Saturday, June 12, 2010

Barefoot Running

Today I'm going to talk about something different than singing.  I'm going to talk about my first foray into running barefoot.

I think I wrote about my desire to try barefoot running in this blog at another time ("Singing With an Orchestra Running Barefoot").  I explained my belief that fitness and singing go hand-in-hand -- especially for the aging singer -- and how my first plan to get back into running -- something I loved many years ago -- ended in a big disappointing crash when I developed a debilitating case of plantar fasciitis.

When I was younger, I never had any running injuries.  I ran miles and miles and was even blessed enough never to have encountered shin splints or any of the other bad running injuries.  I wasn't very fast -- so maybe that was part of the reason, because I didn't push myself enough to get injuries -- but it also could be because I was young and involved in other activities and quite naturally flexible.

Many years have passed, and many an inactive person learns that these qualities of youth are short-lived and everything -- especially if one hasn't been paying attention during a long period of time -- gets stiff, creaky and more difficult.

Anyway, after several months of trying to bargain with the injury -- i.e. running more slowly, running less frequently, running shorter distance -- I finally admitted that in order to recover from my case of plantar fasciitis, I was going to have to just stop running for a while.  This was very disappointing because I was so happy that I finally had taken the bull by the horns and committed myself to getting back out there, and was never more motivated than I had been in years, and the injury just threw me for a loop.

At first, I read all the conventional information about this type of injury and was self-treating with all that conventional wisdom.  It has taken about six months to get my foot 90% better from this injury.  For such a long time,  I had terrible stabbing pain when taking that first twenty steps in the morning -- or when I had to stand for long periods of time -- or even walk the 15 minutes from the bus stop to my voice lesson, stand for an hour singing, and then walk back.  I felt very demoralized by this pain, and also very frustrated that it kept me from proceeding with my plans to be a runner again -- or even a walker for that matter.

But due to having previously read a book (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Race by Christopher McDougall) that had been recommended on a friend's blog, I had been made aware that there are theories out there about our running shoes actually contributing to these type of injuries -- injuries like plantar fasciitis.  In Born to Run, I read that we change our running form when we run in the supportive running shoes in such a way as to make us more susceptible to the gamut of potential running injuries.

This kind of made sense to me, and I wondered if some of that information would help my plantar fasciitis.

And so I began to read about barefoot running.  I began to want to try it, but I was worried about a lot of things.  One thing I was worried about was my weight.  I thought my feet might not be able to support all my weight, and that I would have to lose at least 40 pounds before I would even think of trying barefoot running. That meant I would have to wait quite a while.  I also thought that I didn't dare try this while my plantar fasciits was still unresolved.

But then I read on one of the barefoot running blogs that overweight people could build the strength in their feet to support their bodies, but that they had to start slowly and build the strength up carefully.

And I also read that running barefoot had actually proved a cure for plantar fasciitis in some barefoot runners.  This was all anecdotal, but very interesting.

But still -- the sidewalks are dirty -- and, well -- I am just so genteel (lol) -- so I couldn't picture running out there where I walk my dog and see all the other doggies walking around, and see all the cigarette smokers flicking their ashes, and see all the people (ugh) spitting on the sidewalk.

So, as a compromise, I bought a pair of minimalist running shoes (Vibram Five Fingers KSOs) and began to acclimate my feet to walking about without all the cushioning, support, framework and motion control they were accustomed to having from my state-of-the-art, scientifically-formulated running shoes.

For the past couple of months, I have been loving the Vibrams and my feet have been growing gradually stronger in them and I have worked up to being able to run a mile in them.

But then a book came out.  A new book about barefoot running:  Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth, by Michael Sanlder. My pre-ordered copy arrived -- and -- I found out that the author of the book was holding a free barefoot running clinic in Central Park.

I attended the running clinic last week.  We did arch-strengthening exercise. We ran on the grass and it felt so good. Amazingly good.  I asked him some questions about barefoot running for people who were overweight and got some tips.  But I still wasn't quite ready to get out there on the sidewalk with my bare feet.

Until today.  I was reading once again about how one can do too much too soon running in minimalist shoes ("The Running Barefoot Blog: Beginning"), and that the real technique is learned in completely bare feet.

So ... I did it.  I just went outside, walked up to the Boulevard, and ran about a quarter of a mile in my bare feet.  It felt just wonderful.  All the sensations from childhood came rushing back to me. I had a great feeling of everything being right.

One of the most amazing aspects of this switch to minimally supportive shoes and bare foot work,  is that my plantar fasciitis has gone away almost completely.  It definitely has not got a spec worse. I find this odd because much of the conventional medical advice about plantar fasciitis cautions a person suffering with PF to avoid going barefoot as much as possible.  Could it be that the very act of going bare foot will be the right thing to strengthen the foot and help ease the stress that causes the injury?

I don't have answers at all.  I find all the information about running bare foot very intriguing and I'm willing to cautiously experiment with it.  My very beginning into experimenting with it are going very well so I am going to continue.  My feet feel strong and happy, and even my knee and hip joints feel way less stress.  But, as in all things, I will keep my finger on the pulse of the information out there, and if I should learn of anything that would cause me to think this would be harmful in any way I would cease.  But my gut is telling me that all this is very good.

I really do plan to continue to use my minimalist shoes, but there is definitely going to be time spent getting my form down right in bare feet.
If you liked this post, check out the new blog I made later on:  Barefoot Fresca
Also the follow up post:  "More Barefoot Running"


  1. Dear Advocational Singer,
    This is a quite interesting post. I am also a singer/big time runner. I used to exclusively run but then gradually incorporated swimming and biking in the equation because I felt my body and mind would benefit from the cross-training. My coaches have always promoted bare-feet running as the best way to learn the correct form. With no shoes, you naturally run with the ball of the foot first, with little impact on the heel. But I've always wanted to go further and run a whole race barefoot. You've convinced me: my next purchase will be the Vibram shoes!

  2. Gige, It's good to hear from you, and I'm relieved to hear that you "get" why I'm doing this. There's a lot of controversy out there about the barefoot running thing, but I'm using it for cross-training type purposes. (At least that's what my plans are for the moment; one never knows where a new concept will lead!)

    As a singer and serious runner, you may find my friend's blog, The Athletic Performer, a great one to follow:

  3. Thanks for sharing such a great post! More power!

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