Last Saturday I ran my first 9 mile loop of the lake in two months. With temps in the 90’s it was tough, but I feel I’m pretty much back to where I want to be for the summer. A little slower, perhaps, but that’s not a bad thing when June temps this year are already as high as our usual July temps. I purposely keep my summer mileage low, mainly because of the heat and humidity, but also to give my body a rest before I start training for my next fall marathon.
All of this means: it’s time to start thinking about some barefoot running again.
I’ve been working up to running barefoot for the past two weeks by walking–a lot. Every morning I take my two dogs for a 2-4 mile walk, and rather than wear an old pair of running shoes, like I usually do, I’ve been wearing an ugly old pair of Columbia flip flops. I’m thinking that’s as close as I can get to walking barefoot without actually taking off my shoes. On Monday I wore a pair of my most minimal running/trail shoes–barefoot–and got a blister, so I took my shoes off the last half mile and walked home barefoot. It was fun, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. On Tuesday I ran 4 miles at the lake, including a half mile stretch barefoot where the running path is extra smooth. The barefoot stretch was the best part of my run.
I could feel the barefoot half mile I ran the next day in my shins, calves, and where my feet bend. Nothing serious or painful, I could just tell that I had done something different. I plan on only running barefoot every other day, and not more than half a mile for the first week or two, and see how I feel.
For me, I think barefoot running is going to be nothing more than an occasional thing, though I would like to transition to even more minimal shoes than the Nike Free. I’ve been rereading a book I read several months ago, Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth by Michael Sandler, and he gives a lot of information about the best ways to make the transition to complete barefoot running. His best advice: start very, very, very slowly. Second best advice: run more on your toes and forefoot. Third best advice: have fun running.
While I do believe the human body was made to run, and without all the bells and whistles the major shoe manufacturers tell us we need, most of us haven’t run barefoot since we were kids, which means we need to build up all the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in our feet and toes to accommodate a change. Even if you wear minimalist shoes, which may be essentially nothing more than a rubber sole away from barefoot, better to take it slow and ease into it to give your feet time to get used to running in a different way.
Just like when I was a kid, now that it’s summer I pretty much only wear shoes when I have to go somewhere. I don’t remember anyone telling me it wasn’t okay to run barefoot back then, so why should things change just because I’m an adult? We had glass in the streets back then, too, and rocks, sticks, burrs, rusty nails and hot asphalt, and we did just fine. Sure, we didn’t run 26 miles in our bare feet, but I bet a lot of us put in at least a few miles everyday running around outside.
Best of all, we didn’t even think about it, we were just having fun, and that’s the best way to run if you ask me.
I hate rules and I don’t like people telling me what to do–ironic considering I was a teacher for so many years. If you tell me I can’t do something, first I’m going to ask why, and then if I don’t like your answer I’m probably going to do it anyway. I guess all those years of being shy and obedient have come to this. I like to call it The Little Miss Goody Two Shoes Backlash.
Right now I’m all about breaking the rules when it comes to running. But what are the rules exactly? You know, the ones about building up mileage slowly, wearing supportive shoes to correct pronation, stretching before and after a run, eating before and after a run, and so on. After five years of reading Runner’s World, I’ve come to realize that whatever you read one month about running will usually be disputed in the next month’s issue. The rules I’m mostly talking about, though, are the ones that are self-imposed. I think each person has their own set of running rules that they follow, so my rules probably won’t be your own.
Some rules were made to be broken. For example, I totally believed the salesperson when I bought my first pair of running shoes. He watched me run back and forth a few times and told me my shoes needed to be supportive, and brought out the perfect pair for me (or so he said). They did serve their purpose for awhile, and got me ready for more serious running, but eventually I started to have a persistent problem with plantar fasciitis and wanted to try something lighter and more natural. I switched to Nike Free and the problem went away. It probably wasn’t even the shoes that caused the problem, but I knew that was the first place I should look to make a change. Even more importantly, I wanted to make a philosophical change and go with something a little more “natural.” Again, just because someone told me something was “the best” for me, I knew what I wanted, and I loved the way running felt in the lighter, more minimal shoes.
Having said all that, I’m also a strong believer in “Don’t fix what isn’t broken.” Most of my running friends are perfectly happy with their shoes, and a lot of them wear the same brand season after season, which is great. The bottom line is, you have to find what works for you, and not fall for the latest fads and gadgets just because someone tells you it will change your life. That gets expensive after awhile, too, unless you ditch the shoes altogether and run barefoot–my favorite break-all-the-rules way to run.
I’m definitely a rule breaker as far as stretching goes. In essence, I don’t. I used to have a rule that I needed to stretch before and after every run. Then I gradually went with stretching afterwards. Now I usually just start running, and then I stop. Simple. I used to do yoga several times a week, back in the days before I ran, but I never seem to make time for it these days. It’s definitely on my list of things to reincorporate into my life. I know it will improve my core strength–and the feeling after a good yoga workout is priceless.
Walking during a run is a love/hate rule for me. When I run from my house I will walk to the corner first, but that is usually because my Garmin hasn’t calibrated with the satellites yet. I count it is as a light warm-up. And these days, when the evening temps are still in the high 90’s, I like to walk briefly at the end of my run before I come back inside the house. I will even take short walk breaks during a run when it’s this hot, if for no other reason than it’s just so dang hot–and walking is a rule I rarely broke in the past. But during a race, walking is a sign of weakness–but only for me. I admire those who employ the walk/run method, and wish I could walk without beating myself up. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t walk during a marathon in those last six miles. I’ve only run one race where I didn’t have to stop and walk some, and that was the race where I qualified for Boston.
The best rule I’m breaking lately is not caring as much about pace. I still run with a Garmin, but now I have the cheaper, simpler watch that only tells my average pace for the entire run. I used to finish my runs by scrutinizing each mile lap, but now I’m okay with just knowing the overall average. I’m also okay these days with running 3.98 miles instead of an even 4. In the past, I would’ve run around the parking lot to finish up. Now I’m happy with “close enough.”
The biggest rule, though, numero uno for years, was being a slave to the training plan. I used to follow my plans religiously, doing everything in my power to never miss a scheduled run. If I did miss a run, or didn’t run as far as I was supposed to, it was like the earth had collided with the moon. It was an instant guilt bath–and I would make up that missing run/mileage by the end of the week. Now, I’m much more easy-going. Yes, if I’m training for a marathon I’m going to do my best to stick to the plan. I know full well how 26.2 miles can feel twice as long if I’m undertrained. When I’m not officially training–and I really am trying to run only one marathon per year now–I’m going to enjoy my runs more and not beat myself up so much.
So, what does all this mean for the serious runner? It simply means finding what works for you. We’ve all read the running books and the running magazines and the running blogs, but the bottom line is that no one knows your body like you do. Some things work, and some don’t. The shoes that work for you may not work for me. Your training plan may get you that sub four hour marathon, but it may run me into the ground.
Find what works for you, and run with it.
After marathon number six in February, Death Valley, I decided I wanted to step back for awhile and run less, just to give my body and mind a rest from the grind of long distance running. I wasn’t enjoying putting in the miles as much as I had in previous years and knew it was time for a break, a pause, if you will. I needed to regroup and figure out what my next plan of action would be with my running.
I toyed with the idea of barefoot running. I’m very picky about my shoes–all shoes, not just running–and have a difficult time finding shoes that fit just right. I have narrow heels, a long second toe, and a bunion on my right foot, so finding the perfect fitting shoe has been a lifelong quest of mine. When I started running five years ago I must have tried every brand out there. After an extended episode of plantar fasciitis two years ago, I eventually settled on Nike Free shoes. I wear them for both training and racing and couldn’t be happier. They fit me perfectly, are comfortable and light, and have just the right amount of support for my feet. I wondered, however, just how minimal I could go.
I had a pair of Vibram Five Fingers that I often wore when I walked the dogs, but because of that long toe they never felt comfortable. I loved running short distances in them, but knew they weren’t the shoe for me for long distances or races. I still like to wear them, but I also think they are ugly. I look like I have monkey feet.
Next I tried the new Merrell Trail Gloves. I loved the feel and look of them, but they were too wide when I wore them without socks. When I ordered the next half size smaller, they fit better across the top of my foot, but that long toe just grazed the end of the shoe. By the end of a 6 miler my toe was pretty sore, and I knew it wouldn’t take much more before I started getting a black toenail (horrors!). I really loved the look of the shoes, though. They looked like track shoes, and I felt kind of cool wearing them. (I always wished I had run track in high school.)
Like most of my running friends, I read Born to Run and was intrigued with the idea of running barefoot. I ran behind a barefoot runner most of one marathon, and he seemed to be doing just fine sans shoes. I liked the idea of running barefoot every once in awhile, for short distances, and I downloaded Barefooot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth on my Kindle and read it on the Death Valley trip.
Running barefoot would go right along with my new, simpler life. I had started a vegetable garden, quit my job, and cut my hair all in the past two months. I have friends who might call me “granola” because of my tree-hugging ways, so trying out barefoot running wasn’t really that much of a stretch for me. I truly believe the human body is made to run, so why not keep it as natural as possible? I decided to try it.
My friend Hari had also wanted to try barefoot running, so one day we decided to run barefoot the last mile of a run at the lake. It was AWESOME! I couldn’t run on the rough sidewalk or road like Hari, however, and had to stay on the ultra-smooth white edge of the somewhat newly paved running path. We tried it a few more times and I loved it more and more.
Running barefoot was fun, and I felt like a kid again every single time we tried it, which was usually at the end of a longer run. It always felt so freeing to take off our shoes and socks and, shoes in hand, run that last mile back to the car completely unfettered and unshod. I felt free and without a care in the world, much like I had felt when I was a kid. Back then I practically lived outside, and rarely wore shoes. Grass was cool and smooth, and the tar would stick to the soles of our feet when we played in the street. Running barefoot as an adult brought that all back. All I focused on was the path in front of me, and pace never crossed my mind.
Alas, when I tried to run around my busy inner city neighborhood barefoot it was as if I had grown two heads and six legs. People stared, cars honked, and mouths dropped. I know I shouldn’t have let it get to me, but it was disconcerting and did mess with my runner’s zen. Plus, the sidewalks are in bad shape in my area and it was sometimes a painful run. Even worse, Hari went a little too far too fast with his minimalist running and developed terrible plantars, which he hasn’t been able to shake for over a month. Turns out he has a bone spur and won’t be running for a few more weeks, and no marathons until the end of the year.
For the time being I think I’ll stick with the Nike Free’s. I would like to try the New Balance Minimus shoes at some point, but right now there’s no hurry. I don’t think I’ll ever be a completely barefoot runner, but I still reserve the right to ditch the shoes and socks whenever the mood catches me. The days are getting much warmer now, and the pavement will be as hot as sin soon, so shoes sound like a good idea–for the time being, at least.