Thursday, September 13, 2012

Barefoot, baby!

I’m a barefoot runner with a forefoot strike and I attribute the fact that I can not only run but run for long periods of time to this fact.
Never in my life have I ever come close to being able to do what I do now.
Ok, so you are probably thinking that of course it was impossible for me to run before when I tipped the scales at nearly 300 pounds. Yes, my weight certainly didn’t help the situation. But it wasn’t the only reason.
When I was in high school I was quasi-athletic. I played sports year-round. Tennis in the fall, basketball in the winter, and softball then track & field in the spring. I even played soccer one summer. I probably weighed less than I do now. However, I was a mess when it came down to what was happening in my feet and legs.
Due to my fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, shin splits and a bevy of other ongoing ailments I was prescribed custom orthotics. I went to PT for ultrasound treatments multiple times a week. I had to have my feet, ankles and shins taped up before games and practices. I had to go to the trainer’s office to soak in ice after. I wasn’t allowed to run suicides (sprints), laps only. I was a mess but I pushed through it all and played on even though every day was pure torture.
When it came time take our yearly physical fitness test (the President’s Challenge) I could never run that damn mile. I could run for about 400m and then I usually walked the remainder.
So, even at a healthy weight as an active youth I could never run.
These problems continued through adulthood, too. Just four years ago when Paul started running I too was on a quest to get healthy. I wasn’t running but instead walking on the treadmill beside him trying to lose some weight. Unfortunately what ended up happening due to ‘overuse’ and ‘stress’ put me in a walking boot for months. Plus a new pair of custom orthotics, for when I was out of the boot, to be worn at all times. Let me just tell you how uncomfortable those things are. No fun.
Fast forward to February 2011 when I decided that I would get healthy and lose weight and swore to stick to this plan and make a lifestyle change. Wanting to become a runner I decided to start interval training. I was mostly walking but was working up to jogging in short bursts. I went out and bought the best sneakers I could afford. The specialist at the running store recommended a pair for stability to help my over-pronation. They had tons of cushioning and great arch support to help with my flat feet. These babies were supposed to make running pleasurable for me even with all my ailments.
Now, I don’t blame what happened next entirely on the shoes. I think it was a combo of the shoes, how I was running (heel-strike) and the fact that I had no gauge to tell what normal soreness/pain felt like versus injury pain. Running (even in 30 second bursts) hurt. But I thought it was normal pain being that I was a physical mess. It wasn’t. I ended up with a knee injury that made it next to impossible to walk for a few weeks.
Dreams of becoming a runner were shelved.
It wasn’t for me.
Well, at least not then.
I thought that injury was entirely caused by my weight so I figured that when I lost a bulk of my weight I would try again.
When I recovered from my knee injury I took up walking. I walked and walked and walked. That too was painful. I would soak my sore feetsies in a foot bath after every walk. I had to ice my feet, ankles and knees nightly. But I pushed on.
I added in the recumbent bike into my workout because it was far less impact and that really helped me start to lose some weight.
Then I started boxing. Not too much running was involved in that other than some sprints during the workout but still I needed to ice regularly just from being active while on my feet. I was losing weight but really felt hopeless that I would ever feel healthy, fit or even know what life would be like without daily pains.
That was until I had my revelation.
I started attending classes at the Synergy Studio- Nia, Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga and later Journey Dance- all of which were done barefoot. All of which caused me no pain whatsoever. If you don’t know what Nia or Journey Dance are think of a dance class but you are doing it barefoot.
Could that be the answer? Could it be my shoes?
Walking in sneakers= pain, dancing barefoot=pleasure.
So, when I decided to incorporate walking back into my routine (with hopes of one day running) I did so in minimalist shoes.
Guess what? No pain.
And when I started running – forefoot strike not heel strike- guess what? Still no pain.
I should add that you can wear any shoe and forefoot or midfoot strike but it is easier to do so in a minimalist shoe. Traditional running shoes are designed for you to heel strike but you can adapt how you run in them. You could also heel strike in a minimalist shoe but I don’t recommend it. It will hurt.
Anywho, let’s fast forward to June 2012. Two 5Ks under my belt and I am thinking about extending my mileage. I had signed up for a 4-miler, 5-miler and an 8K, and a 10K and had a thought in the back of my mind that I may want to try a half marathon. I thought before I start tacking on the miles I should make sure that I was running correctly. I had learned how to forefoot strike from Paul (who transitioned over to Newtons a few months before he ran the RnR marathon) but I wanted an expert to do a gait analysis. If I was going to run I wanted to do it right. I wanted to take every measure possible to help prevent unnecessary injury.
The gait analysis was awesome. The results were eye-opening and surprising.
Surprise number one – my form was pretty good. I only needed to make 2 minor adjustments; I was too upright so I needed to lean forward (NOT bend at the waist) and I swung my arms too far. To paraphrase No Meat Athlete- visualize dinosaur arms holding butterflies. That’s how you want to keep your arms. Short strides, short arm movements.
Surprise number two- I had a neutral foot with a strong arch. Not only had my foot gotten stronger and my arch muscles became more developed (which also led to me wearing a smaller size shoe) but my over-pronation was corrected! I now had the feet I once dreamt of; feet that allow me to run and do so comfortably.
And it turns out that this foot miracle I experienced was a completely natural occurrence. That’s what should happen when you run the way your body was designed to run.
About 6 months after I started running I picked up Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run”(*see note) and everything in that book told me what I was doing was right.
Weird how my body knew what it needed. Thankfully I came to the realization early on before I even started running because if I hadn’t I fear I wouldn’t have otherwise and I would never have developed this passion for running.
I have since moved from the first pair of minimalist shoes I started running in. Now when I run I do so in my Merrell’s(**see note), my Luna sandals, or barefoot.
These shoes/sandals make it so my foot can feel what is happening underneath it and react quickly. I take short, spring-loaded strides and try to stay as light on my feet as possible. Who would have ever thought that a cushy running shoe designed for stability and support would hurt but running in a pair of sandals or even completely barefoot would feel wonderful?

“If you don't think you were born to run you're not only denying history. You're denying who you are.” ― Christopher McDougall, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
***Warning: feet photos below J***

*If you haven’t read “Born to Run” yet you must do so immediately. Even if you aren’t a runner or don’t like running or whatever, it is a really great book with some amazing stories that I think anyone would enjoy.
**If you have ever thought about running in Vibram Five Fingers but don’t like the idea of the little toe slot thingies then you should think about Merrells (or Luna sandals or New Balance) because they use Vibram soles but don’t have the toe slots.

*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. This post is based solely off of my personal experiences. As with any activity make sure you consult a physician first and practice good habits such as stretching in order to help prevent injuries.*