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Barely running

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney  January 27, 2010 01:00 PM

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Going the distance

Globe correspondent Elizabeth Cooney is writing about the Boston Marathon in the series "Going the Distance," which appears in the Globe's G Health section. She's also training for it, and hopes you'll check in with her along the way.

It was time for the rubber to meet the road.

Maybe you've seen runners wearing next to nothing on their feet. I confess I looked askance at a guy wearing new shoes on Jan. 2 that didn't seem like shoes at all. They seemed more like red gelatin poured around his toes, a thin barrier against the day's icy cold. Of course, he was also wearing shorts. It was snowing. It was 11 degrees. I thought he was nuts.

But when I learned that scientists from Harvard were looking at barefoot runners in the United States and Kenya, it seemed like a good idea to test a pair of "minimal" shoes for myself. Their paper appears today in Nature and the Globe's Carolyn Y. Johnson reports on their findings here.

Barefoot running -- or "forefoot" running, as the salesperson in City Sports corrected me  -- is based on the idea that we aren't meant to land on our heels every time we stride. Those cushiony sneakers we've grown used to just aren't natural, the theory goes, and contribute to the repetitive stress heels take from pounding out the miles. The forefoot is springier, avoiding jarring collisions that are so bad for our feet.

It can also be bad for your feet, muscles, and the rest of your body to suddenly change the way you run, even for a test like mine this morning. So I was cautious, going only a mile or so in my new Vibram FiveFingers, which have been around since 2007.

The hardest thing may be getting your toes to fit into their slots. I laughed at myself in the store last night when I had to count my toes as I pushed them into their rubber-soled "fingers." The whole shoe makes me think of water shoes, with their slim, slick look punctuated by separate toes.

This morning I was a little better at it putting them on. The mesh upper slid on smoothly and the Velcro strap seemed unnecessary to secure the snug fit. They felt pretty good
around the house, but when I hit outdoors, my feet were a little chilly until I warmed up -- like everything else about winter training.

I started to run, gingerly at first, hyperaware of where my foot was striking the pavement. It felt familiar. Not from barefoot running, but from the gait I use when I'm running on ice or snow, mincing my way over suspect surfaces.

This was different. I felt like I was running taller, my back straighter. I thought about running on the beach when I hit a stretch of sand at the side of the road.  The glint of broken glass took care of that image. I dodged the shards, pretty sure I would do that in sneakers, too.

Were my knees tighter? Was that twinge in my calf a sign of the changed dynamics I was forcing on myself? Were they just the kinks of my first mile out today?

I can't say for sure, but I didn't want to push my luck. I also felt like I couldn't really push to run harder -- or just didn't know how. Today I wanted to do some quick bursts followed by slower intervals, but I waited until I switched to my old trail-running sneakers, my winter standbys.

I'm intrigued by the idea that barefoot running might reduce wear and tear over the long haul, but I'll think long and hard about making such a change with the marathon 12 weeks away. I'll seek some advice, too. If I didn't, I'd be nuts.

Barefoot runners: Care to weigh in?

Running experts: What's your take?

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4 comments so far...
  1. I've been running barefoot or in Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs) for about 6 months now. I simply love it. It has changed everything about my running, after 34 years of wearing conventional shoes.

    I run mostly in lower Manhattan on my lunch break. I can now consistently run 5-7 miles with no discomfort during or after my runs. Some days I run the whole distance in the VFFs. Some days I do part barefooted. Running this way has significantly strengthened my toes, feet, ankles, and calves. And the chronic problems I had with one knee and the other hamstring have disappeared. I am now training for a half marathon and plan to run it in VFFs.

    For those interested in more info there are lots of blogs about running this way, including mine at www.downtown-runner.com

    Posted by Bob (Downtown Runner) January 27, 10 08:14 PM
  1. 12 weeks is not going to be enough time to train up for barefoot-style running prior to a marathon. But it's well worth the effort afterward. You'll enjoy doing long runs with no aches or pains afterward!

    Posted by Tuck January 27, 10 11:07 PM
  1. I am a runner and graphic designer. I am currently doing a design thesis on the proper way to run, history of running and running health. Teaching people that we have all the tools to run, we were essentially born distance runners but have shunned that idea for sheer laziness. Also that bulky running shoes have pointless tools or designs that cause problems rather than help. Using design skills I will create text and as well as visual elements to further enforce these findings.
    I currently run in nikeFREE V4 shoes. They are ultra-light and have a sole that can contort and bend to any stride or surface. The forefoot is very thin so it does still encourage the forefoot landing. I have felt I can go a longer distance as well as a better stride, and still feel comfortable. They are a step up from Vibram for people that may not want to jump right into the FiveFingers

    Posted by Colin January 28, 10 10:54 AM
  1. My coach's (Fernando Braz) (who helped me qualify for Boston this year, or rather made it possible for me to qualify) program is called Going the Distance. (goingthedistancefb.com) I guess Going the Distance and marathons go well together!

    Posted by George Woodward January 29, 10 10:39 AM
Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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