Some of the readers of this blog may know from following my instagram or other posts that I run barefoot. As originally explained, this arises from a physical constraint. Indeed, I underwent an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction in September 2016. Since then, unfortunately, my knee has taken quite a long time to recover – partly also because I have not been as rigorous as I should have been with exercises to strengthen my knee.
Barefoot running to… resume running!
In the end, after reading some online posts about the benefits of running barefoot for knee pain, I decided to give it a try. After all, my single attempts at running with shoes since my operation saw me stopping as my knee was hurting. Although the knee first felt the impact, past the first two laps (around 500 m), once the knee was warmed up, it became incredibly comfortable to run barefoot.
I took it easy at the start, running for 1/2 hr and not really focusing on time. To my surprise, I was running fast. In fact, running barefoot, you are somehow obliged to run faster if you wish to keep an optimum form. Despite this, at the beginning, there were some small issues, such as blisters and skin abrasion. From online forums, the general opinion is that it indicates bad form rather than anything else. Over time, blisters became something of the past.
Exploring the world barefoot
A logical extension of running barefoot was to start hiking barefoot. Indeed, I had already done several hikes in Hong Kong, with shoes. On the occasion of my trip to Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, I made a barefoot hike in Shoushan national park. While my skin was still tender, the variety of surfaces, and meeting other Taiwanese barefoot hikers was an excellent experience.
I didn’t have much the occasion of running barefoot in Kaohsiung, mainly because I was biking a lot (barefoot, of course) and was traveling across the city to visit the various sites. Nevertheless, on my return to Hong Kong, I continued running barefoot.
On average, I run around 30 to 45 mins, averaging 5 to 6 kms. I managed to run by 8° to 10° C (while cold, as long as you cover up the top, it is fine, but it can be draining).
Barefoot running abroad
Running barefoot on a daily basis is pretty easy for me, as I do it in a park just in front of my condo, where the terrain is pretty much safe and level. In general, barefoot hiking is done on hiking trails, and, as such, always gives rise to comments or interrogations (often positive!). But as I grew in my training and level of proficiency, I was not shy about running barefoot abroad too. My best memory of this was running at 6AM by 12° C in Barcelona on the Paseig de Gracia, the main avenue of Barcelona.
Obviously, at 6 am, not a lot of other people around, so no big deal to face in terms of comments etc.
Running in difficult conditions
Another challenge which I had to face since running barefoot was that the weather quickly changed to winter. Temperatures of 8-10° C were common in Hong Kong, and while the cold is manageable even barefoot, when it gets wet and cold, then it gets tough. Feet and toes in particular tend to get colder with the water, and low-intensity running does not create enough warmth to keep you comfortable. Nevertheless, I managed to run several times with 10° or approaching temperatures. Below, a video of my running in the rain.
Running in the rain has been probably one of the most exhilarating experiences, as it is absolutely lovely to be splashing in the puddles.
The one, most direct benefit for me, has been to be resuming running painlessly, and as a side effect, to be able to strengthen my legs’ muscles. There are a lot of talks of the benefits of “earthing” among the barefooting community, but I don’t believe in these theories. I just do it because a). it allowed me to resume running; b). it is fun and healthy to do.
Running barefoot does demand the use of a different set of muscles and so, your feet and your calves and feet muscles end up dramatically reinforced as a result. The other advantage is that your sense of proprioception also develops and you feel more stable on your feet. Finally, on wet terrain, as recently, I did not slip at all, although I know that with my trail running shoes I would be guaranteed to have a straight fall on some slippery sections (granite pavement).
How to start running barefoot?
Maybe, after reading this article, you wish to start running barefoot too? It can do a lot of good, it can also be discouraging when starting. You will face a lack of understanding from other shod runners, social discomfort (depending on the place), your family may disapprove and finally, it may hurt (a bit!) at the very beginning. The best way is to focus on the positive aspects, namely the increased sensory feedback when walking, then running barefoot. At the beginning, walking on a twig in the park would cause discomfort, now, the feet have adapted to the feeling and just mold around the twig.
It will depend from person to person, but two general advice come out: firstly, to take it easy and not overdo it at the start; secondly, to learn to run forefoot. At the beginning at least, while your running form is not yet perfected, and when you are still learning, you will probably have blisters or higher abrasion of the skin. You must obviously avoid running too frequently or as heavily as before, at least for a period of time. Eventually, you will be able gradually to increase your distance. It must be however said that few people run marathons barefoot, if any. Indeed, the repetitive abrasion on the ground (especially cement) ends up using even the hardest bare feet.
Later, running will become more and more easy. And as you progress, you will not want to look back to the days you ran with shoes.
Where to find more information?
One main reference website is “Run Forefoot“. Written by a neurobiologist, Bretta Riches, it contains a good deal of arguments with scientific backing on the technique of barefoot running. Another main online (and current) resource is the reddit “barefoot running“. This latter forum is more based on practical experience by barefoot runners (although many write about minimal shoes versus “real” barefoot running. Nevertheless, the advice can be useful for novices, and those seeking to learn from the experience of others. Finally, if you are interested in barefoot hiking, the reddit “barefoot hiking” can be also useful (but mostly filled with the accounts of those who did it, like me, rather than advice). My own personal advice is to do at least once or twice the path shod before going for a barefoot hike.
If you did start barefoot running or hiking, drop me a word either in the comments or by mail, I would be glad to hear from your experience!