My Barefoot Experiment (and how it changed my life)

My Barefoot Experiment

I have always loved to run (and coincidently hated swimming – anyone else like that or vice versa?). Running is my meditation. I love how simple it is to slip on a pair of shoes and just “zone” out (no “ommmms” or spirit fingers required). I have never really loved sprinting, I’m more of a long distance endurance runner and it was something I enjoyed from an early age. I guess you could say that this is why, when I was told I was going to have to pull back on the pavement pounding (even with my incredibly expensive running shoes, made to support my foot ‘flaws’) to relieve my dodgy right knee, I wasn’t going to take it lying down and as always, I went looking for my own answers…

I guess you could say a whole lot of things happened all at once and that’s how my barefoot journey began. I started chiropractic care (I believe this was a major contributor to improving not only my structure, but my health and wellbeing – you can read about this here), but I also found the book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall, or should I say it “found me”.

When I say this book is well worth the read, I want you to know that I’m not alone on this one, Forbes and Washington Post have nominated this book as one of the top 100 books to read in a lifetime, impressive eh?

Without giving too much away, this book took me on a journey around the world where I soon realised, that everything I thought I knew about running (and everything I was taught), was turned on it’s head. To sum it up, the human foot is pretty amazing and sticking it inside a restrictive shoe obscures that.

 

“Everything I thought I knew about running (and everything I was taught), was turned on it’s head…”

 

I guess you could say that everything this book had to say just clicked with me. It made complete sense (yes, there is science in there to back up this argument), but I knew that before I started to shout my findings from my soapbox, I had to test the theory I had fallen in love with. I had to re-learn how to run.

My Barefoot Journey…

I started my slow and steady transition from my super impressive, ridiculously expensive, fit to my foot (designed to correct my severe outward pronation) running shoes to my barefoot shoes about 2 years ago. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t a walk in the park transition, but before you sign off, I want you to know that it was totally worth it!

 

“I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t a walk in the park… but I want you to know, it was totally worth it…”

 

Before I attempted to run barefoot, I began to roll the bottom of my feet across a billiard ball. I did this in an effort to release my plantar fascia (the tendon that supports the arch of the foot). After a lifetime of restrictive shoe wearing, it was ridiculously tight and anyone that has ever rolled on a foam roller with a tight ITB will know this pain isn’t an easy one to adapt to, however I persisted and as I released the tension, the pain fizzled away to nothing.

It was then that I thought I was ready to start the soft sand run a few times a week and tweak my running style. This forced me to use the stabilising muscles that had been lying dormant for a few years/lifetime. This strengthening process wasn’t as bad as it sounds and my work with my amazing Pilates instructor only complemented this.

As I started to increase the distance and number of barefoot runs per week, I felt I was ready to take it to the park and the pavement in some barefoot shoes.

 

“Now I know the term ‘barefoot shoes’ sounds like an oxymoron, but let me explain…”

 

Now I know the term ‘barefoot shoes’ sounds like an oxymoron, but let me explain. The idea behind the barefoot shoe is to allow your foot to land on the ground in the same motion as though you were running barefoot, but at the same time to provide you with some protection. They come in various styles, shapes and sizes from those designed to help you transition slowly from heel-first running to barefoot-style running, to those that just provide a thin slither of rubber under your sole, leaving your foot as free as possible (let’s call them the advanced version).

I started with a 4mm pair of Brookes Pure Drift running shoes. As I started to increase my intensity, I started to notice some stiffness and tightness in my calves. I’m told this was because I had gone from rarely using my calves to having them absorb the impact of my footfall. As I had done (and continued to do with my plantar fascia), I began to roll my calves and massage them whenever I had the chance (at least once a day). As the tension began to release, I removed the inner sole and now sit at a 2.5mm heel to toe running surface (I have someone else who is going to explain this in more detail later, but for now just know that I went from little support to even less support) and I thrived.

To support my barefoot efforts, I would also walk around the house barefoot and anywhere else (where possible), I would attempt to pick up items with my toes and dig my feet into anything I could find.

 

“Finally, I decided to put my love for barefoot shoes to the ultimate test….”

 

Finally, I decided to put my love for barefoot shoes to the ultimate test, hiking in a pair of Barefoot Trails (minimalist shoes for off road hiking) in Canada’s Banff National Park. I’m pleased to report that they were a huge hit and whilst everyone was slipping and sliding around on loose gravel, I was standing tall, using my toes and feet to maintain balance. I also used the same shoes to do my 57km hike back in Australia. Again, my feet have never felt better and I managed to put on a pair of heels and headed out to meet a girlfriend, the night we returned back to the city (yes, it was the same day that we completed the journey and yes, I see the barefoot to heel irony here).

Over time, what I have noticed in my opinion is nothing short of incredible.

  • My foot began to change shape, my toes uncurled and my dexterity of my toes has improved 10 fold.
  • My severe supination (outward roll of my feet) has corrected and my feet are now considered “neutral”.
  • My arch, which was considered “high”, is now considered “normal” and has been this way for over a year now.
  • My knee pain is gone, doesn’t exist, zero, zip, zilch, nada (I feel that Chiropractic and Pilates training has also helped here)
  • My endurance has improved
  • I’m now training for a half marathon; yes I plan on doing this in my barefoot shoes.
  • Having “trialled” my old shoes for this piece, I can honestly say wearing those shoes now is like walking around with bricks on my feet. They were so painful that after a 5km walk; I had to take them off. They are now ready for donation. 

 

“I’m now training for a half marathon… barefoot”

 

Now whilst the above story is my own and as I mentioned before, the barefoot debate continues, I have asked a physiotherapist, chiropractor (and elite athlete) and personal trainer to share their views on barefoot shoes. These will be posted over the coming days. I urge you to refrain from using your “fighting” words until you have heard what they have had to say, thanking you in advance. 

 Remember, that you can’t just go barefoot and have perfect form; you have to work at it. More on this tomorrow. 


Have you made the barefoot transition?