Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Barefoot Running, Research and Experience

I'm often asked why I run barefoot.  The answer is based on what I've read and what I've experienced in doing it.

Supporting Research
  1. I hadn't considered barefoot running until after Melissa had read "Born to run" by Christopher McDougall and she and I had discussed it some. It's fairly journalistic in nature but interesting to read (I've only read some of her recommended chapters). Here is an article based on book excerpts.
  2. A great series of youtube videos by Dr. Irene Davis (pt1, pt2, pt3, pt4).
  3. good review of what research has been done as of 2001 on barefoot running.
  4. Nature (2010) 463:531-5: Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard University Professor who runs a skeletal biology lab, has now done the most high-profile research into barefoot running mechanics.  The paper is worth reading all the way through. Their website has good videos.
  5. Steven Robbins research: another guy who has done a lot of work in the field.  His research suggests that it is actually going barefoot (not just minimal shoes) that contributes to less impact.  This protracted conversation [start at the bottom and work up] with Lieberman over some points of his study is interesting. I think he is blowing things out of proportion some (and not being very reasonable in his discussions) even though his arguments have some merit.
  6. My favorite video on running.  Not really research, but interesting that he has folks run barefoot to try and run with better form.  Just ignore the part at the end about putting your shoes back on ;)
Jury Still Out
Barefoot running touches on lots of interesting ideas involved in "proper" running form.  Here is a sample of posts somewhat related:

My Experience

I've been running barefoot since April/May of 2010. Since then I've run between about 7 and 21 miles a week barefoot, probably 75% of which is on asphalt or concrete (the rest grass). I run to and from work, 3.5 miles each way. Downhill I average 7:15-7:45 per mile, uphill 8:30-9:10 per mile, so roundtrip 8:00-8:30 per mile.  On occasion I will run for fun, but mostly it is just transportation.

Here are my observations:

I have never cut my foot on anything, although I got a few thorns off on a trail once. I got a good bloodblister in my heel from hitting a rock once, although I never noticed the injury (I had noticed the rock) until coming home.  When running once in Texas, I stepped off the sidewalk and got about 12 stickers in my foot in 2 steps.  Just pulled them out and caught up to our little group.

Takes 3-6 weeks to build up decent callouses. Before that certain stretches can be pretty painful and you can get blisters (usually under the skin and they never really pop). Pebbles hurt and rocks really hurt when you hit them. Once you develop good callouses, asphalt and little pebbles just feel like a nice massage. Nothing really hurts your foot at that point.

It takes a while to adjust your stride. For many months you have to constantly remind yourself to try to shorten your stride and quicken your pace and to try to land more mid/front foot. Your heel will tell you not to land on it too hard.

Calf and foot muscles take a longer time to build up. My calves are almost always sore, now sore less.

No problems with my knees at all. I personally think it is better on my knees than with shoes because my foot can land and pronate very naturally and the strike is with a bent knee ready to absorb impact rather than a straighter knee with a heel strike.

My feet feel like they take a beating, especially at first. Up until recently though, they felt pretty great the next day. A while back, though, my outer midfoot was bruised (single incident or cumulative I don't know) and it has been bothering me, although I've still been running on it (but less). This has been my first and biggest injury running barefoot. Update: I had to take it easy for a while and run with shoes for a few months.  Now it is better and I can run barefoot again.

Steep uphill is much easier than with shoes (significantly faster). Steep downhill is more difficult (significantly slower and more difficult).

For me, barefoot running forces you into a nicer running posture, head back, feet landing more under your hips. Midfoot and forefoot strike more.  Getting the right foot strike is merely a matter of getting your posture right.  The connection between the two makes it easy to run "properly" (if that's what I'm finally doing).

Overall, I really, really enjoy it. It is really stimulating to run without shoes (lots of sensory input on your feet, can feel the different temperatures of the pavement and textures, etc.). I think it is worth trying a few times to see what you think. After all, it is free (minus any trips to the ER ;) I prefer it so much I will only very reluctantly run with shoes on.

My real running friends dismiss it and say that real runners mid/fore-foot strike anyway and think it is silly overall, so opinions from real runners will vary. You will notice that most (99.99%) of them still run with shoes.


gautam kewaliya said...

really nice post....
i like it...


Tonia said...

This was really interesting. I ran in high school and in Austin and remembering hearing about this but never looked into it. Ben and I were just discussing getting back into running for a New Year's habit. I will have to look into the research and video mentioned.

And here I thought you guys just were naturally in shape....didn't know you had to work for it! ;)

Leah Prince said...

I see people around here running barefoot and in the little skimpy shoes for scardy cats.

Janine said...

John: I'm pretty sure that you exist to exacerbate other men's inferiority complexes. :) Brian

JTP said...

A man who hunts wild-boar and won't eat meat unless he slays it himself can hardly have an inferiority complex ;)

Does this mean you're going to try it out?

Brian said...

Touché. We're both awesome. I say we nominate ourselves co-chairs of the Brian and John's Mutual Awesomeness Appreciation Society.

Right now I run about around 3.5 miles 4 times a week. that's how far I can run/walk on the treadmill during a 42 minute episode of Lost. Not sure I'm up to barefoot running quite yet, and I'm certainly not going to start when it's freezing outside.

Susan said...

Brian sent us this link since we're discussing bf running. My dad's been doing it for years in SoCal. He ran bf last November in the freezing rain with me here in NJ on our very rough asphalt roads (the roads are in terrible shape and the asphalt is really old and worn/spikey!)Your write up is perfect, and I might actually try it a few times next spring :)