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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Running Barefoot? Not Quite...

I've done a large number of posts on various aspects of fitness, many of which can be accessed from the Some Useful Post Series page. In fact, one of the most searched-for post series on this blog is my 100 Pushups in 7 Weeks series, which is also listed on that page. Although I have some definite ideas about fitness, I'm always open to exploring new workout info.

Now that I'm 53, I've become interested in exercises that may eliminate some of the aches and pains from past injuries. For example, if you read the pushup series, you know that a recurring shoulder injury finally kept me from finishing the program. I was in the process of hunting for a workout that might help me heal that once and for all -- I believe I found it, btw -- but got sidetracked by some info I found by accident. The heat prevented me from exploring both of these things at once, so I decided to try the accidental discovery first since it fit in with the running program I was already doing.

As a result, I've made some interesting discoveries about shoes.

I've spent the last three months experimenting with this info. I got it from John Sifferman, who is an NSCA certified personal trainer, among other things. He has a blog called Physical Living that touches on anything and everything about fitness. And while I was checking some of his posts I discovered one he did about running barefoot.

Before you ask... no, I haven't started running barefoot. But this post, The Definitive Guide for Going Barefoot, got my attention because of one simple YouTube video he included. It was made by the New Jersey Sports Medicine and Performance Center, and it was the basis for a Harvard Study. It shows the same runner on the same day, first running in regular running shoes, then running without shoes. The runner was given no other instructions.

The differences are amazing!

The implications of this video are important. If it's correct, then running shoes can actually cause foot and leg problems.

To make things short and sweet, all the padding in running shoes immobilizes the small muscles in your feet which are intended to absorb shock, so they get weak. The design of the shoes changes the way your feet hit the ground, and shocks are passed on through your body to parts that were never meant to deal with them.

And for me, this is critical information. See, I have several foot and leg injuries that have wrecked my exercise programs over the last several years:
  • My left ankle was injured in a freak Tae Kwon Do accident during a school tournament when both my and my opponent's protective padding slipped and I took a hard elbow straight into the soft tissue on the top of my foot. I was unable to play golf for 3 months because I couldn't roll to the outside of my foot during my finish.
  • My right heel was bruised so badly that I could barely put weight on it for over a year, which further weakened it to the point that I have been unable to run without at least occasional pain. This is by far the worst problem because I've had it for several years and the pain can come on when least expected.
  • I have occasional pain in the tendons on the outside of my right knee.
These injuries not only interfered with my running, they interfered with other workout routines as well.

Vibram Five Fingers running shoeYou may have seen some of the funky "shoes" used by some barefoot runners, like the Vibram Five Fingers shoe pictured at left. Personally, I have no intention of spending a fortune for something like that, no matter how good it is. But some further reading (there are several other posts referenced in Sifferman's post) gave me an idea...

You see, since you can't go barefoot all the time, even the enthusiasts agree that so-called "minimal shoes" are a necessity. These are shoes that are as close to going barefoot as you can get while still looking somewhat normal. Again, a lot of these are still funky-looking, but I found at least one option I was very familiar with:

Plain old canvas sneakers

That's right, plain old canvas sneakers like I used to wear as a child. So I decided to experiment with them.

However, you can't just go straight back to "flats" like this. Oh, no. The little muscles in your feet have gotten too weak to handle the drastic change in shock absorption so quickly; you have to ease into wearing them. And that's how the 3-month program got started. I have a neighbor who's a chiropractor who was very interested in my little experiment, because he had come to the conclusion that sneakers were causing some problems he was seeing in his practice but couldn't figure out why.

And now it's been 3 months... and all the pain is gone. Well, I'm still having some stiffness in my right heel, which my chiropractor friend says is because the tendons are having to get stronger, which takes time, but I'm no longer having outright pain. Not only have my foot and leg problems vanished, some stiffness in my hips and lower back that I thought were just age have vanished as well. And as if that wasn't enough, my running times have decreased by 20-25% over that time -- an absolutely unheard-of rate of improvement that has impressed the chiropractor as well as me.

Look, I'm not throwing my padded shoes away. The hardcore barefooters will no doubt claim that our ancestors ran barefoot across rocky mountainsides with no problem... but I'll add that those ancestors never had to stand in one place on that rock 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for years on end. Modern life offers challenges that they never had to deal with. For some of those challenges, padded shoes are a necessity.

But I've decided that they're not good for my everyday running and walking. I'm not a doctor, but I know that pain-free is generally better than pain! So I wanted to pass this on to you guys, just in case some of you are in the same shape I was and thought you had run out of options.

Tomorrow I'll give you the simple program I worked out to help me get used to less-padded shoes, and I'll update this post to add that post's link right here.

BTW... you do realize that Tiger's new golf shoes use this idea too, don't you? Now you know why.


  1. mike,

    you should try the new True Linkswear shoes. i bought a pair at ryan moore's dad's course in spanaway, wa. they were so comfortable that i wore them for a walking 18 that day. and wore them home because they were so comfortable. i now have a second pair, and my regular golf and 'running' shoes are now consigned to a shelf in the garage.

    trues use the same minamalist approach to shoe design. check them out.


    disclaimer: i know this sounds like a testimonial from and infomercial, but i was not given the shoes. i bought both pairs.

  2. They look pretty good, NC, but they're a bit expensive for my tastes right now. I may check them out later on, though -- thanks for the head's-up.

    Personal recommendations are always better than ads. ;-)