Better, Bolder, and Barefoot

Last spring, I started running. I put on my minimalist shoes -- those are shoes that are more flexible and have less cushioning than most shoes -- and hit the bosque trails. It felt great, but my feet and ankles got really really sore. I had thought it would be easy -- after all, I dance Nia barefoot -- and I assumed my feet and legs were plenty strong. Though I’d seen some sites that explained it’s really best to run barefoot and then add in minimalist shoes, I thought I was special. Since I practiced Nia, I would be able to sense how I was running and sense how my feet were hitting the ground. I read a few books and looked up some sites and watched some videos. I thought -- and this is important, that it’s what I thought -- I was supposed to run on the balls of my feet. That’s what I tried to do. And it hurt, a lot. 

I went from wearing a Merrell “barefoot” shoe to a Vibrams five finger shoe to a Inov-8 minimal heel drop shoe. I tried an Altra (get it? that’s four shoes I bought). Finally, I decided “barefoot” wasn't the way for me to go. I read an article about Newton shoes; they’re supposed to help runners find a midfoot strike instead of a heel strike. I went to the Newton store in Boulder, Colorado, got fitted for a pair, and within a week of running, my pain went away. Though I missed the closeness to the ground that I get when I was running in minimalist shoes, I could run. 

I had a blast running. I was exploring the trails and finding my own limits. I learned how to push myself and run a bit faster. I used Nia to keep me mobile. I used what I've learned from Nia to help me sense my body as I was running so I could maintain good form and a good gait and cadence. I ran my first race. I was planning my next one, though I figured I would take off a few months during the winter. Instead of training, I’d just run, however far and however I liked. No speed work. No tempo runs. I'd play around more on my runs, as I'd done when I first started running, stopping to do push ups or take a picture.

Then, I ignored my own plans, and I got injured. Instead of this rejuvenation period, I decided to push my miles up and train for a half-marathon (13.1 miles). Initially, I felt great. I loved the long runs. Then the pain in my achilles went from dull and something I could ignore to sharp, and something that demanded I pay attention before it got worse. 

One of my biggest mental and emotional blocks was that I think running should be natural, easy, and free, but I didn’t act on that thought. Instead, between finding the right shoes, getting yummy running clothes and socks, going to acupuncture and rolfing, and race fees, I turned running into something difficult and expensive. I became jealous of those who run with ease. They don’t injured. They don’t study books and fuss over shoes. They just head out the door. I felt embarrassed that running was not easier for me. 

I bought two more pairs of shoes and tried four different kinds of special inserts in order to ease the pain of the plantar fasciitis and be able to run. It sounds crazy when I write it, but it didn’t seem crazy at the time. I was sure that there was a shoe that would work for me. I was told the inserts would help. 

I cut down my miles. I cut them down some more. There was a funny pain on the top of my left foot, one that the guys in the running store didn’t know how to explain. The conventional advice was to cut back my miles until everything healed and then cautiously and carefully build up my miles again. The pain, I was told, was due to adding too many miles too soon. 

After a week or so, I didn’t like the way the inserts felt anymore. It felt as if they were pushing into my foot. I was locking up at the ankle. This couldn’t be right. The inserts were good for pain relief, initially, but they didn’t actually help my feet. Think of it this way. If I broke my leg, I’d need a crutch to get around. But if I never gave up the crutches, I’d always need the crutches and my leg wouldn’t get stronger. Inserts are a crutch. They serve a limited purpose. Then, they just get in the way.

The winter and the winter holidays had triggered emotions in me that have long roots. I also was pushing the edges of my abstinence; there are foods I avoid because they trigger disordered eating, and I have been less than totally honest with myself (read: in denial) about my ability to eat those trigger foods without consequences (addictive behaviors around eating). Running is like a savior: my blood sugar stabilizes, my happy hormones sky rocket. Without my long runs, I was feeling bereft, and my other issues got bigger in my face. My adrenaline and stress stayed in on-alert mode, and this led to feeling easily overwhelmed. 

Somewhere in my online searches, I found another idea: take off the shoes. Several runners said they healed bouts of PF and achilles tendonitis by running barefoot. At this point, I was miserable enough to figure, what the heck, I could try it. I went back to the barefoot books and this time when I read that I should run barefoot, not in minimalist shoes, I understood. I got it. Sort of. Maybe it hadn’t worked a year ago because I thought I could skip the whole barefoot part of running barefoot. I thought I could run in flat shoes and it would be the same. 

So on January 27, I headed out in my Vibram Five Fingers. The books all said to go really short, like, 200 yards and then stop. I ran down my street and back again. 

The next day I had the most intense acupuncture session I’ve ever had. The needles, all up and down my calves, caused stabbing pain. I couldn’t wait for the hour to end. I couldn’t relax. 

Four days later, I went for a run, wearing the last pair of shoes I’d bought. I think I was still hoping they’d work. I took off my shoes for part of that run, maybe a quarter mile, maybe less, I don’t know. I liked it. The bike trail is surprisingly smooth. Just as the books promised, if I stepped on a small stone or a sticker, I wouldn’t hit it too hard. I brushed the stickers off. 

I had more acupuncture, and it was better. 

Several books explaining how to start running barefoot said to spend time walking barefoot outside. Five days later, I took Lola for a walk, and found a patch of smooth sand, not too many rocks and stickers, and I took off my shoes. I walked slowly. I could sense when the ground was cold or warm. I felt calmer. Walking felt good. Why had I been running so much? Walking felt natural, rhythmic, whole. Walking settled my nervous system.

I had more acupuncture and then a rolfing session. I began new exercises. If I wanted strong feet, I’d have to work for them. I would have to do special “pick up the towel with your feet” exercises. I spent hours and hours online, researching how to heal and how to strengthen my feet and ankles. I found some stretches that make so much sense. They’re tri-dimensional, which means it’s not just flexion (open and close) in the same plane (up and down). Here’s how I knew they made sense: I did them. I felt them. My whole body said yes. I was beginning to see that I could think through everything, or I could find out what my body liked and didn’t. Thirteen years of Nia practice and I was still needing to be reminded that I learn through the body.

Four days later, I went for another run. The shoes felt terrible. I felt constrained. I ran a five mile loop and for a short time, ran barefoot. I wasn’t quite sure if I had the gait correct. But I liked what I felt. And it felt very, very different. I had been hoping I could run in my shoes for 4 or 5 miles and build up running barefoot in half mile increments. That way, I’d keep up my miles while I prepared my feet gradually to run barefoot. On this run, I realized, I didn’t even want the shoes anymore. Still, I was kind of pissed off about it. I like shoes. I like the way they look. I wanted to run and I wanted to run in shoes, like normal people. 

I would see runners on the bosque and get jealous. I was at the part where it’s difficult work, not difficult like going out for a run is difficult. Difficult like doing PT is difficult. Difficult because not running is difficult, and finding my weaknesses instead of crowing about my strengths is difficult.

I kept studying. This article is brilliant :  For a few days, I stared at the pictures that are showing the differences in gait for walking, running, and sprinting. I get the sense that when I have been running in shoes, I use walking form (heel lead, stride in front of me), even to sprint. Check out the jogging diagrams -- hunched over, compressed, head jutting forward. The running form, in contrast, is totally upright while the sprinting form has a bit of a lean. 

Barefoot running seems to be whole foot while sprinting is ball of foot. Nobody sprints for long. Running for distances on the ball of the foot isn’t going to work. The running form shows tiny steps, right underneath the hips, bent knees. 

There are questions about whether we really were born to run, or whether we were born to out-walk our prey. Running is less efficient than walking. It’s possible we were born to walk and run for a while and sprint every now and then.  Our feet, says this source, were made for climbing and grasping. I do none of that in my life. I don’t hang from monkey bars, either. I sit in a chair a lot, though. I stand around and I rarely squat. 

I went for another short barefoot run. I took a few more barefoot walks. I had more rest days than usual. I stopped putting lotion on my feet so that the skin could dry up and harden. I bought a pair of truly minimalist running shoes, running moccasins with a very thin 2mm Vibram sole. 

I made one last attempt to run in running shoes. They’re beautiful shoes. They are zero drop (no difference in height between the heel and ball). They weigh four ounces. It’s easy to feel the ground beneath me. But I put them on, and my nervous system said, “Hey! I know what these are! These are shoes. And shoes mean hit the heel.” I took off the shoes, and my gait changed, entirely. Running barefoot is not like Nia. Running barefoot is not like walking barefoot around my house. And running barefoot is absolutely not like running with anything on my feet.

I took some advice from Barefoot Bob. He says to bend my knees and to relax. So I ran, and I told myself: relax, relax, relax. I ran right up until the minute that I could feel my feet getting sore, and then I did what all the books advise: I stopped. 

Every day, I massaged my feet and massaged my calves. I still had some plantar and achilles pain, though it was less. My heels were sore. I wanted to believe that barefoot running was possible and still wasn’t sure. I wanted to believe healing was possible, and I still wasn’t sure. Maybe I didn’t want to believe, but I knew I wanted to run.

With a friend, I went out walking in my four ounce shoes. My heels hurt. I took off the shoes, and my feet felt better. I’d been told my feet needed cushioning, and my feet were telling me something else. I apologized to my friend because I was so much slower. We’ve been walking together for several years. We’d go long and fast. Now, I wanted to walk with smaller steps and a slower pace. It just felt better. 

My barefoot gait is very different than when I’m in shoes -- any shoes, even minimalist shoes -- and it has been a very different experience than Nia and walking around my house barefoot. Did I say walking? I meant stomping, stalking, and hurrying. Just two short walks barefoot outside was enough to change my perception of my walking habits. I’d get out of my car in the morning and instead of rushing into work, I’d walk with pleasure. If I were going to the sound system to start the music in Nia, I’d sense I was rushing and I’d stop it. I’d slow down. There was no rush. There’s just the pleasure of walking without stomping. I had to remind myself. I had to speak it, too, telling my class, “Uh oh, I’m rushing, and there’s no rush. Watch me walk slowly.”

Then I had a great, tears-down-my-face moment in Nia class on a Saturday morning. Our focus was keeping our feet underneath us. When I hurry, I tilt my pelvis back and lean my head and chest forward. When I rush, I stiffen up, and I’m not rolling in my hips or releasing my feet. At the end of a nice, sweaty class, we were walking, then walking more slowly, then walking very slowly. My left foot was still sore from Friday’s rolfing session. I sensed my foot. I sensed instability. I sensed a little bit of pain. I realized that some of my issues on the right side of my body are about compensating for the left side.  You’ve had those moments in Nia, those moments of sudden insight that feel profound and helpful and obvious and necessary, all at once? I thought, I love Nia! I love that I have these awarenesses in class. And then I felt slow, delicious tears, gentle tears slowly rolling down my cheeks as I kept walking slowly to the music. There was so much sensation in so little movement, and I was slowed down enough to just be with it.

On February 20th, I went out in my mocs, ran the 1/2 mile to the bike trail, ran two miles barefoot on the smooth trail, and then ran that last 1/2 miles home in my mocs. I was elated. Running for a few miles let me find my gait. I was still wondering if I was doing it right and still telling myself to relax and still experimenting with landing on the ball of my foot or more mid-foot, but during that run, the gait seemed to be evolving. Or, I was discovering it by just letting it be. 

I got home and was walking, barefoot, down the hall of my home when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in the ball of my left foot. It was intense. I couldn’t tell if I was bruised, but what it seemed to me to be was that something was moving back into place. Something was finding its right home. I didn’t know if this were true, but it seemed as good a story as any. I went running two days later, and I made it maybe 200 yards. That was fine. The skin on my feet was sore. My heels were really sore. The ball of my left foot was still sore. Two days later, I went out again. Same thing. I ran maybe a quarter mile and walked maybe a half mile. Enough. 

Enough? Me? It’s never enough. This was. This was enough.

I’d read that a good way to add mileage is to add no more than 10% a week. In addition, after three weeks of adding, it’s good to cut back. So if a runner runs 10 miles one week and 11 the next and then 12, it’s good to go back down to 9 or 10 for a week before running 12 again and building more. That seems hard to do, to hold myself back that way. But here it was, happening quite naturally. I ran a hard run, those two barefoot miles, and my body let me know that the next week, I had to take it easy. There’s no faking it barefoot. 

One book says it can take six months to two years to shift to barefoot running, and I’m starting to get that. It’s about rewiring our brains, not just changing our gait, in part because our feet have so many sensory receptors and they are responsible for so much of our proprioception. 

Now, I can’t stand regular shoes. They feel terrible. Even minimalist shoes feel too tight. I hate arch support. In 30 days, my feet have spread. 

I went for a run last Wednesday, again the 1/2 mile along the prickly trail in my mocs, two miles barefoot, and then the 1/2 mile home. This felt easier and more natural. I wasn’t so sore the next day. My skin felt pretty good. I was looking forward to running again on Friday and wondering if I could do another 3 mile run. I started imagining how I’d add mileage. A friend asked about when I’d race again and suggested a May race. I said, well, I didn’t know and I was taking it one barefoot step at a time, but I’d think about it. I didn’t want to be tied to a goal. I want to keep discovering this.

Thursday was a busy day. I’d planned a walk with my friend and I didn’t want to cancel, even though I felt rushed and I knew I’d overbooked my day. We headed out and I was rushing to keep up with her. I was in a hurry to get back to be on time for Nia that night, though, so I didn’t ask to slow down. I just started walking harder. It felt terrible. I was overstriding and it hurt my heel, plus it just felt wrong to be rushing instead of savoring the walk.  I took off my mocs at one point, and I was walking faster than I wanted, but, by gum, I was going to keep up. That is, until I slammed my toe into a root. And it hurt, a lot. I was so frustrated with myself. I also was late, so I put my mocs back on and ran the last mile home. Then I taught Nia, hopping sometimes, or sitting on the floor to dance.

When I woke the next morning, my toe was still throbbing. It hadn’t been cut much. There are two blood blisters. The worst of it is sensing how my whole body compensates so I don’t put too much pressure on my toe when I’m walking. It feels like a monster walk, contorted and hitched. I have had to slow down my walking even more. Instead of running on Friday, I took a rest day. I'm itching to go run again. What will it be like this next time? What will I discover next?

I’d like to believe that I get it now, though I’m not positive I really totally do. I know what I do get, though: that being barefoot is changing me, not just my feet and not just my running and not even just how I walk around, as huge as that is. The pleasure of my bare feet meeting the ground is changing me.