Shortly after I started running regularly back in 2007 I was “diagnosed” as suffering from serious over-pronation. My visit to the sports medicine doctor had been prompted by significant, painful plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, IT band pain and an occasional soreness in my hip–all classic running maladies. I had also long suffered from painful foot cramps in which my arch would tighten and my big toe would splay awkwardly and painfully inwards. The doctor sent me to a running store for motion-control shoes and to a physical therapist. I was instructed to stretch more, take several days off between runs and ice my knees afterwards. (I never bothered with the recommended orthotics or night boots)
For the next couple years, I believed this to be normal. But having since switched to a more natural stride, forefoot landings and minimal footwear, every single one of those problems is gone.
Summer of 2009, I bought a pair of Nike Free 5.0s (precursor to the Nike Free Run+) to wear as everyday shoes, having fully swallowed Nike’s marketing video:
Stronger feet? That couldn’t hurt.
At first I was indifferent. While I liked how they looked and felt, I wasn’t sure the Nike Frees were anything more than expensive Crocs. But after a few weeks, I noticed my feet were cramping less and rarely hurt in the mornings.
Still, I never tried running in them. I was too invested in my diagnosis and convinced my foot and knee pain would be even worse without my doctor-prescribed, running-store-recommended, $130 motion-control running shoes. I mean, the store analyzed video of me on a treadmill, was that all BS?
After reading Born to Run in Spring of 2010, I finally felt brave enough to try a short run in the Nikes. “Short” turned into a very pleasant 10k. The next day the tops of my feet and the muscles running up the outside of my shins were sore. (Turned out those are a single muscle group, the Extensor digitorum longus.) But sore isn’t pain, and my knees didn’t hurt. A few days later I went out again in my Asics–for what would be the last time.
My original plan had been to alternate between shoes, but that last 8 mile Asics run left my knees hurting for days. I also noticed I was hearing my footfalls through my earbuds. My landings in the Frees were much gentler and nearly silent.
One more run in the Frees and I knew I was done with the Kayanos. The next night I ran 15 miles, my longest run up to that point (by half), and felt absolutely fantastic afterwards–and only mildly sore the next day. All my previous attempts at running anywhere close to 10 miles had ended with IT band tightness, limping and days of residual knee pain.
Something was working, and it was not all in my head.
It’s gotta be the shoes!
In Barefoot Ted’s Google Talk (at about 35:15), he spoke about the idea of products as solutions:
“I realized there was no way in hell that this barefoot running was ever going to become a fad or a hit in the United States unless there was a product… We are so trained, we purchase a solution. We’ve got to have a purchasable solution.”
He’s right, we’re conditioned to believe in the power of products. While I do blame my old motion-control clunkers for inhibiting my form and contributing to knee pain, my success with the Nike Frees was because the shoes got out of my way and let me run more naturally. They helped by not helping.
The Nike Free is a revolutionary product, and a gateway shoe to no shoes at all. After a few months and several hundred miles run in Nike Free 5.0s, including my first ever half-marathon, I stepped down to the flatter, more minimal Nike Free 3.0 and started to mix in some near-barefoot runs in Vibram FiveFingers.
Learning to run near-barefoot was a slow process of rebuilding long-forgotten muscles. For fully 6 months, my calves would be rigid knots for days after a few miles in the FiveFingers. Having spent most of my life in shoes, the muscles and tendons in my feet and lower legs needed quite a bit of time to stretch out and build back up.
While in the middle of this transition, it’s comforting to remember that muscle soreness gets replaced by strength. My aching calves were a promise that someday soon my legs would be even stronger. The encouragement of finding an entire unused muscle group was incentive to keep at it.
With the Nike Free, I became aware of how important shoe flexibility is to foot health. Whenever people asked me about them I’d take one off and curl it up to show how flexible it was. (I did realize how silly this looked) But running in VFFs showed me that a totally-flat, zero-drop heel is every bit as important as sole flexibility, maybe even more so. I’ve since become obsessed with wearing the flattest, most flexible footwear I can find.
Going all the way: Running barefoot
Towards the end of Summer in 2010 I finally took the last step and lost the shoes completely.
It’s difficult to explain how wonderful running barefoot felt, like trying to describe a completely new color or flavor. The quantity of sensory feedback is astonishing and the permanent silly grin can’t be helped. There really is a profound, near-spiritual experience of both human freedom and connection to the Earth.
The promise of extra leg strength proved out. Once my legs adjusted I found myself running further and slightly faster without significant fatigue. My form also improved, the VFFs were masking a lot of skidding and over-reliance on my toes which was immediately apparently–and corrected–barefoot. Despite one significant shoe-related setback (I did too much), I’ve been amazed at how durable and adaptable our feet are. Only two barefoot runs had to be cut short, both of those were because previous, shoe-caused blisters failed and needed covering.
I used to think all that needed to run was a decent pair of shoes. But all I really ever needed was to go outside and just start running.