Transition Painlessly and Immediately Into Barefoot Running

I’ve been writing a lot lately about my recent transition to “barefoot,” or “minimalist,” running.

I’ve made the switch because I’ve set an ambitious (for me) goal of running a 3:30 marathon this November.  This is ambitious for me not only because my only prior marathon took me over 4 hours and 12 minutes but because even my fastest half marathon was run at about the pace per mile that I’ll need, over the course of an entire marathon, to get my time down to 3:30.  So I need a quantum leap in my training and conditioning.

Savannah Marathon

My next big challenge?

One thing I’m doing to improve my expected pacing in this falls marathon is increasing my “base training.”  I’ll be following a typical 16-week marathon training regimen, but before I even start that, I’m going to give myself 5 weeks of training to build up a “base” that’ll put me in somewhat decent physical conditioning before I even start my formal training schedule.  Five weeks isn’t much, particularly since I’m starting from zero miles per week.  (Typically, one to two months of base training is recommended; and that base training is not supposed to follow immediately on month after month of sedentary living.)  But it beats out the 2 weeks of base training I did last summer for my personal best half marathon.  Add to that sixteen weeks of formal training this summer, compared to the 12 weeks I did for my personal best half marathon, and I do have a fighting chance of significantly improving my race-day performance.

Second, I’m increasing my mileage.  My base training is already averaging over 40 miles per week, compared to the 27 1/2 miles per week I averaged during my two weeks of base training last summer; and I plan to continue increasing my mileage each week so that I’ll run far more miles in total this summer than last.  I’ll also run far longer “long runs” on average.  This increased mileage should also give me a leg up on last year.

But this increased mileage presents another problem.  One of the reasons I didn’t run more miles last summer was that running took a toll on my knees, shins and feet.  I wouldn’t feel great after a run; I’d feel beaten down.  And with my mother recovering from recent knee-replacement surgery, and warning me to take it easy on my own knees, I hesitate to pound my knees into the ground any more than necessary.  Anecdotal evidence from other once-prolific runners like George W. Bush further scares me off from running too-long distances.

But there may be a solution, and that’s “barefoot” running.  This running form, marked by funny-looking shoes with flat, minimalist soles and bright colors that set them apart from conventional running shoes, takes a great deal of pressure off your knees, legs and feet.  Forcing you to take shorter strides, and strike the ground first with your fore-or mid-foot (before striking the ground very lightly with your heel), it prevents the repeated jarring action that conventional running form typically provokes.  “Heel-striking,” as most conventional shoes encourage us to do, takes a major toll on our legs, and likely on our lower backs as well.

“Barefoot” running form is apparently more natural.  It takes advantage of the natural springiness of our feet, makes us run more level to the ground, and takes enormous pressure off the heels, which otherwise transmit the shock of pounding the pavement straight up through our legs.

And it’s this changed running form that I’m hoping allows me to put up far greater mileage without unduly straining my knees, shins and feet.  I’m hoping there’s a significantly reduced risk of repetitive stress injuries (another factor that kept my mileage low last summer) as well as less of a feeling of general wear and tear.

So far, injury risk is tough to evaluate, as I never got injured even last year, with my old traditional running form.  Somewhat encouraging is the fact that I’m now three plus weeks into my training, have increased my mileage from week to week way more than experts recommend with the traditional style (to minimize the risk of injury, experts recommend increasing week-over-week mileage by no more than 5-10%), and have not sustained an injury.  But it’s very early on, and there’s by no means any guarantee that will continue.

But I’ve definitely felt less wear and tear.  I remember walking nimbly on my aching knees last year following each long run, and again the morning after, and that feeling’s not there this year.  I feel very little sensation in my knees while running, and have not yet felt anything afterwards.  So far, I’m thrilled with the new running form.

And an added bonus may be speed: my “barefoot” running shoes, the Saucony Hattori, are so light I may as well be barefoot.  This has to lighten the load on my body and may help me to cut times somewhat on my longer (and even shorter) runs.

But barefoot running does pose one major obstacle that I meant to address in this post: calf soreness.  Research barefoot running, and how to transition into it, and you’ll find warning after warning after warning to start slow and take it easy, lest your calves will tighten up and you won’t be able to run anymore.  People recommend that you start off simply by walking around the house barefoot, then by going for an occasional walk, then by jogging for five minutes, then six minutes, then seven minutes, increasing ever-so-slowly week after week, until, 6 months to a year later, you’re able to run a few miles.  But don’t hurry the process.

Nonsense.  My calves did, in fact, stiffen up for three days when I started the transition, but only because I was running wrong.  Fearing that I wouldn’t be able to run, let alone train primarily for, my fall marathon with the barefoot style the way things were going, I decided to do a little more research.  And if you look carefully, you’ll find some great resources on how to run barefoot without calf soreness—from the very beginning.  I myself have posted on this topic before.

Since my earlier post is still available, and there’s a lot written about this already on the Internet, I won’t go into excruciating detail about it here.  Simply enough, keep your strides short and focus on bringing your knees forward with each stride, rather than pushing off with your toes.  If you bring your knees forward–sometimes even exaggeratedly so–and simply let your foot fall where it naturally falls, right underneath your body, you don’t have to use your calf muscles unduly to support your body upon landing.  The striking of the midfoot, then toes, then heels in rapid succession mostly takes care of this for you.  And you don’t have to push off with your toes, which would again strain the calves.  Result: no calf soreness.

The reason I’m posting about this again right now is that when I initially posted it was still very early on in my training and I hadn’t done long runs yet.  I’ve now run 9 miles, 12 miles, 7 miles and 8.5 miles in my barefoot shoes, with this new running style, and I have no calf pain.  It’s not even something that enters my mind.  So much for building up for 6 months to a year.  People who are recommending that on line should really Google a bit more and update their posts because they’re hindering people like me from running the way we’re supposed to run.  To those who’ve posted about this proper running form, I am ever thankful.

The other reason I’m posting about this again now is that, when I first posted, I also wasn’t sure whether the new running form was slowing me down.  I’ve run several GPS-timed runs since then with my new shoes, and I’m running at least as fast as I was at this stage in my training last year, with my conventional shoes.  So I think this running form works well for efficiency too.

Have you tried barefoot running?  Are you suffering calf pain on longer (or even shorter) runs?  Let me know if this doesn’t help you, and I can point you to some more comprehensive resources.

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2 Responses to Transition Painlessly and Immediately Into Barefoot Running

  1. Pingback: Going Barefoot Without Pain: It’s All About Form | Organaholic! Organic Food Blog

  2. Pingback: My First Foray Into Barefoot Running | Organaholic! Organic Food Blog

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