Running the Minimalist Road: Worth the Risk?

Alcohol. Politics. Relatives. Ice cream. The common thread? All are best enjoyed in moderation (just kidding, family … I love you all dearly!). Running, on the other hand, is one activity we should feel free to indulge in to the extreme. Maybe not in terms of mileage, speed or intensity, but in terms of foot support – or more precisely – lack of support. Just a year or two ago I would have argued defiantly with the me of today, having been skeptical of both barefoot zealots and advocates of cushy, motion control shoes. It was from this conservative, middle-of-the-road stance that I launched my minimalist experiment, gradually transitioning to lighter, less supportive running shoes, ranging from huaraches to racing flats.

Readers and friends will attest to the fact that this past year has been undoubtedly the most challenging of my fifteen-year running history, strewn with an unwelcome and unprecedented chain of frequent, relentless running injuries. As recent as a month ago, I began to seriously reconsider the tradeoff between the risks and benefits of my attempted transition to minimalism. Sidelined once again, this time from intense calf strain, I picked up Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton‘s book Barefoot Running Step by Step for some inspiration. While I typically avoid promoting specific products or gear, this man is not only the father of barefoot running and a running guru, but also a witty, endearing writer. Reading this book at the nadir of my frustrating recovery generated the perfect storm. Running should be easy, fun and painless; if it is anything else, you’re doing it wrong. My recent runs, in contrast, were filled with with aches, tension and anxiety. While I noticed a definite improvement in my form, some lingering bad habits in conjunction with reduced protection from less shoe left my bones, tendons and muscles dangerously vulnerable. Clearly something had to change.

Desperate, but willing to experiment as always, I ditched the fear that my feet were still weak from injury, ditched my goals of rebuilding my pre-injury marathon-level mileage, and ditched my shoes … my flats, my vibrams, my sandals. Starting at just half a mile, my feet were laden with blisters and my spirit was humbled by my evidently horrible footstrike. Despite having transitioned fully to an otherwise barefoot lifestyle, the layer of foot protection I consistently relied on while running was blocking a source of sensory feedback essential to reap the full benefits of barefoot running.

Although I’ve run bare – or nearly bare – countless times before, these previous efforts had been lacking two critical ingredients: 1) Awareness of my form and 2) Mentality of a novice runner complete with a willingness to progress SLOWLY. With a touch of restraint and patience, lots of intentional relaxation and a boatload of mindfulness, over one month I’ve developed the ability to run four miles completely bare, blister-free and often with an obnoxious grin plastered across my ecstatic face. Once I abandoned the preconception that my feet still weren’t strong or tough enough, the transition was remarkably easy. The secret, I quickly discovered, is first and foremost to relax and run however feels fun and easy. This revelation was aided by several indespensible tips from Ken Bob’s “cheat sheet”, such as bending the knees, landing first on the forefoot followed by the heel and toes, a forward lean that propels you into a falling motion, and steps so light the feet barely kiss the ground. The greatest challenge hasn’t been mastering the technique or covering the mileage; rather, it’s been fighting the inevitable “barefoot running exuberance syndrome”. I’ve addressed this by adhering to the following super-conservative plan (of course, this isn’t ideal for everyone, but is working great for me!):

1. Run at most every other day.
2. Start at 0.5 miles, increasing by no more than 0.2 miles per run.
3. Stop at the first sign of pain, and don’t even think of increasing mileage if the last run wasn’t awesome.

Having followed steps one and two religiously, I have yet to worry about step three.

By venturing beyond the comfort zone of minimalist running, I’m finally seeing the logic behind many of the claims from other barefooters that I had previously dismissed as radical propaganda. Running barefoot doesn’t guarantee correct form or injury-free running, but it does make it a heck of a lot easier. The chronic hip and calf tightness I’ve felt for years literally melts away when my shoes are off.

The sidewalk greeted my feet with this message after my most recent barefoot run.

And best of all, the skills I’m learning bare are translating into easier, healthier, more fun shod running as well. This past month of supplementing my longer shod runs with short barefoot runs has facilitated a successful recovery from months of injury, as I’m learning to run in shoes with the same ease as without them.

So if you’re thinking of exploring minimalist running but are afraid to bare your soles, I urge you to consider … is moderation really worth the risk?

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2 thoughts on “Running the Minimalist Road: Worth the Risk?

  1. I must give some credit to Roy M. Wallack for the writing style.

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