Thursday, June 30, 2011

Barefoot Jaymee

Barefoot Jaymee standing on Dean Street at age 3.
I remember running around barefoot a lot as a kid.  In fact, my mother confirms that she had trouble getting shoes on me.  When it was raining outside, I told her I didn't want to wear my shoes because they would just get wet.  When my Dad and Grandpa Joe were out fertilizing the front lawn with chicken shit, I insisted on helping them in my bare feet despite their claims that the fertilizer would make my feet grow to be freakishly big.  I didn't start really loving shoes, for fashion's sake, until I hit my teens.  Even then, I was obsessed with barefoot-esque little flats, though I did adore my Famolare Get Theres.

Since I started running in 2004, I have gone through hundreds of pairs of shoes of various makes and models.  I switch them up all the time.  Dr. Lau asked me once why I did this, and I told him that I just hadn't found a pair that I loved enough to be loyal to.  I have always run in neutral, cushioned shoes and haven't had any trouble that can be clearly blamed on footwear.  When I started getting serious about running fast, I tried various racing flats for the marathon, and eventually landed on Nike Lunaracers.  These were the closest I had come to a shoe I could love. I have raced all distances in them exclusively since they first came out.

I have been fascinated by all of the research, hype, devotion and skepticism that barefoot and minimalist running has generated over the past couple of years.  I read Born to Run and actually quite liked it.  I love seeing the "crazies" on the bike trail padding along in their Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) and the stares from properly shod runners that follow them.  I admit that I bought a pair of the VFFs when I was first bitten by the barefoot bug.  I loved wearing them out in the field, walking through grasslands and squishy soil.  Feeling the various textures of the earth beneath your feet is a wonderful sensation.  Unfortunately, I wasn't sold on the VFF.  My toes never got used to being spread out, and I got tired of people asking if I had the rest of the ape suit to go along with the feet.  I've never worn them for running.

I started seriously considering going "minimalist" more recently as more science has emerged about the benefits of less shoe.  Dr. Ball was the one who spurred me to act on this desire to lighten my shoe by agreeing that the science was pretty clear about the benefits. Ironically, he was one of the first to caution me on making this move after reading my last blog post, telling me I needed to be smart for the next 6 months.  He's right.

I fully recognize the risks of injury associated with making this transition, but I believe those risks are low for me.  First, I am used to going barefoot.  As noted above, I go barefoot and always have whenever possible.  This means my feet are probably relatively strong compared to someone who rarely walks about without shoes.  Second, I have always run in neutral shoes without orthotics or additional support.  I have a nice high arch and easy going feet that seem to get along with whatever shoe I put them in.  Third, I race marathons in a very light shoe and have always walked away feeling great--no issues with my feet or lower legs after even the toughest conditions.

So, I am a good candidate.  Now, why would I take any risk at all?  Well, I think there's a risk associated with staying in the cushiony shoes I have been wearing.  Recent studies comparing impacts to the body of shod versus barefoot running indicate that the body receives less impact without a shoe for a runner accustomed to running barefoot.  This is because the body naturally adjusts to soften the load when there's not a big piece of squishy foam and hard plastic that keeps it from being able to do so.  I'll trust that you'll read all about this from some other source (like this one) and stop there with my explanation.

Shoe changes require a transition period because our bodies become accustomed to the shoes we wear regularly.  My body won't magically adjust my gait to absorb the impacts right off--it needs time to strengthen tendons, ligaments and muscles that I've not used in a long time and adjust my biomechanics accordingly.  Note, I don't plan to run barefoot exclusively, though I will do some barefoot running for recovery and therapeutic purposes (See Camille's blog post about her experience with the therapeutic benefits of barefoot running). And, by barefoot, I mean I will wear some protection on my feet since I don't trust people to not throw glass, nails and tacks in the grass where I'll run.  

To start, I needed new equipment.  I chose the Nike Free Run 2+ as my transitional shoe.  I chose the Merrell Pace Glove, which I call my Vibram one fingers, as my barefoot shoe.  I started wearing both of these on my daily dog walks and out and about back in May.  I did notice that my feet needed some "breaking in" with the one fingers, but they felt awesome almost immediately walking around.
Nike Free Run 2+ = Love

Merrell Pace Glove aka Vibram One Fingers

I then devised a running plan for the Nike Frees to slowly transition out of my Mizuno Waveriders.  I wore the Frees for the first time on a recovery run two weeks ago.  I planned to run only a couple of miles and get a feel for them.  I promised myself, if I felt anything weird, I would turn around and get my Mizunos.  I ran for an hour in the Frees and was in heaven.  They were so amazingly comfortable, and I felt so light on my feet.  I had finally fallen in love with a pair of shoes.  I wanted to wear them every day from then on out, but I knew that was foolish.  The next day, my legs and feet actually felt more recovered than I expected, without any soreness in my feet or calf muscles.  I really expected to feel something in my calf muscles because of the difference in heel to toe drop between my Mizunos and the Frees.  Nothing.  I wore them for 15 miles that first week (20% of my mileage), about 26 miles last week (30%) and will wear them for about 30 miles this week (38%).  Now, when I wear the Mizunos, my feet and legs feel so clumsy and clunky.  I look forward to my runs in the Frees (am I a Nike ad or what?)  By the end of July, I should be doing most of my running in the Frees.

As a next step, I will try out an even lighter and more barefoot version of the Free--the Free 3.0.  I designed my own at, deciding that the added expense of making them cute was worth it since I don't plan to replace the shoes as often as I did my cushioned trainers.  They are actually the Free Run 2+ uppers with the 3.0 footbed--the best of both worlds.  They have a little Effin' J embroidered on the tongue so they won't get confused with someone else's Nike Free Run 2+s with a 3.0 footbed.  I have a feeling I'll like them and will slowly transition into those or might alternate between the Free Run 2+ and the Free 3.0.

I will start doing some barefoot running in my one fingers in about two weeks.  I'll do these on my recovery days, starting with 10 minutes running in a grass field.  I plan to work up to doing this 2 days per week for 30 minutes max each day if I feel like it helps me with recovery and injury prevention.  If not, then I'll just keep wearing my one fingers on my dog walks, getting some strength training benefit for my little peeties.

So, there you have it folks.  I'll keep you updated on my progress.


  1. I'm sure you'll do well - being a bare-foot runner from way back (you're so recognisable in that photo!). Coincidentally, I'm on my 4th pair of Frees. Didn't like the 'Free Run' as much as the original Free (even though it ripped in the back of the shoe). The new Free 2+ looks better though.

    Funny thing about the Free - it becomes more comfortable and 'bare-foot-like' the more miles one runs in them. I can still run in my smashed up originals. They also seem to have just the right amount of midsole so that you don't change your form and pad along - i.e. you can hit the ground as hard as in any other shoe. I'm doing all my running in them now. Have also picked up enough rocks to landscape my front yard ;)

  2. That's great to hear, Ewen. I really like the idea of getting more miles out of my shoes. Always seemed like such a waste to have to replace them every few weeks. I'm curious about how you transitioned since that seems to be the key. Maybe you'll blog about this? Or you could just post your answer here:)

  3. I'm on my second pair of Nike Free Runs 2+. They indeed feel great and are remarkably resilient to higher mileage - I got about 700 miles on the first pair. Unlike you I'd previously always worn shoes with some stability, of which the Frees obviously have none, so for longer mileage than 12 (and for my races) I prefer Newtons. The transition to the Free was pretty quick, within three weeks I was wearing it for all but my once weekly long run.

  4. Jaymee, I used to do barefoot running on a Sydney grass track in the 'old days'. I started by using them on the grass track here... 4k sessions at first then up to 10-12k.

    Pretty soon I was also using them for racing - on the track, then on the road (up to 14k). I haven't tried races longer than that.

    As Mark said, the instability *can* be a problem at first (until ankles etc get stronger), in that it *was* easier to roll an ankle (I never had any serious rolls).

    I alternated with Asics 2150s (for long runs on road and just for a change) for a few years. I now find I prefer the Frees for all my runs. I occasionally do a long run in the Asics - a long run for me is only 16 to 20k by the way!

    I *can* notice a difference between the 1000+ mile ones and the new ones regarding cushioning, but the worn-out ones are still good for running on grass. I can feel stones through the soles of the old ones when running on dirt.

  5. Thanks to you both, Ewen and Mark for posting about your experiences with the Frees. It is certainly encouraging. I hope I'm able to get 700 miles out of mine! And, as you point out Ewen, you can always wear the old ones for trail and grass running.
    I'm impressed that you went from stability shoes to Frees in 3 weeks, Mark, without issues. I have nothing compelling me to transition faster than I am currently except a puppy that seems to prefer chewing on my regular trainers.