Born to Run, Christopher McDougall's best seller on long distance athletes, I became convinced that I needed to make the switch to a barefoot style of running. Based on everything I've read the human body has evolved over millions of years to be optimized for running, yet it's only in the last 40 or so years that we've had heavily padded running shoes and the number of injuries caused by using them has skyrocketed. I won't delve into the details here, encouraging you to either pick up McDougall's book or Google yourself up some background on it.
The bottom line is that if you want to go with a more natural barefoot running style you have a few choices. Since the bottom of my feet are about as tough as the South bound end of a North bound baby, actually running in bare feet didn't seem reasonable. I've done it on the beach in soft sand but that's pretty much where I draw the line. The first thing I did was lace up my heavily padded Nike running shoes and try running on the balls of my feet.
It turns out running "on your toes" is actually pretty tough to do in standard issue running shoes. The padding insulates you so much that your foot doesn't naturally want to land on the ball of your foot and I found myself really having to focus, lest I revert back to running on my heels and rolling forward. Turns out that undoing 30+ years of heel-strike running wouldn't just happen automatically. I ran a very flat 3.1 miles that way at an 8:37 pace (normally I run at about an 8:10 pace while exercising).
My calf muscles were quite tight afterwards, something I never experienced after running. Usually it was my knees that were a bit sore and they were fine. As a hardcore cyclist—last year was 4,500+ miles at an 18.5mph average—my calf muscles are well conditioned. Or so I thought. The barefoot style was pulling on them in a different way and I found that after my first run they were quite sore in that over-stressed muscle kind of way. I probably should have stretched them more after my run but since I didn't the next couple days involved me walking a bit gingerly. Fortunately it had no impact on my cycling.
Enter the Vibram FiveFingers
I decided that if I was going to switch to the barefoot style I may as well use a "shoe" optimized for that and went with the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila. I use shoe in quotes because the Vibrams hardly look like a shoe, especially when mounted on your feet. Because they are form fitting the appearance at first glance is that your feet are painted the color of the shoe. They provide a nominal level of impact insulation, more to protect your skin from small sharp objects (glass) and provide excellent gripping on smooth surfaces.
I wear a size 10 1/2 US shoe and though the size charts I've seen would recommend anywhere from a 45 to a 46 (EU style sizing) I chose a 44 because that's the size cycling shoe I use. Putting on a Vibram takes a little getting used to - you can't just jam your foot in. Instead you need to inch your toes into their respective sockets.
Initially wearing the Vibrams was an odd feeling. I wasn't used to having material between each of my toes. It's not an unpleasant experience, just a bit odd initially. The material for the shoes are highly breathable so it doesn't feel like you're really wearing anything. Walking around in them is also interesting because it's just a tiny step above being in bare feet; you "feel" the undulations in the ground you are walking on and your foot conforms to different terrain.
The reaction you get while wearing Vibrams will vary. People you don't know will ask you about them: "What ARE those?", "How do they feel?" and "Does it hurt to run"? If you have children like I do in their late teens and early twenties, they will be completely horrified. "Dad, PLEASE don't go out in public with those on your feet"! Ah kids. I remember the battles over appropriate clothing with my daughters when they were young teenagers and this is my mid-life revenge.
That First Run
As I set out on my first run in the Vibrams I noticed something immediately: my foot automatically adjusted to running in the barefoot style. I didn't have to focus on my running like I did when I was wearing my Nikes. As I extended my leg forward my foot just dipped down to land gently on the pads of my foot, my foot spread out as my heel came down a microsecond later. It was a solid but gentle impact. If you are used to running in padded running shoes with your heel striking first and rolling forward, try running barefoot on a hard surface; your feet automatically adjust to the terrain and the ball of your foot will absorb the impact. This is exactly what happened when I ran in the Vibrams.
Another thing I noticed immediately was that my feet felt very light. It's hard to appreciate how much running shoes add to your in-motion weight until you discard them and run with something like the Vibrams. I immediately felt much faster and had to back off on my pace because I didn't want to become gassed a mile into what was supposed to be a 3 mile break-in run.
I ran almost exclusively on asphalt in a very flat area and everything was going great. At one point I had to jump over to a grassy shoulder to let traffic by and the transition was very easy; even though there was an angle to the surface I had no problem with keeping stable. The wide bottom of my running shoes normally had a difficult time on those types of surfaces and sometimes my foot would roll awkwardly if it caught an edge. With the Vibrams my foot just conformed to the surface area, wrapping around whatever I stepped on.
At one point I tried running on a gravel pathway next to the road to see how it felt. The marble sized rocks felt a little odd under my Vibrams—and large rocks were uncomfortable for my sensitive feet—but overall it was actually quite easy. I didn't feel any discomfort until the last 1/4 mile of my run.
Let the Pain Begin
With just a couple blocks left in my run I started to feel some discomfort on the inside edges of my feet just forward of my arch. It started out as a mild pinching sensation and rapidly started to hurt more and more, especially in my right foot. My wife will tell you that I'm one of the more stubborn people on the planet so rather than just stop and walk the last 1/4 mile I kept running as planned. As I rounded the last corner and began to taper off, I was favoring my right foot pretty heavily and limping slightly. I sat down on my deck and extracted my feet from the Vibrams, which is nearly as challenging as putting them on. You don't slip your foot out as much as you peel them off.
I had developed two small and painful blisters on each of my feet in nearly identical locations, though they had broken open on my right foot. The problem was where the base of the strap was mounted to the outside of the Vibram. When I put on the Vibrams I synched down that strap very tightly, much like I do to my cycling shoes. I believe that I had it so tight that it was pulling the strap base into my baby-like skin and that's what caused the abrasion.
The second thing I noticed was that my calf muscles were again on fire. I hadn't fully recovered from my earlier attempt at the barefoot style and was now paying the price. I sat down and massaged my calf muscles heavily and that helped but it turned out that pain would be with me for a couple of days.
I managed to complete the 2.9 miles in 24:48 with an 8:32 / mile average. This was still down from my normal speed but the last painful 1/4 mile was run at a pretty slow pace.
Three Days Later - Another Run
After three days and several bike rides to help my legs recover I felt I was ready to give the Vibrams a try again on that same 2.9 mile course. This time I had two pretty heavy blister bandages sealing up my foot in the injured area, the strap was pulled on pretty lightly and I set off at what I felt was a pretty easy pace. The bandages helped my feet tremendously and I felt no discomfort from them. My legs also felt very strong and I tried to maintain a pace that could have gone for 10 miles pretty easily.
I kept waiting for the pain to come to my feet but it never did - the blister bandages were working. I returned home within 23:55 for an 8:14 pace, which is very close to my normal time, yet I was not pushing all that hard. My calf muscles were again sore but this time I spent 10 minutes stretching them out after the run. A few hours later they felt fine.
Running in Vibrams is a very interesting experience. If I look beyond the blistering my feet experienced (something that should go away over time) and the muscle adjustment (already made to a degree), I feel like my running experience has been completely revitalized. My knees are not sore at all and my heels feel great. Instead of feeling like I'm jamming my legs into the pavement I feel like I'm working my muscles as they were designed to operate. Frankly I can't wait to get out on the road in them tomorrow; the 5K and 10K races I run during the summer start soon and I'm interested to see if this will help me improve on the personal records I set last year.
Special thanks to Greg and Reid—Twitter friends and fellow runners—for giving me feedback on the Vibrams. Also, please note that I'm including links to Born to Run and the Bikila's through my Amazon referral account - if you pick them up from there I get referral credit.