I’ve been running since I was 11 years old. It started with those after school fun runs. Most of the time, I wasn’t prepared for a 1-mile run around the school, so I’d just run in whatever. It always killed me to see the neighbor boys come in first, even though I wasn’t particularly athletic.
Years later, when I went back to visit my former sixth grade teacher, she recalled that I “beat her” in a fun run one time wearing flat dressy sandals. I don’t remember that race in particular, but I do remember that I did not get my first pair of real running shoes (Saucony) until I was in seventh grade. That’s when my affair with distance running (and fancy, expensive running shoes) began.
Today, 16 years later, I left my running shoes behind for the first time ever. (Okay, so I started out with my minimalist racing flats first, but I’ll get to that.)
So I’m reading a book called “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall. McDougall is a magazine writer who’s written for Runner’s World, Men’s Health and many other health-minded mags on the market today. It wasn’t until he had a literal and figurative run in with multiple injuries that he began investigating how some people could run ultramarathons (50 – 100+ miles at a time) and not incur any injuries, while the average weekend warrior suffered with multiple bouts of plantar fascitis, shin splints and other nagging foot and leg injuries.
While in Mexico, he stumbled (no pun intended) across an article that changed everything. He read about the Tarahumara tribe in the canyons of Mexico that would run for long periods of time with seemingly super human strength and endurance. Wearing nothing but sandals, they raced faster and farther than anything he’d ever seen.
He weaves the story of his encounters with the Tarahumara with pages of findings from studies, podiatrists and other experts who explain why runners deal with the nagging injuries they do and comes to one pretty clear conclusion: It’s our shoes.
Being a runner for this long, it’s not like I haven’t heard this before. There are tons of conspiracy theories out there and many times, this debate about the shoes is largely couched in the argument that running/athletic shoes are money makers–it’s just the big corporations trying to get more money.
After reading much of this book, that’s starting to gel with me a bit, but so much more keeps coming up. Like the study that surveyed a large field of marathon runners and found that you were more than 123 percent MORE likely to suffer a foot or leg injury if you were wearing the top-of-the-line running shoes. The runners in that study who wore cheapy, $40 shoes were less likely to have had injuries.
Or, let’s observe the untouchable Kenyan runners whose turnovers, foot strikes and strides have been studied by coaches, envied by elite runners and simply stunned everyone on the Olympic landscape. Are they just phenoms or is there something to it? Trivia fact from the book: Most Kenyan runners do not receive their first set of running shoes until they’re 17 or older. By that point, they’ve been running miles barefoot or in minimalist shoes from the time they were little.
McDougall sides with the studies pointing to barefoot or minimalist shoe running is BETTER overall for your feet because it challenges them to self-correct, grow stronger and also more elastic. There’s no room for your foot to get lazy if it has no cushion or padded structure to push it this way or that. The shoe’s not doing the work for you, so you’d better straighten up, Foot.
For the first time, I started looking at my running shoes as the PROBLEM rather than the SOLUTION. Amazing, even though I do feel a slight twinge of guilt glancing at my blue and silver Asic Gel Kayanos. Those babies felt like pillows when I first tried them on. If only I had known that the left one would stab my foot about 10 miles in to every run…
So, back to this morning. Went out in my old high school racing flats without socks (bad idea) and about a mile in, took off my shoes to run in the grassy park by the side of the road only to discover that my right shoe had completely rubbed the skin off the back of my heel. Ouch.
After a small jog up and down the greenbelt, I opted to pick up my shoes and keep running…barefoot.
Even running down a busy, urban street, there was something freeing (not crazy) about running barefoot. The feel of the cool, smooth sidewalk under my feet. Experiencing my toes gripping the ground and sliding across it in a natural movement. Compared to what I was feeling in that moment, I might as well have been wearing boats on the bottoms of my feet with my high-tech running shoes. This was running heaven.
I ran 1.5 miles without my shoes on, purely barefoot. Yes, I encountered a few pebbles that met my feet in a not-so-nice way, but all in all there weren’t any catastrophes. I didn’t feel like I was “that” weird person. Honestly, I didn’t care.
Next, I’ll probably be looking into the Vibram FiveFingers as a new footwear option (pictured left).
Call me crazy, but I think I’ve just found my new niche.