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Running Again, Bare Essentials

Running Man. Photo by Nigel Homer.
So being the person that I am who doesn't just give up without a fight, I decided to try running again. After a bout of developing tendonitis on my right patellar tendon and my right achilles tendon (and having a weird clicking noise from my right ankle when I turn it a certain way) and five visits to my physiotherapist, I was determined to try something new with the way I run. This time I'm taking it slow but also I'm now running with my bare essentials. Yes folks, I tried running with just my bare feet. In this post I reflect on what the experience was like and what I've learned about myself and potentially how my body works.

I know what you might be thinking: what the heck was I thinking running barefoot, am I crazy?! I may very well be crazy but that's beside the point. Let's get this out of the way: I have a reason.

Actually I have two reasons. First reason is that I wanted to see whether there's some truth to what people who have already been running barefoot for a while already have been saying. There's an interesting article about barefoot running recently from the New York Times about "The Once and Future Way to Run". In that article, the author makes some salient points about the truth to some of the claims people are making about running shoes.

The only way to halt the running-injury epidemic, it seems, is to find a simple, foolproof method to relearn what the Tarahumara never forgot. A one best way to the one best way.
Apparently the Tarahumara still run barefoot after all those generations -- even those that are well into their geriatric years -- without having serious injuries. And the person who wrote the article is Christopher McDougal who's written a book on the subject of barefoot running called "Born to Run". Don't worry, I'm not linking to the book to endorse it -- I'm just in the process of buying the book from Amazon, which I intend to read with open eyes (and yes, bare feet), maybe the endorsement will come later.

Blinky Bill by peacay.
Anyway, so after reading that article which asserts that the information we've been fed about the effectiveness of shoes is largely unfounded -- or at least that the research results have been dodgy at best. I'm not suggesting that we've all been brainwashed that we actually do need shoes without merit. I wouldn't imaging walking all day without shoes on the hot asphalt and during the winters when everything is virtually frozen in some countries. I wouldn't wish that to anybody who can actually afford to buy shoes.

I then had this urge to see whether the findings of the author of the article and what others who have been doing it already are saying. After the 5 visits to the physiotherapist (who fixed me up good) I was suddenly feeling more confident that I can actually try running again. And since I don't want to get injured again, I tried this "natural" way of running and see if that's going to do it for me.

So first, here's the crazy bit: all my life I've been trained to run with shoes. I've never considered running barefoot and I've never trained to run barefoot. I thought people who did run barefoot were crazy. I thought if I was going to run again and risk potential permanent injury to my knees, ankles, and feet I might as well give this wacky idea a shot -- the worst that can possibly happen is that I fail miserably and I'd be injured again anyway.

The second reason was inspiration. After watching the Manny Pacquiao fight (which I really thought he shouldn't have won) I thought there's no better time to try running again with my adrenaline up and with practically nothing to do in a nice Sunday afternoon.

The inspiration came when I was quietly sitting on the couch while my wife and daughter were taking their afternoon naps. I wanted to get in shape but I wanted to not disturb them by doing the recommended strengthening exercises for my calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes -- and panting heavily while doing non-running aerobic exercises (jumping jacks, indoor skips, etc.). So there I was being the couch potato that I didn't want to be. That got me out of the house.

I then mustered all my courage and bravery to go out with my flip-flops, walk over to the park, and stretch and warm up there. Then I took off my flip-flops and started running.


I thought to myself: Right. Left. Right. Left. Okay, now stop thinking and looking at your feet, just look to where you're going, and just put one foot after the other. Don't jump, just let yourself lean a little forward, and let the legs do the running. Oh, nice game of soccer. Oh, nice tree. Oh nice... what, wait, I'm not thinking about running! But... I'm... running without shoes!

At this point I'm trying to asses myself but I think my brain switched to a really primitive mode. I felt like I was chasing prey. My body was suddenly just naturally compensating. My knees bent to support my weight, my calves were not stressing, my ankles were absorbing and moving with my foot, and my heels were not stomping on the ground. It wasn't until I had run two laps around the soccer field, looked at my tracking app, and found that I had already run 1km without stopping -- and without feeling pain in my knees and my calves!

Now at this time my heart was actually beating really hard -- it had been a while since I ran, and I wasn't really fit enough to go one full kilometer without stopping. What surprised me the most was that my feet didn't hurt -- not one bit. I thought it would be really sore and painful with the "abuse" it would get from having no cushioning from the ground (granted that this was grassy grounds). So then I tried to push it a little farther. I then resolved to run on the paved walkways and asphalt.

That took a little more courage. After pacing a bit to catch my breath and to let my heart rate stabilize I then resolved to walk on the pavement. Walking on the pavement was a different experience. It felt so foreign that it was hard to not be conscious of how it felt on my feet. I felt like this wasn't as natural as running on the grassy field and I was having second thoughts on trying my luck at running on concrete.

Once I felt like taking that leap of faith and reminding myself of why I was doing this at all (see "run for your life") I then just did it. My left and right brain were just at conflict. Every previous experience I had with running told me that running without cushioning on my feet's soles would be a bad idea. I was consciously weighing the pro's and con's of what I was doing. At the same time my instincts were taking over and apparently I hadn't forgotten the absolute basics of running, and that my brain knew exactly what to do and what not to do to keep myself moving.

There's something very liberating about going back to basics and just letting your body take over. Now the factor that's deciding whether I stopped running wasn't the pain I was feeling from different body parts -- because I can be honest, there wasn't a lot of pain in any part of my body while I was running. What's deciding whether I stopped were whether I got bored already or whether my lungs and heart can keep up with the physical activity. It was like when I was swimming and training for swimming that the determining factor for my stopping was whether I was tired.

Running without shoes seemed to be a good idea after all.

Enough craziness though, I'm not going to be running the next day. I'll be doing the running every other day until I get to the point where my body get used to the abuse. Then I'll try getting myself another workout that involves less craziness and less challenging of prevailing popular wisdom. I might try getting a bike at some point (most probably after the holidays) and then seeing if I can make the daily commute to the office a lot more healthy.

We'll see soon enough.



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