One year barefoot running and hiking

One year ago, in October 2017, at night, out of sheer despair, I cast aside my flip-flops and set off on my first steps barefoot running. Slightly painful though they were at the beginning, soon, these steps gave way to the elation of being able to run once again, about one year after having undergone an ACL reconstruction. Since then, over one year barefoot running and hiking, I kept pushing the envelope, among others barefoot hiking on Suicide Cliff.

Barefoot hike
Walking barefoot in Shoushan national park

Slow start vs strong start

It is traditional for barefoot running proponents to advocate a slow start, and this probably makes sense for most runners. I must say that since I have lived in Thailand, I generally do walk barefoot at home and use wooden sandals most of the time, otherwise.

When trying to resume running with shoes, the knee patella pain was too present to allow me any form of recovery. As a last resort, I switched to barefooting – and to be quite honest, always wanted to run barefoot.

As such, and rather counter-intuitively, my start was immediately with 1/2 hr runs and 4 to 5 kms each time. Though I was rather out of shape when I started, I did not suffer serious inconveniences when running. At the beginning, and mostly an effect of bad technique, I did have a few blisters. But beyond that, what I did was avoid running every day. I started by running twice to thrice a week, which gave time to the tendons to adapt. My feet, in themselves, did not suffer at all of the barefoot running, on the contrary.

Recently, I acquired a garmin smart watch. This allowed me to identify more precisely my running cadence, and it seems very close to the 180 steps per minute which are the optimal cadence at which barefoot running should be practiced.

Advantages of barefoot running

The advantages of barefoot running, beyond allowing me to get back to the point where I can run even with shoes, are numerous.

I realized when hiking barefoot lately, that my ankles and body muscles have grown stronger and can now ensure stability in all terrain, especially in the mountain. I did not have any injury, except a sensitivity once, to the Achilles tendon, which got solved simply by taking two consecutive days of rest.

barefoot running to Prague Castle
Barefoot running until Prague Castle

Running barefoot also helps gaining in self-confidence as it is something putting you under the spotlight. Only people with a relative confidence in themselves can do this exercise.

Another advantage of barefoot running is the comfort in which you feel even after several hours running/hiking barefoot. You don’t have shoes weighing you down or making your feet sweat.

The cons

Now the most obvious will be that gone are any pretense at passing unseen or discretion. Often people don’t look at the feet, but when they do, you can be guaranteed to see various levels of shock.

Look, for instance, at this video of my latest barefoot hike on Needle Hill:

Barefoot hike on Needle hill

People do tend to get surprised when they see someone walking or running barefoot. Some people may react aggressively, as somehow, the feet seem to have a special place in the human mind.

Sometimes, the problem is with “conviction-based” barefooters who tend to appear as aggressive in enforcing barefooting as Jehovah witnesses at your doorstep.

Your tendons and feet muscle will also be loaded much more than with shoes, and at least at the start, it is important to bear that in mind. Indeed, starting too quick may overstress those body parts and lead to overuse injury as well.

Barefoot run on the way down from Needle Hill



The other factor to bear in mind, is that you are inherently more vulnerable barefoot. As such, you generally run or hike slower (especially hiking in rough terrain). The counterpart to this being , of course, that you hike more leisurely and are more in phase with your environment.

After all, what better experience than being able to remember the feel of the terrain on a hike on top of the view or the general area?

Consistency

A key word in building up your resistance and capacity to run barefoot is to be consistent. Most of us cannot walk barefoot 24/7, so while we wear shoes, our feet lose some of the benefits of barefooting as well as become softer (which is not always a boon when practicing on rough terrain).

In addition, consistency will ensure that your tendons and other body parts remain trained to support the heavier load put on them by barefoot running. As for me, partly because it is fun, partly because it pushes the envelope on personal comfort, I do sometimes take the MTR barefoot after a hike. For example, see this timelapse:


The future

The future is probably not a generalization of barefoot running, but the development of a core of consistent barefooters who will serve as a reminder to the other runners  that barefooting can be good for health. Obviously, in Asian cultures, where some degree of barefooting has always historically existed, acceptation of barefooting is greater than in Western countries.

And then, obviously, there are areas such as San Francisco,  where barefoot running is basically impossible given the dirtiness and disastrous condition of the streets.

Nevertheless, never mind how gross or “painful” this may appear to you, try running or walking barefoot in the street. You will be amazed at the sensations and the incredible benefits this practice can bring. And if you need more references, I created a page solely for collecting references on barefoot walking and running.


First barefoot “race”

So, after training, running and hiking barefoot, I decided to participate to one of Smartone’s (my mobile phone provider) fun races. The race seemed essentially geared around promoting the Apple Iwatch and its benefits for training. Nevertheless, it was a fun occasion of going out and running with Matthew, my HK friend. So, it was a first barefoot race, but “race” between brackets for it was not really a race.

Getting there

The race took place at Diamond Hill, which is just one MTR station from my place. The fun thing is that I have a shortcut to get to the sports ground, which involves some forest trail near my condo. So, I took the trail, and managed to run all the way to Diamond Hill, by which time I was already sweating as hell.

Knowing the forest trails near your home is fun, as they give me a number of shortcuts. I have another shortcut on the same path taking me right up Jat’s Incline, towards Kowloon Peak. This time, it was just to get on time to the sports ground. As I am pretty confident now with going around barefoot, I just ran from my home without shoes or slippers. This allowed me to keep it light and easy.

The Smartone event

For a race organized by a mobile phone company, the facilities they provided were a bit on the spartan side. In the matters of drinks, just one 18 L bottle of water was available.

Runners grouped around
Runners grouped around the meeting point at Diamond Hill

But then, of course, you could borrow an Iwatch and test it. I never saw something more unhandy for fitness. Both, the small screen, the lack of ergonomy and the erratic heart rate measurements were a total put-off.

Now, to the big elephant in the room: no issue at all with me running barefoot. People were just a bit astonished, but as most are runners, they understood the desire to be barefoot and to run barefoot. Some runners even came to enquire about my running barefoot. While on the tracks, I saw at least one other guy training barefoot. So, after the 2010 vogue and crash, now it seems barefoot running is either starting a comeback or keeping the true “believers”.

The race

Anyway, we were not there for the watch, but for the race! Initially scheduled at 19.00, it finally started only at 19.30… Thankfully, our group was the first to depart, and contrary to our fears, it was not a free for all race, it was rather a slow, paced jog. We did a 3.5 kms loop and came back at the starting point. As we were a bit bored with the pace, Matthew and me, we both sprinted to the finish line.

race bracelet
Race bracelet

All in all, a fun initiative and a perfect time together with a friend. Heat and discomfort due to the humidity can be taxing however when running. There was little to no breeze and most of the runners were in the same state as me, drenched with sweat.