Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why Am I Running Barefoot?

In the last three weeks following my decision to bare my feet I've had a lot of people ask me "Why aren't you wearing shoes anymore?" and "What's with the barefoot thing?” In as few words as possible I try to explain to them my reasoning while not sounding completely crazy… and I'm pretty sure I fail at the latter part. Honestly, that's fine with me! Let me explain why...

As a child I had the flattest most overpronated feet that anyone in my family had ever seen. Out of concern for my future health, when I was 8 years old my parents took me to see a podiatrist. He took a look at my feet and made some comments about them looking like a 40 year olds by the time I would turn 18, then promptly took a cast of my feet and had orthotics made. That was the beginning of 24 years wearing expensive orthotics and “proper” shoes. (If you did your math right you’ll find that I’m 32 now.) Guess what, when I was 18 I went to a new podiatrist and guess what he said… “Wow, your feet look like the feet of a 40 year old who has REALLY bad feet!” I’m not joking; those really were his words. I’ll also never forget the first time I ran with my orthotics in third grade and one of them shifted under my foot mid-stride. When I planted that foot my heel came down on the edge of the heel cup of the orthotic and almost sent me to my knees in agony. Little did I know at the time, that was just the beginning of years of frustration, pain and difficulty with my feet.

I sporadically participated in sports throughout school and I remember two common themes. One, I wasn’t very good at any of them! Something about being gangly and uncoordinated just didn’t seem to work bode well for me. Secondly, I don’t remember participating in a single sport where my feet, ankles, and sometimes knees didn’t hurt. I tried cross-country running one year and only made it two weeks in before I realized that it was NOT going to work for me. I cross-country skied through high school and I will never forget the hours of intense burning in my arches from cramming my pancake feet into those ridiculously narrow little boots.  My last job as an operator at an oil refinery forced me to wear steel-toed boots walking around on a concrete slab for 12-hour shifts. My feet were NOT happy. I’m not sure how many visits I made to our Jacuzzi tub after a full days work, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the therapy that it provided me.

Just three months ago my family and I moved from Alaska to Michigan, leaving my job behind in pursuit of further education; I’m attending Moody Bible Institute full time pursuing a B.S. in Biblical Studies. With the move and lack of a job I really didn’t want to be spending a bunch of money on shoes and new orthotics both of which were due for replacement. For my birthday last month I got a new pair of running shoes from my darling mother. I tried them on and realized that they weren’t going to work with my orthotics so back to Amazon they went. This began my search for a new pair of motion control shoes. I spent hours scouring reviews online and reading about flat feet and overpronation; everything was pointing toward the typical stiff pylon motion control shoes, until I ran across one person that wrote a review saying that such-and-such a shoe was wonderful until they went barefoot and it eliminated their need for orthotics and shoes altogether. I’ll admit I was very skeptical but was just curious enough to research it a little more. It was kind of like getting hooked on a late night infomercial. You know that the product seems too good to be true and must be a piece of junk but for some reason you can’t manage to shut the TV off…

I eventually found the Runner’s World Barefoot Forums and was blown away by the stories people were sharing. I kept looking for the failure stories like, “I tried it and my feet turned to hamburgers and have never felt so bad…” but I couldn’t really find any negative comments The only common problem was people doing too much to soon and getting REALLY sore and working up a few blisters. What I did find was a bunch of stories of people who had similar histories to me (orthotics for years with ankle, knee and hip pain) who had shed their shoes and as a result grew arches! If you spend any time reading testimonials of barefoot runners you’ll see some common trends: “My feet don’t hurt any more!” “I don’t have flat feet any more!” “My knee pain is gone!” “I don’t overpronate as bad as I used to!” “Running is fun again!”

Below is a snippet from Wikipedia that I found interesting.
  • A 1987 study by Steven Robbins and Adel Hanna analyzed how the longitudinal (medial) arch of 17 habitually shod runners changed when they trained barefoot over a period of 4 months. It was found that the longitudinal arch decreased in length by an average of 4.7mm. The researchers contend this change is due to activation of foot musculature when barefoot that is usually inactive when shod. They maintain that foot musculature allows the foot to dampen impact and postulate that this adaptation may remove stress from the plantar fascia.
This article indicates that these runner’s arches shortened almost ¼” toe-to-heel in 4 months because their feet got stronger and their arches rose, returning to their natural state.

As I read more it dawned on me, what do I have to loose? I mean really? I'm not going to do irreversible damage to my body by dropping shoes for a summer. But, if I see similar results to those I’ve read about, my quality of life could permanently change for the better in a dramatic way! I know that this is a lengthy explanation but if you were curious hopefully it makes sense now. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter to me if a person agrees with me or not, I know how my body feels today as compared to three weeks ago and there’s no comparison. In that short amount of time I’ve experienced pain free sports and extended pain free walking for the first time in my adult life. My feet are getting stronger, my calves are getting bigger and more toned, and I don’t have to worry about always having my orthotics with me! In fact, just yesterday I went for the first “fun” run of my life! It was only a ½ mile but pain free and effortless feeling! That sounds a lot better than continuing to avoid family walks because my ankles hurt too much. So if you see me out and about now you know why I'm either barefoot or in my Invisible Shoes. Feel free to say something, everyone else does...


  1. Good story. I started in with VFFs because they looked cool and because something (I wish I could remember what) had gotten me started thinking about going barefoot. My problem had been plantar fasciitis and my podiatrist had sold me inserts that actually made everything worse. I threw those away and was trying to soldier through the PF pain when I got started on the barefoot idea much the same way you did. I was reading everything I could about it and then just had to get the shoes.

    I bought mine on August 1, 2008 and I haven't run in shoes other than VFFs since.

    I'm not completely pain free. I have a totally bum ankle from a repeated injury years ago and I'm not as young as I once was, but the pain I have is the ache of working out instead of the pain of having my body not work properly.

    One thing I wish I had done was to take pictures of my feet at regular intervals. I know that there has been a change but I don't have a before picture to compare it to.

    Keep writing. I'll keep reading.

  2. Thanks Brian! I'm really grateful to the peeps at the Runners World Barefoot forums for giving me some direction and the idea to document my progress. I'll see if I can keep this blog going, I'm not sure how many times I've started something like this with good intentions and fizzled out... :) I think the difference with this one is that I hope to actually be able to give some "hard" evidence to those who were in my position three weeks ago. I'm thinking that'll be enough motivation to keep on it.