Barefoot running experiment

June 12, 2010

After a month of struggling to train in the heat and humidity after the Frederick Marathon, I got sick the week leading up to the North Face Challenge trail marathon and had to pull out.  I had been training pretty hard since January, so some rest was long overdo.  I took last week off from running, essentially resting for two weeks when you count the period that I was tapering and ill.  But now I have a new commitment: my barefoot running experiment.  I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, writing about barefoot running here two years ago.  My desire to compete, and my reluctance to devote time/mileage/injury risk toward barefoot running made me continue to postpone it.  I felt if I wanted to try barefoot/minimalist running, I had to do it during a season with favorable weather, and no immediate racing obligations.  I’m more than well aware that you need to start from scratch with barefoot running, and now I essentially have that opportunity.

So I guess the big question is why?  Well, here are my reasons, and the goals I’m hoping barefoot running can help me achieve:

  • Strengthen my feet.  This one is pretty obvious.  While the rest of the benefits of barefoot running may be debatable, it’s hard to argue against it improving strength in my feet.  Barefoot advocates say that wearing shoes your whole life is much like wearing a cast, and by shedding your shoes you allow your feet to strengthen.  Without shoes, muscles and tendons are forced to bear weight in a manner that they wouldn’t otherwise.  I’m looking forward to stronger muscles and tendons in my feet, which I think can lead to more power and fewer injuries.
  • Strengthen my lower legs.  This is also hardly contentious either – running barefoot stresses the calf and Achilles tendons greatly, and over time that means strength.
  • Improve my running efficiency.  As I’ve mentioned before in my discussion of barefoot running, it allows you to use your natural “lower leg spring”, which comes with stronger lower legs and feet.  Tendons are amazingly efficient at storing and releasing kinetic energy, and by developing my plantar fascia, Achilles tendons, and other tendons in my lower leg, and the running form needed to utilize them, I can generate more forward movement without as much of an oxygen debt.
  • Decrease running injury risk.  Now, this is the most debatable position, and really, it depends on the individual a great deal.  I can only know if barefoot running will decrease my own injury risk if I do it myself.  I know that early on the risk is heightened a great deal, so I’ll need to be careful.  I’ll need to run slowly and keep my distance low.  More on that below.

So next is the how:

I’m going to start very easy.  This will be a challenge.  I’m still in reasonably good shape, so it’ll be hard to pull back when I’m feeling well.  It’s like putting a spare tire/donut on a sports car.  The engine is strong, but that if you go too fast, the tire won’t able able to handle it and the results would be disastrous.  I’m going to slowly build up to a half hour every other day.  I think running every other day is important because it takes about 48 hours for broken down muscle tissue to repair.  Needless to say, I’m going to keep the pace very easy.  I’m going to do my runs for time, and not measure distance, that way I won’t even know how slow I’m going.  I’ll run on grass just to start.  I’ll let my form come naturally to me, and not really try to force anything.

After a month of running easy on grass I’ll start to run on other surfaces – dirt, pavement, maybe some modest trails.  I’ll also start trying out some minimalist shoes, and figure out what works best for me.  I’ll start focusing on form more, going for a short, frequent stride, a slight lean forward, and a mid foot strike.  I’ll start to measure pace and distance.

By the fall, I hope to have figured out some good shoes to run in, that allow me to keep running with good form.  If I’m running well, and my training runs are where they need to be, I’ll sign up for some races.  Right now, I don’t want to commit to anything because I don’t want to push myself too early.

I’ll blog about the experiment here regularly, and will also be tweeting all my runs: http://twitter.com/runningsoules.  I already did a run early Today, 20 mins on grass.  It probably was already too much, will need to ease up on my runs the rest of the week.

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