I had not learned to listen to my body, in part because I was excited about rapid progression, and in part because I was wearing the VFFs. I would later understand the principle that is so important to venturing out as a barefoot runner: let your feet be your guide!

As McDougall now says in interviews, he would have much rather began completely barefoot as opposed to trying to transition through using a minimalist shoe or sandal. The foot has a wonderful feedback mechanism: when you’ve worked it out enough for one day, it tells you quickly! Your arches will be sore, your foot will be raw from pavement, or you’ll get the dreaded top of the foot pain.

My progression has been a continuous battle. I struggled with tendencies of impatience, excesses, and lack of focus. Before I was running significant distances barefoot, I got excited and signed up for my first marathon, the Baltimore Marathon in October of 2010. I significantly ratcheted back my training to try and heal what I now believe were actually inflamed metatarsal ligaments, a common experience when using them for the first time! I kept running, but in shoes. While my inflamed ligaments healed, I brought back my back of the knee pain! I learned that training with balance and patience is critical to a successful transition.

My decision to run a marathon barely a year after I returned to recreational running caused me to get long bouts of top of the foot pain in both feet. Leading up to my first marathon, knee pain persisted, but I did much better than I expected at 4:07. The next day I knew my leg was hurt again, and I had two seriously messed up peroneus brevis tendons in both feet, which I had never heard of or felt pain from before then. And yet, I had already signed up for my second, Honolulu Marathon two months later in December!

I didn’t run for a month after my first marathon, and after that only short runs. I went to Honolulu, having effectively done no training. By marathon day I felt fresh, uninjured, and ready to run. My last long run had been a marathon, so it was a crapshoot as to how successful I could be. I set no goal. Plus, I forgot my GPS watch, had poor bearing on my pace, and ended up running way too quickly at first.

Honolulu became what I consider a PR, after coming in at 4:28. With the heat and humidity, I was told to expect nothing better than my PR plus thirty minutes. I was ten minutes shy of that! But he real kicker for me was that I was not injured! No foot injuries, no leg injuries, just some seriously sore quads! A two hour nap after the race, and I was walking around much better than many of the post-mortem racers hobbling around.

I must attribute this to barefoot running. I feel that anyone can benefit from incorporating a barefoot style of running. It is a very tough, tedious endeavor, but like many worthwhile aspects in life, you reap what you sow. You eventually get in return more than what you invest: increased energy, faster recovery, better moods, better fitness, and the esteemed runner’s high!

Barefoot running is still opening doors for me to learn about myself. I love running outdoors, bounding off in a new direction. I get the same overwhelming feeling of joy and amusement running down an asphalt trail in my bare feet now as I did running through the sand as a child. It is impossible to explain fully, and not worth trying to convince anyone of, but the joy of running is real, and barefoot running is a pure form that is both natural and primal. This is what barefoot running is teaching me, some of which I try to portray.