Last May I reported on reaching the 4,000th mile of barefoot hiking and running since starting the practice almost five years ago. Last week, the finish line of the Knob Hills Trail Race marked mile 5,000.
When I started, barefoot was primarily an experiment, to see if the practice would improve my form and reduce the risk of injury. However, there was also in the back of my mind the idea that for an aging athlete it might not be a bad idea to embrace shorter distances and a slower pace, as would necessarily be the case without shoes.
The surprise was how much fun it’s been to run and hike without shoes. I found that the barefoot practice taught me better agility and balance and a lighter step and turned every hike or run into an adventure. Because barefoot’s more fun, I no longer train in shoes unless there’s snow or ice or too much gravel for me to handle, although I still wear shoes at work and other places where they’re expected….
Notable accomplishments over the last 1,000 miles include:
- Completing the 46 Adirondack High Peaks barefoot. I’d started this particular challenge in 2017. The summer of 2019 was busy, with 17 climbs, culminating with a 18-mile muddy slog to the summit of Mount Allen and back, which included a steep, rocky, 1,000-foot scramble to the summit.
- Additional barefoot hiking in the Catskills
- More racing barefoot, including a 5-k trail race, 5-miler Turkey Trot, 10k road race, and a 10-mile trail race.
- A return to long distance running after a 2-year hiatus due to injuries, including the Ethan Allen 6-hour race, Thatcher Trail Festival Marathon, Batona Trail Runs 33-miler, Rockledge Rumble 50k, Dallas Marathon, and Knob Hills Trail Race 50k. The latter was my 83rd race of marathon distance or longer.
Barefoot guru Ken Bob Saxton writes in Barefoot Running Step by Step that “If you want to learn how to run barefoot correctly in a way that will then transfer to any surface, you need to learn how to handle the rough stuff first.” By which he means gravel, and he’s not talking “smooth, polished, round stones” but rather “the stuff that’s been recently crushed, with sharp edges—lots of them!” I’ve learned that the technical term for this kind of gravel is “shot rock” or “rip rap.”
Ken Bob’s rationale is that the sharp edges provide information, which teaches the runner to relax the calves, bend the knees, and resist the urge to tense up and push off. Let the foot relax and “become one with the earth,” he advises, in order to spread the impact across as much area as possible.
With this advice in mind, about two years ago I mapped out a 1.77-mile course in Central Park that had plenty of gravel. When I ran this course the first time in January 2017, it took me 36 minutes, equivalent to a 20-minute pace or 3 miles per hour. If you’d been watching, you would have seen me tottering across the rocks at a slow walking pace and sometimes trotting for a few steps where the path was smooth.
Over the next year, I brought that time down into the high teens, which is equivalent to a +/- 10-minute mile, which for me is an easy pace.
Then a few weeks ago, I ran the course in just under 14 minutes, equivalent to a 7:51 pace.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should point out that without shoes, conditions really matter: on that last run, the ground was soft from recent rain, which meant that when I landed on rocks, they tended to sink into the dirt, instead of poking into my soles. We’ll see how I do next time I run that course in dry conditions, when the surface is hard-packed. Nonetheless, the improvement in my form over the last two years is striking: I can now run on surfaces which before I could barely walk upon.
Part of what’s so exciting to me about the barefoot practice is that it presents the opportunity for an aging athlete to demonstrate improvement. I never say “never,” but based on recent data, it is not likely possible for me to improve my times in shoes.
Ken Bob comments, “if there is one overriding philosophy that captures the essence of barefooting, it is listening to your body.”
I’ve always listened to my body, but I’ve also pushed myself in the pursuit of ever longer ultramarathon distances, faster personal speed records, and even a handful of official fastest known time records. At the same time, I was getting older. In 2016, I crossed a line and strained a tendon in my ankle, which ended up taking almost three years to fully heal. It was a major setback. Not wanting to repeat that experience, I developed a new procedure, according to which I code every run in my training log as red, yellow, or green. Red indicates an injury that caused me to stop (or to wish I could stop if I was out on the trails). Yellow indicates an ache or pain that limited my performance, even if it didn’t stop me. Green indicates nothing but the normal level of aches and pains. The strained ankle tendon played havoc with my training in 2016 and 2017, as the following chart shows:
Injury Status 2017-2020
The new procedure was inspired by my experience working at a commercial bank, where risk management was a preoccupation, and every aspect of the operation was coded in colors to ensure management understood the risks. For myself, the new procedure helped me understand the extant to which I was literally running myself to pieces.
I decided that I never wanted to be injured again! But then I reinjured the ankle tendon in December 2019 by running a little too aggressively at the Dallas 1/2 marathon. Prior to this event, I’d had a nagging sensation that the ankle was not yet fully healed. To further reduce the risk of injuries I implemented a second tracking system, which I refer to as “Irritation Tracking.” The purpose of this system was to improve the clarity with which I differentiated between a normal level of aches and pains, which are inescapable, and certain conditions that might be leading indicators of heightened injury risk.
Irritation Tracking 2018-2020
Aches and pains are part of life, and so long as they’re mild and transient, I code the run in my training log as green or “normal.” If an ache or pain persists during the run, or is more than mild, it gets coded as yellow. Red refers to an ache or pain that persists after the run is over. Since implementing this system, when I experience yellow or red conditions, I dial down on running and instead head to the gym to swim or lift weights. The goal is to back off on volume and intensity before triggering an injury. As of January 2020, I’m pleased that the ankle tendon is back to normal (although I listen to it carefully and constantly!), but I’m paying attention to my knees which have started complaining in recent years from stairmaster sessions.
Barefoot Running as Natural Running
In his book, Running Human, Sidy Diallo advocates for long-distance running as the road to happiness:
If you’re only looking for natural endorphins and the prevention of chronic diseases, run marathons. If you want to experience the genuine human happiness and by the way minimize the risk of injuries, go the extra mile and run barefoot marathons. This journey will take you from the 21st century to the pre-agricultural era, which was probably the golden age of human happiness, solidarity and innocence. Then you’ll view yourself and the world from a very different perspective. You’ll never be the same again.
— Sidy Diallo, Running Human
By way of background, Sidy is a doctor and French civil servant who’s spent his career working in the diplomatic corps. As a runner, he is a late bloomer, having started the practice at age 55, but once he got going, he’s become extremely prolific. Over the ensuing ten years, he completed well over 200 marathons and ultramarathons, including 48 marathons in one year. As a child, Sidy had grown up in Guinea without shoes. Years later as an adult he became curious after seeing someone walking barefoot through a grocery store in Australia. Since that chance encounter, Sidy transitioned to barefoot running and has since completed over 60 marathons without shoes.
Sidy makes some simple points in his book. He likens long-distance running to the persistence hunting which our distant ancestors engaged in to bring home food for the tribe. Nothwithstanding his own remarkable accomplishments, he’s dismissive of the contemporary focus on records.
Our humble ancestors would run frequently and effectively in their immediate environment on Earth, and they knew there was nothing to brag about, because they were practicing a normal activity for the survival of their species. On the other hand, current humans are among the worst long-distance runners in the history of Homo sapiens.
He looks around at contemporaries and questions the focus on comfort and consumption, when he believes the route to happiness comes from doing what people evolved to do best.
A lot of humans nowadays enjoy an easy and effortless access to food. We have invented a comfortable lifestyle and populated all continents. We feel rightfully proud of ourselves and of our creations, our civilizations, our modernity, our powers, etc. We remain nonetheless a trivial tropical species of hunter-gatherers, in the body and soul, suffering from a permanent endorphin withdrawal syndrome, because we should never have stopped running long distances.
Sidy’s comments echo many of the conclusions I’ve come to in recent years.
Five years ago, prior to experimenting with barefoot, I was a more or less conventional runner. Over the last few years, however, I’ve gradually changed my practice. Not only do I hike and run barefoot as much as possible, but I’ve found other ways to reduce my reliance on modern gear and technology. For example, instead of consuming sports drinks, I commonly leave behind food and water and run and race in a fasted state. When hiking in the Catskills, I spend a lot of time moving off-trail, often without using map, compass, or GPS. Sometimes I move at night without lights, or head out shirtless in winter conditions. For lack of a better term, I call this style “natural running.”
There are many ways to run, and I’m not suggesting that natural running is for everyone. But there are some advantages. Running on track or roads, as most people do, requires a narrow focus on muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness, whereas the natural approach involves a much broader array of capabilities: balance and agility, a light step, tough soles, the ability to manage yourself through uncomfortable and discomfiting environments (when you’re tired, hungry, cold, wet, hot, thirsty, lost, or harassed by bugs and stinging nettles), the ability to observe and understand the lay of the land.
Harvard evolutionary scientist Daniel Lieberman uses the term “dysevolution” to refer to certain aspects of modern life where we are arguably worse off than our distant ancestors. The reason for dysevolution is that technology carries costs as well as benefits, and sometimes those costs are not immediately understood. As examples of dysevolution, Lieberman points to the obesity epidemic, the chronic injuries that result from too much sitting or wearing shoes, and the spread of auto-immune disease which is possibly a result of excessive hygiene.
When people become concerned about the costs of new technologies, they may experiment by taking a step backwards in time. In this regards, my conception of natural running seems similar to other recent trends. For example, the “paleo diet” is a reaction to fears that the standard American diet of highly processed foods is less healthy than the whole foods our ancestors presumably consumed prior to the spread of agriculture. Runners may turn to “minimalist” shoes if they become concerned that the cushion and support of modern running shoes could be distorting their natural form and predisposing them to injury. Trail running has grown rapidly in recent years as people have found exhilaration in tackling natural obstacles (rocky trails, elevation changes, mud, etc.) that are lacking in events conducted on roads or at the track. I would argue that natural running is to conventional running as free diving is to scuba diving, or as climbing without ropes or oxygen is to traditional mountaineering, although hopefully not as dangerous.
I still participate in conventional races and heartily enjoy them but one day the scales fell from my eyes and I realized they were a microcosm of the modern world: enabled by obvious technologies, like the combination of roads and shoes, which clears away natural obstacles and protects the soles from any remaining imperfection in the surface; focused on egotistical goals (how many people can you pass); and ruled by the clock. This format simplifies and concentrates the experience: the only input is physical effort, the only output is speed — it’s the very definition of productivity. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, except the format makes it easy to push your body to run at an “unnatural” pace, which results for many runners in a plague of injuries. As my charts on injury management indicate, this is exactly what I did.
I hope to be reporting on my 6,000th mile later this year.