In Which Jess Experiments With “Barefoot” Running

I think the technical term for my current physical condition is, “jacked up.”  That’s the short story.  Feel free to move along.

Here’s the long story: About a year ago, much like just about everyone else in D.C., I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.  I figured I like toe socks, I like being barefoot, and it would be nice to have a pair of shoes to work in that were mostly like not wearing shoes at all.  They actually worked really well for massage–I knew exactly where my feet were and what they were doing, and wound up paying a lot more attention to my posture.  At the time, I was deep into the BeachBody Insanity DVDs my brother had loaned me, so I wasn’t really thinking of running in them.

I wasn’t–and I’m still not–entirely sure that the notion of barefoot running jives with me.  I can buy into the idea that its probably biomechanically superior to running in traditional sneakers, but I can’t quite get past the idea of what that sort of pounding with no shock absorption must do to joints.

Over the past year, the Vibrams were pretty well road-tested.  They tromped all over multiple cities.  They did plyometrics and resistance training.  They went for a few short walks in the woods (Sprints, for the record, are way too thin-soled to stand up to acorns) and explored Chichen Itza.  No matter how long I wore them or how much walking I did, I felt just fine.  In a lot of cases, my feet felt better than they would have in my usual go-to walking shoes because there hadn’t been anything to rub or cause blisters.

This is important, because its my grounds for believing that, when I bought a pair of Merrell barefoot shoes, maybe I could experiment with running in them.  The Merrells are pretty wonderful.  The insole feels the same as the Five Fingers (and, in fact, is a Vibram sole), and there’s plenty of room in the toe box to spread and wiggle your piggies.  As a bonus, since they look like normal, low profile tennis shoes, they are much less likely to wig out Mexican flea market vendors and my mom.

And so on Tuesday Monday (working on Sundays totally messes with my sense of time and I spend the entire week running a day ahead), knowing that I had spent hours and hours tromping around sidewalks and uneven turf with no ill effects, I decided that I was going to wear the barefoot shoes out for a quick run.

Let me add a few things here.  First, I had done my homework.  I’ve been reading about barefoot running for over a year.  I knew all about the midfoot strike and shorter stride and proper candence and blah blah blah.  Second, I really was only going for a short run.  We’re talking less than a mile and a half.  I tried staying in grass as much as I could because in my imagination, earth must be better for joints than harder surfaces.  When there wasn’t grass, I ran on the asphalt and not concrete because concrete just seems like the most unyielding substance there is.

So I’m running.  And I’m thinking that its kind of nice, and maybe there is something to this whole more natural gait thing after all.  And then, barely out of the parking lot, my left achilles starts hurting.   So I make some adjustments and keep going, and the right achilles starts hurting.  So I make a few more adjustments and decide that maybe I might be okay, except that I’m really missing my nice, cushy Asics and wow, do I overpronate.  I was surprised that my joints didn’t feel pounded, and that in a lot of ways the running seemed more easeful, but I can’t claim that it was every super comfortable.  Everyone I’d spoken with and everything I read talked about a breaking in period, so I let it go.  Circled back home, finally giving up and walking the last handfull of yards, and stretched.  A lot.  Headed out for an outcall (trying to squeeze things like running experiments into found time may be part of the reason why I am late to everything ever), came home, did some laundry…and realized that my calves were really rather unhappy.

By yesterday morning, every time I took a step, my calves quietly wept.  I realized halfway through the day that my hips weren’t feeling so great either, but I didn’t think it was so bad, and figured yoga class would take care of it.  Yoga class didn’t wind up happening on account of there was a crazy random earthquake, so there’s that.

This morning, I got out of bed and could barely stand up or straighten my legs.  My hips are a mess, and this afternoon my back and left hip flexor joined the party.  (The trouble with knowing anatomy is that at times like these, you can identify every little thing that’s hurting you and somehow, that makes it seem bigger and more annoying.)  There is pretty much no position for me to be in that isn’t somehow uncomfortable, and walking down stairs results in my eyes getting really big and my muttering unladylike things.  This is super fun given that my living room in sunken two steps below everything else in the house.

So.  I think I’m back to my original belief that barefoot running is fundamentally Not a Good Idea (and possibly also that running is for suckers, but I’ll probably get over that once I can move properly again).  If I can just get through tomorrow, I intend to address the issue with a highly scientific cocktail of wine and massage, but the odds of getting that far feel dubious………….

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August 2011
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