Sunday, October 18, 2009

Barefoot Running: The First Steps in VFF's

My first real run in my VFF’s (Vibram Five Fingers) came after a long day of work in which I wasn’t able to get out for a run. Dark was settling in for the night and I’d finally finished everything that I needed to get done. My legs were restless from having missed their run the last 2 days and I decided to get a quick run in. I hadn’t intended running in my VFF’s again so soon. Even though 2 days before they had proven they could protect my feet, I’d still only run 2 miles barefoot and had a good deal of calf pain and tightness to go with it and I wanted to get at least 3miles in. But after changing for my run I realized I still had my VFF’s on, my legs were feeling good, and decided what the heck, let’s give them a go.
So, on Wednesday September 9th, 2009, I took off on my first VFF run on pavement. Initially I tried to pay close attention to where I was stepping even though it was too dark to really see the road clearly, but quickly gave up trying as I realized the VFF’s were doing a great job protecting my feet. About a mile into my run my calves started to tighten up and get sore again and steadily progressed to painful. I also noticed that the bottoms of my feet were starting to get very hot, especially on the down hills. However, nothing felt like I was really injuring myself so I continued to push on through the growing pain and discomfort.
Halfway through the run I discovered that letting my heel touch the ground helped lessen the amount of calf pain. I’d been running without letting my heel touch on all of my “barefoot” runs but evidently my calves weren’t up to the demands being placed on them. I was pretty sure that heel wasn’t supposed to touch, but figured it would be ok to let it lightly touch for now until I developed a little more strength. The pain in my calves lessened considerably with this change but didn’t let up entirely, but the burning on the bottom of my feet continued. I was sure I was blistering the bottoms of both feet but decided to ignore it and finish the run. I couldn’t let my quest for the truth be sidetracked by a little skin loss.
After my run I got online to look for a little more info on barefoot running. I quickly found some videos on YouTube that I studied carefully. Contrary to my first thinking that correct form meant keeping the heel from touching down at all I was seeing a lot of videos where the runner’s forefoot hit first and then the heel gently touched briefly to the ground. This was a big flaw in what I was doing which I could quickly change.
I also found that the blistering I was confident I had on the bottom of my feet was very minor. The skin was bright red and very irritated but hadn’t fully developed the major blistering I had feared. From watching the videos I figured that part of the problem was that I needed to shorten up my strides a bit more, especially when going down hills.
Even though my first VFF run was full of mistakes, I learned a lot from it and was ready to try again.
Two days later the school that I work with had a number of activities going on one of which was an orienteering exercise. Everything went well with it until the end when we had a couple of kids get lost in the woods. My feet and calves were still bothering me from my run on Wednesday, but I knew the woods better than most of the people on campus and so I set out running through the woods in search of the kids. It was a wet rainy day and I had my VFF’s on as I scrambled along trails, crossed streams, swampy areas, scrabbled up rock formations and just about every type of terrain. The VFF’s were working out great and my legs and feet felt fantastic. We were in touch with the kids via cell phone so I was slowly zeroing in on them. I can only estimate how far I ran based on time and basic knowledge of where I was but I estimate I ran approximately 2.5-3miles while hunting for the kids. Fortunately, the kids found their way to a road and another teacher was able to drive out and get them.
My next run came 5 days later on September 16th. My calves and feet had fully recovered and I was itching to give my VFF’s and “improved” knowledge of barefoot running a go. Never being one to enter into anything cautiously and being confident in my running I increased the distance again. I decided to increase my distance from the previous week by over ½ a mile. The run I planned started with a long downhill which was very steep toward the end. This would really test my new theory on the hotspots on my feet and how to rectify.
I started out on my run with my heels gently touching, my strides shortened and confident I was finally figuring this thing out. By the time I’d gone ¾ a mile and reached the end of the downhill section my calves felt great and my feet were feeling pretty good. I’d still developed a little bit of a hot spot on both feet, but significantly less then the last run and I was confident of no blistering. The rest of the run went without any problems. I finished it feeling great and excited about my progress.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Barefoot Running: The Beginning

After spending the summer reading and hearing about barefoot/forefoot running and finally reading the book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougal, my view of running and running shoes had altered significantly. After all, I can’t think of a single other sport other than distance running where we are taught to use our heels so much. Basketball players, football players, baseball players, wrestlers, sprinters and more are all taught to stay on ball of foot or on toes. Only in distance running do we get away from that. I fully believe that Bill Bowerman thought he was doing the right thing and for many years I’ve believed it, but now, I’m not so sure and I started to get the itch to find out if this really was the way to go.
The barefoot journey officially began for me on Thursday September 3rd, 2009. After I got done with work for the day I went home, got changed, laced up my running shoes and headed out for a run. I ran about ¼ of a mile up to our practice field hockey field, which was all grass and very soft, and took off my running shoes. I meant to start out at a slow jog, but before I had completed one lap of the field I was up to a normal running pace comparable to what I ran in shoes. The grass felt great on my feet and the field provided plenty of cushioning. I did 8 laps around the field for a total of one mile (measured by GPS) and then put my running shoes back on to complete my workout.
I ran another 3.5 miles of trails in my running shoes and was miserable the whole time. The heel of the shoe now seemed to be hard as a rock and continually interfering with my run. The shoes
and orthotics that I had loved for the last several years and credited with saving my running were now being considered an evil. Mentally, I was already becoming a barefoot runner.
Latter in the day I noticed some tightness and minor soreness in my lower legs, but nothing unusual for starting a new workout. My feet felt great and I was raring to try and up the distance. I did have some concern about it, because chronic calf pain and tightness is what drove me into orthotics 8 years ago, but I was fairly optimistic that this was different.
The next day after work I decided to continue my quest. I again laced up my shoes but this time ran 1/3 of a mile to our baseball/softball fields where I again took off my shoes and started to run. Unlike the day before, these fields were a little less grassy, hard in places and had a number of places covered in acorns. I was a little worried how my feet would fair, but decided to give it a go anyway.
About ½ mile into my run my calves started to get real sore, primarily from the run the day before, but despite the surface being a little harder, my feet were feeling great. I stepped on a number of acorns, small rocks, sticks and other objects but my feet handled them well. I pushed through the soreness and completed 2.1 miles and then put my shoes back on and ran about a mile further back to my athletic training room. I don’t mind a little soreness but decided it would be a good idea to treat my legs and feet to a nice ice whirlpool to make sure that it stayed only a little soreness.
I knew that I pushed myself pretty far in the first two days so I decided to take a few days before trying again. And so the next day I took completely off of running to give my legs a little recovery time. Besides, I had a home football scrimmage that Saturday and my time was going to be somewhat limited.
For the scrimmage I put on my shoes, which, other than for running, I hadn’t worn all summer. By the end of the afternoon my feet were in pain. Every summer outside of workouts I wear nothing on my feet except sandals, and only wear those when I have to. Every fall when I go back to work my feet hate me for the first several weeks and this year looked like it was going to be more of the same if I let it. My runs had me somewhat convinced that there was definite credibility to the whole barefoot idea and I decided I’d had enough.
As soon as things were done for the day and I had all of my gear put away I went home and got on the computer. I quickly found the closest place that sold Vibram Five Fingers (VFF), which are a very minimalist shoe that I’d been hearing and reading quite a bit about all summer. They are nothing more than a very thin, flexible rubber sole that is held on with minimal material and allows your feet to function in a more “normal” manner including allowing your toes to be separate and spread out.
I drove over to the nearest store and bought a couple different pairs (KSO and Sprint). I walked out of the store in my sandals, but before I reached my car I changed into my VFF Sprints, which I wore the rest of the day. By the end of the 3 day weekend I was wearing nothing else, except for during my workouts.
That following Monday, which was Labor Day, I decided to give my new VFF’s their first break in run. I put my VFF Sprints on and ran 1/3 of a mile up to our cross country trails. I took a very rocky trail as a short cut up to the cross country trails wanting to give the VFF’s a real test. But, despite the large number of very sharp rocks littering the trail I had no problems running on it. The VFF’s had proven they could protect my feet.
I took the VFF’s off when I got to the trails and put my regular running shoes on and ran for another 3 miles in them not wanting to push my calf muscles which hadn’t fully recovered from Friday’s run. When I came out of the cross country trails I put my VFF’s back on for the run back to my apartment.
I’d now completed my first weekend in my VFF’s, done my first several barefoot runs and was feeling pretty good. Calves were still a bit tight, but no longer sore. Feet were feeling great, and I was optimistic that I was on the right track. I knew I needed a day off, but I couldn’t wait for the next step in the journey.