When I was in college I ran quite a bit. My roommate and I would run 5-7 miles a day, not as part of a team or anything, just because we enjoyed it. After graduating I still kept running, but my knees started hurting when I ran. I tried knee braces, etc but nothing seemed to help. I never really looked into surgery. So I just stopped running for about 15-20 years.
Fast forward to a year ago... I got a book:
Actually I got the audio book because I could listen to it in the car going to and from work each day. The author, Christopher McDougall, experienced the same running pain and injuries that I did (and many other people obviously). But he discovered a tribe of people in northern Mexico that are “super runners” – they will go out and run for like a day or two without stopping. 50 miles, 100 miles, whatever. And they don’t get injured. So he went down there to try and figure out what they did differently. The big difference: They don’t wear the “technologically advanced” super-cushioned running shoes that we Americans think we need in order to run. They wear simple sandals, or even nothing at all – barefoot. The whole story is really amazing.
As I was listening to this, I was wondering... Could this be the thing that allows me to start running again? It sounded so crazy to run barefoot. I never went barefoot – even as a child I always preferred to wear shoes. But I tried it.
I found that I could run barefoot and not have knee pain. I couldn’t believe it. The reason behind this is completely logical though. When you wear “typical” running shoes, the heels are very cushioned. So most people run with their heels striking the ground first. That means when you land, there is a force of 2x to 3x your body weight sent directly from your heel, to your knees, to your back – all of those places that are prone to running injuries. And that jarring force happens hundreds of times over the course of a run.
When you run barefoot, your form is really forced to change. Without the artificial cushioning on your feet, you deliberately don’t heel-strike because it would hurt. Instead, you land on the balls of your feet (forefoot strike) or maybe a little further back (mid foot strike). This way, your ankles are able to absorb a lot of that force and it’s much less shocking to your knees.
So, last January, I got some advice from some veteran barefoot runners and started running barefoot (on sidewalks). Key point: you have to start out very slowly, and progress very slowly because this type of running uses different muscles (calves will be sore for a while). Never increase distance or time more than 10% per week.
Side note: most people’s first concern is “what about stepping on broken glass?” – it is a way overblown concern that never causes a problem. Hardly ever see it, and if you do, just run around it. No big deal.
For me, I wanted the benefit of running barefoot, but with a bit of protection on my feet so I wouldn’t have to worry about stepping on small stones, nuts, etc. I decided to get the Vibram Five Fingers shoes. They are “sort of” like running barefoot. However, everyone I talked to said to start out actually running barefoot and make the transition later. So, I set a goal that I wanted to be able to run a mile twice in a week completely barefoot before I bought those shoes. I did that, and then I got the Vibrams.
This is what has allowed me to run for the past year with virtually no knee pain at all. My daughter and I just ran the Gasparilla Distance Class 15k, and I am planning to do my first half marathon this year.
I have found that the Vibrams become uncomfortable for me for the longer distances however. So, I made the transition to huaraches (basically a hard rubber-type sole with laces to hold them on your feet). I got mine from Invisible Shoes, soon to be known as Xero Shoes (www.xeroshoes.com). This is how I will run from now on.
As you can probably tell, I am pretty excited about being able to run again. I would not say that barefoot or minimalist running is for everyone, but it sure has worked well for me.
About the Author
Scott Johnson lives with his wife and daughter in Safety Harbor, Florida, where you might see him out running before the sun comes up. Known locally as "The Computer Tutor", Scott does computer repairs and upgrades, as well as personal computer instruction. He can be reached through his website, www.ComputerTutorFlorida.com.