It is ten years since I first wore a minimalist footwear for running. My decision to try one was largely due to frustrations with three pairs of shoes that I used until then. This was in 2011 and there were not any running-focused footwear shops in India; and the regular stores rarely stocked shoes for variations in width or contours of the foot. It was around the same time that the barefoot running was a hot topic in many running forums and was gaining the status of a cult movement. I rarely got affected by those discussions and was not even tempted to read ‘Born to Run’. It was only in 2019 when I finally read the book and realised that it was more than about running barefoot. Going back to shoes was, and still is, an option that I retain with me. After running Comrades in 2012 in the minimalist shoes, I was rarely tempted to go back.
Over the last decade, they have become an integral part in my running and I would like to reflect on the role played by them. Two caveats here – 1. What is applicable for barefoot running can be applied for running in general; and 2. I am still a ‘learner’ as I continue to learn the art of running. I am ever willing to correct if new evidences appear or I discover something new about myself.
Why Barefoot Running?
It is easier to run barefoot than to find out why to run barefoot. There is no conclusive evidence that it helps in running any faster or any longer. It can also be dangerous due to presence of sharp objects on the roads and trails. In terms of experience, it can be exhilaration at its best and excruciating at its worst; and one may experience anywhere in this wide spectrum.
Unlearn and Re-learn
The simplest approach to barefoot running is to start all over from the basics. The beginner mindset certainly helps in unlearning some of mistakes that we commonly do. Think you are running for the first time and do what you did when you started (without the mistakes of the past).
Aligning Body and Mind
A statement like, ‘you don’t run with legs alone’, makes running sound meta-physical and takes arguments into the realms of philosophy. Ignoring the factual accuracy, barefoot running is certainly more than removing the protection from the foot. While running by itself is about sacrificing some comforts of life, barefoot running forces the runner to take up additional challenges. The main challenge in barefoot running giving up the comfort from cushioning in shoes, which requires changes at multiple levels.
The shock-absorption provided by shoes has to be transferred to ankles, knees, and hips. It requires extra care while landing and being conscious of the impact on different parts of the body. Landing entirely on the heel would have worse impact than running on shoes. It also requires to be more mindful while running to avoid sharp objects as well as stumbling over uneven surfaces.
Over the years, I have learned to focus on my running posture, especially the upper body – reducing the slouch, opening up shoulders, and swinging arms better. A good running form should result in understanding the role of thighs, hips, core muscles, shoulders, arms, and sometimes, even the neck during your runs. It is a slow ongoing process and the only way to learn is by trying again and again.
One exercise that I found beneficial to help me focus and improve my running form was 100-Up. Chris made a reference to it in his article in New York Times.
While aligning the body and mind, it is important to focus on breathing. Just like running, breathing is another area where we can constantly keep improving and it gets better with each effort. My first education in breathing was from Venu ‘Sir’. He advised me to focus on exhaling well rather than inhaling; as the lungs shrink more, they automatically expand to inhale more air. Attending Yoga sessions also helped me to learn deep breathing and use them during long runs.
Stretch and Strengthen
Regular stretching has certainly helped in a long way. Also, stretching need not be limited to pre and post runs. It can be done all through the day with adequate caution. There are no specific stretches that I would recommend but would suggest to keep stretches gentle. Core strengthening is an area that I am yet to explore in depth. Overall, a better understanding of the musculoskeletal system is of great benefit.
Impact of Body Weight
While I detest discussions on body weight and the obsession of ‘reducing’ body weight, it is important to understand the role of body weight on running. There are many reasons other than running or lack of it that affect one’s body weight. I have preferred to adjust my tempo and distance according to the changes in body weight.
Regular cycling has certainly helped me to recover well from my long runs. Cycling is certainly a great way to relax more than just training. Long walks is yet another way to recover from long runs.
Setting Modest Targets
I have not pursued any aggressive targets or challenge myself to do something simply because of external pressure. While this is also due to natural ageing process of my body, barefoot running helped me to be extra-cautious on this front. It is more about running naturally, understanding limitations, and never to push too hard. While running has helped me to go beyond my limits, it happened naturally with time than in a forced manner.
Changes Outside Running
The major change, outside my running, is overhauling my entire range of footwear – from casual slippers to formal shoes. I moved out of heavily cushioned footwear or even heavier footwear. I prefer flatter shoes with minimum cushioning for my regular use.
Barefoot running is an education in itself and each will have their own phases of learning. Progression in running is not about running fast or longer; it is about pursuing it with joy everyday. Unless some one runs to earn their livelihood, I do not see the need to get stressed on time or distance.
Think of barefoot running as an art rather than a ‘rocket science’ with all complexities. Run as you would like and use it as an opportunity to express yourself. It should not be seen as an end by itself – but a means to an end, which is to enjoy running and stay injury free. Should barefoot running interfere with either of the two objectives, it is best to choose the shoes that fits the best.