This is my personal experience with barefoot running shoes. My experience might be different from yours as we are all different. I will share with you also some useful tips regarding the transition and injury avoidance.
These five toe shoes caught my attention quite immediately after I started working at Run and Become but it took me a couple of months before I endeavoured to try them on. I remember myself observing other people during races wearing strange shoes and running really lightly. I started imitating them, trying to land on my forefoot rather than on my heel.
I didn't feel very comfortable in my built up shoes, I have to admit. I realised pretty soon that my shoes were actually not right. The 'support' in the shoe was too strong for me which I did not know as I bought them out of the shelf, without anyone analysing my gait. When I came to Run and Become they analysed my gait and fitted me in a neutral shoe. My problems with shin splints disappeared and I realised how important the choice of a running shoe is.
Inspired by the 'ideology' of barefoot running, hearing about all the benefits as posture improvement, feet and lower legs strengthening, better running efficiency... I decided to go for it! I ran to Richmond Park in my regular shoes and then took them off (I hid them in trees) and started running purely with bare feet. After a few strides I just fell in love with it! So beautiful to feel the grass under my feet, the feeling of lightness! I found myself sprinting downhill, feeling like a deer.
The feeling of lightness did not last very long... My calves were killing me the next day. Oh yes, I overdid it! One can get so easily excited that one forgets about the first rule in barefoot running: build up gradually! I did not miss the second rule though: stretching, stretching, stretching! Especially calf stretching. Look for a staircase after your barefoot session. Stretch one foot at a time, carefully though, not to overdo it.
After taking out thorns from my feet that I picked up during my grass runs I realised that barefoot running shoes might be a useful thing. A sturdy rubber outsole does protect your feet very well. One can run more relaxed, without screaming when accidentally stepping on a stone or something sharper. Since that realisation I have not taken my Vibram FiveFingers Bikilas off.
I mean I had to take them off quite a lot in the beginning as the calves get really tight. In our shop we always say: start just walking in them for a few weeks and then go for shorter runs when you feel more confident, it is of paramount importance to build up gradually and listen to your body. Walking is really useful, it helps you transition quicker as the tendon and calves will lengthen naturally.
It started dawning on me after a few weeks of using my Bikilas that core strength is the most important thing if I want to run efficiently, with a good posture and hence injury free. I started doing Pilates and added some core exercises every day to my stretching routine. I have to say it helped significantly! I strongly recommend it.
In barefoot running shoes one ought to land on the forefoot or midfoot. Do not land too much on your toes as that puts a lot of strain on the calves. Land flatter but make sure you do not heel strike! The calf soreness should disappear in a few weeks time.
Cadence is one of the key things. You should be up to 160-180 strides per a minute. That will ensure shorter strides and better posture. You should also lean forward. Lean not from your waist but from the ankles. If you run noisily or if you get any pains, focus on your running style. That is an indicator of doing something wrong.
A Chi Running course helped me to get my barefoot running technique on a higher level, too. I try to keep this article short but it is worth mentioning all these small things because they have made all the difference.
Have I been injury free? No, but I have not experienced anything serious. I was getting a knee pain. A Vibram representative from our barefoot clinic made it clear to me why. I was over striding! Again, it is about cadence. Try the cadence on the spot and then maintain it high while running. I was getting an instep pain on both feet. Guess why! My arches used to be quite low and they strengthened and raised a lot while doing barefoot running for a few months. Hence the pain on my insteps! This is why it is so important to build up gradually, your feet will change and you have to allow your body to adjust. You will undergo the risk of injury, even a stress fraction otherwise. I wish I had taken photos of my feet before I started using my Bikilas! My feet look completely different now.
Running a Barefoot Marathon
I was building my mileage gradually in preparation for a marathon. My first one. I decided to do it in my Vibrams because any other shoe felt too heavy and uncomfortable after using toes shoes. I did the marathon after 8 months of wearing Vibram shoes.
I did train a lot: speed sessions on a track as well as long distances up to 22 miles. I ran almost every day. But I made a mistake, my training was always a mixture of road and off road and the marathon was a road one. The last 3 miles were a real struggle. I felt my Achilles tendon, my calves, they were so tight! I was leaning onto trees and trying to stretch everything out quite often the last one mile. I did survive, I finished in 4 hours and 10 minutes and was very happy and grateful that my calves did not snap! But I did not have any knee pain, nothing, apart from the muscle tightness. It was a good experience which will hopefully make me more efficient next time.
In conclusion I have to say that I cannot imagine my running life without these 'strange' shoes anymore. I truly love them. I use them almost on a daily basis for my running as well as working at the shop. But I do admit I cannot use them all the time. My feet do get a bit sore; especially the big joint of my big toe. When that happens I switch to my New Balance Minimus road shoe.
One can speak hours and hours about barefoot running/walking but the best thing is to try it and see if you can derive some benefits from it. You do not have to run marathons to find them useful. You can just wear them from time to time to strengthen your feet. Our body is a great instrument, indeed.
I hope you will find this article helpful. We offer regular workshops on Barefoot Running and Chi Running at our stores. See the workshops listing for upcoming dates under Run Better.