Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Barefoot (minimalist really…) Running

I recently read the book “Born to Run” about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, and how they KILL 100 mile races running in huarache (i.e., minimalist) sandals.  They blow past the finish line smiling at killer events like the Leadville 100.  The author, Christopher MacDougal not only documents their running prowess, he also presents very good arguments for avoiding expensive shoes showing how we are evolutionarily designed to run barefoot.

Before even finishing the book I ran down to the shoe store in Laramie, and lucky me, they had just gotten in a new shipment of Vibram Five Fingers (VFF’s).  I picked up a shiny new pair of the new Bikila model and left the store with them on.  Mostly, because it took about five minutes to wrestle my toes into them, and I didn’t want to have to do it again.

There are other minimalist shoes out there besides VFF’s; Merrell’s Trail Gloves are getting rave reviews.  Some say that the old Chuck Taylor’s and wrestling shoes will do just as well.

I ran the next day in them, and I thought I was going to have to turn back after about a half mile, but felt really good by the end of the mile and a half run.  My feet were feeling it though.  I continued to up my mileage by about half a mile and culminated in running completely barefoot on a treadmill at the end of the week.

Trying not to be too stupid, I picked up one of the many barefoot running books on the market.  I decided that getting on a plan might help me avoid injury.  I chose “The Barefoot Running Book” by Jason Robillard.  Mostly because it was the shortest book available.  Also, because it was rated the highest on Amazon.  Robillard actually doesn’t run in minimalist shoes much.  He suggest actual barefoot running.  Although I am not against it, I don’t actually see myself doing that, at least not until the weather warms up.


My history:  


I first heard of minimalist running about 9 years ago; Thor-lo socks used to advertise a guy who ran marathons wearing only their socks.  Of course, I thought that was crazy.  When joining the military, I found that my feet were really weak when doing road marches.  A few years after basic training, Nike came out with their “Free” line, and I tried those.  Although way different from the minimalist shoe, it is very minimal, and running in them strengthened my feet.  Now the only problem I have with road marches are blisters…


Still though, I kept buying into the running shoe marketing, looking for the most padding and stability, and the hardest sole for trail running.  I eventually started training myself to run with a heel strike, in order to lengthen my stride length.  I did get faster over 10k and under distances, but the injuries were piling up.  The point of exercise is to make you stronger, not hurt you.




It took me a while to warm up the idea, but after reading about it and a short time trying it, I found it really fits into my exercise philosophy.  I almost never use machines when weight training (save a cable machine).  I believe you can get a better workout using body weight exercises than with even free weights, but I do like the free weights.  Making your body stabilize itself, and using explosive movements makes you stronger, faster and better.  I.E., train like a gymnast.  Barefoot and minimalist running fits into that philosophy perfectly.




Since running barefoot, I have found that I tread lighter.  This is a big switch from a guy who’s running style was once described as “a jackhammer.”  This translates to a more efficient running style.  And less injury.


Running has become fun again.  I don’t really know how to describe it, but the amount of concentration it takes to run like this, makes it like a game.  Not that I didn’t like running before, but it is a lot more fun now.  This alone is priceless.


If you get the VFF’s, you get to wear these funny looking shoes around.  It’s incredible entertaining to sit in class and look at my shoes.  Other people like to look at them too.  Then they want to talk about them.  You get to meet new people.  Lots of fun!


You get to know your body better.  It was amazing how little control I had over my toes.  I realize how much more my toes can contribute to walking and running.  I know the purpose of the arch of my foot now.  I can feel those muscles working.  And getting stronger.




There is a learning curve.  No more heel strikes!  And running too fast, too soon is going to cause injuries.  Your initial mileage will go down.  As will your times…


You have to relearn to run.  It is all on your toes now, baby!!  And your calves will let you know how much you have been neglecting them.


It causes a bit of smugness.  I now feel like I am superior to people that don’t have VFF’s.  Soon I will have to buy things like a single-speed bikes, Macs, telemark skis and hybrid cars…




Right now, I have found that wearing Injinji toe socks makes it much easier.  They give me just that much more padding I need when running.


Walking around in your minimalist shoes as much will help to strengthen your feet and think about how to step.


Running barefoot on the treadmill felt great!  But beware of a very hot belt and blisters.


Where to now…


I love my VFF’s but I will probably be finding other shoes to run in competition.  I can see doing a 5k in them.  This last Sunday, I ran an army PT test in my heavy-ass trail shoes.  But I was really fast, considering it was on an short indoor track and my actual mileage over the last month hasn’t been that high or fast. The training in these shoes has had a definite carry-over into running in traditional shoes.


I am debating what to wear in the Moab Spring AR.  I expect about 5 miles of running.  On one hand, the VFF’s are very light, and I have to pack my running shoes with me while biking.  On the other hand, if my feet aren’t strong enough, for it, it’s gonna suck…  I am leaning towards using Inov-8’s Talon line of trail shoes.


I will keep you updated!


  1. A friend sent me a link to your blog post, as I've been a staunch VFF runner for a year & a half now. :) Just thought I'd post a comment about running distance races in them... I've run 2 half marathons in mine & will be running a 3rd one this weekend in them.

    I had run my first half marathon about 3 months after I started wearing VFFs, but thought I'd better run in my old running shoes for that race. I'd not gone on a long run in them at that point & thought I'd better go with the "safe" shoe.

    5 minutes into the race, I felt like I had cement blocks on my feet! That was the last time I ran in regular running shoes. LOL

  2. h3dakota,

    Good to know. I know a few people who have done marathon length races in them. I have put on my trail runners once since getting my VFF's. And yes they felt like bricks, but I was way fast in them after training in the VFF's.

    I have done 1 trail run in my VFF's and felt great, but my feet hurt more than normal the next day. I think I will do the AR in them, just to see. Plus, I have to carry shoes all the way up to the rappel anyway, so I might as well carry something light, right?