Tips for Barefoot Running

Yes, I tried it.  I found joy, and I found pain.  Here’s what I’ve learned, in case you’re thinking of trying barefoot jogging.

I’m not a hard-core runner.  But, I have been running since I was 11 years old (inspired by the famous training sequence in Rocky, and a big local event from that era–Tacoma’s Sound-to-Narrows run).  The idea of going barefoot sounded silly, when I heard about it a couple years ago.  But, once I got past my disbelief, I wanted to try it.

(For the full story on going barefoot, see the story I produced for KPLU, or the one for The World.)

I read as much as I could find online, and I started conditioning my foot and calf muscles.  I tried going a couple hundred yards on grass at a park, but never felt comfortable (I was so focused on what I might step on).  So, I got a pair of the Five-Finger shoes.

The first time running in them was liberating.  It felt strange and beautiful.  Then, after about 4 blocks, my calves tightened into a knot.  I limped home gingerly.  No harm, but I realized how much more strength my calves would need.  Over the next few weeks, running twice a week, I worked up to ten minutes, then fifteen minutes.  I would go until I felt my calves getting tired.

In reality, I was still ramping up way too fast.  One day, at the end of the run, I noticed my foot was sore. I still don’t know what I did exactly, but any time I tried to walk or run on the ball of my foot, for weeks, the whole area around my ankle felt sharp pain.  I’m fine running in shoes, but barefoot is on hold.

As Dr. Brian Krabak (Sports Medicine, University of Washington) told me: “Most people hurt themselves because of training errors … being too aggressive.” (Note-This was for an interview; he’s not my doctor.)

Here’s what several experts say:  Start with no more than a half kilometer, three days a week.  That’s a very short distance.  One lap around a track, plus the length of a football field.  And, then, apply the “10% rule,” which means, add 10% per week.

Just to give you a sense of how gradually you’ll be building up, here’s a chart:

Week Distance
1 .5 km / .3 mile
2 .55 km / .3 mile
3 .61 km / .4 mile
4 .67 km / .4 mile
5 .73 km / .45 mile
6 .80 km / .5 mile
7 .88 km / .55 mile
8 .97 km / .6 mile
9 1.07 km / .67 mile

After 9 weeks, still just 2/3 of a mile!  At this rate, you’ll need about three months to reach one mile.  (Barefoot Ted McDonald takes a more individualized approach. He says some runners, with stronger feet, will be able to progress faster.)

Everyone seems to say good stretching and some massage for your feet and calves will be essential.  And, if your pain lasts several days, cut back or get help, says Dr. Karak.

The Harvard Skeletal Biology website has a lot more detailed advice.

I plan to try it again, but with more patience.

Findings I like, this month

These bits of research failed to make headlines, but you might enjoy them, as I did (disclaimer: I didn’t look into the quality of any of these studies):

  • “Parents Influence on Children’s Eating Habits is Small.” Really?  How could that be?  Apparently, the community, peers, television viewing, and the “food environment” are more important.   I don’t think they were able to separate out young children from teenagers, for this study from Johns Hopkins University.  It claims to be the first-ever study to look at parental influence on eating habits.  (The news release is here.)
  • Autism Medication is Ineffective for Repetitive Behaviors. This is from Seattle Children’s Hospital.  They compared a common anti-depressant (citalopram) that is used to control repetitive behavior in children with autism against a placebo, and found no benefit.  The children wring their hands, or rock back and forth.  The drug was prescribed because some clinician thought that there was a common problem with the brain chemical serotonin.  (The news release is here. )
  • A New Material to Use Inside the Body — Blending Crustaceans and Polyester. Some University of Washington researchers are bio-engineering a substance that can blend two important qualities, stickiness and sturdiness.  You want a severed nerve to be able to grow back in the right direction, so you need some scaffolding that it can grab onto, like a wisteria in your garden.  And you need something that won’t dissolve too easily inside the body. This is an interesting blend, of shells and polyester.  They claim it has prospects for muscle and tendon repairs, too. (The news release is here.)

Chitosan and polyester fibers, at the nano scale.

Chitosan and polyester fibers, at the nano scale. (UW)

  • A Faustian Bargain, for Our Brains? This theory — and it’s more like a hunch — says our evolutionary history is a two-sided coin.  In exchange for evolving bigger, intelligent brains, we may have also been cursed with cancer.  Apparently, humans are more cancer-prone than other primates, and it may be related to a gene that kills off potentially bad cells.  By being more lax, our bodies are able to grow bigger brains.   (The news release is here.)

A manly march out of Africa

I like to imagine what life might have been like for our ancestors.  You can do this with any time period — going back to your great-grandparents, or a few centuries before that, or way back in evolutionary time.  In today’s case, how about 60,000 years ago?

That’s the era when Homo Sapiens were migrating from the Africa to the Middle East, and spreading from there to populate Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas.  These people were anatomically the same as us.  And it’s surprising how much anthropologists have been able to deduce about them:  They were hunter-gatherers, and probably their lives were similar to hunter-gatherer communities that persisted into the 20th century.

And now there’s evidence that the bands of migrating humans, who probably worked their away across what we now call Egypt and the Sinai, included more men than women.  Alon Keinan of Harvard Medical School, and colleagues, used genetic markers to detect a surprising anomaly in human DNA that must have been triggered about 60,000 years ago.

They compared the genomes of modern people of West African descent with people of European and Asian descent.  The non-Africans show a series of random changes in their X chromosomes, known as “genetic drift,” which only seems to make sense if non-Africans all descended from a group where men outnumbered women.

(I’m skipping over the scientific methods for making these calculations, but it’s worth noting that this type of analysis is possible only using the tools developed for the Human Genome Project.)

We may never be able to say with confidence why those bands of people left.  A writer at New Scientist speculates that warfare might have played a role — that the migrants might have been similar to marauding Vikings.  Or, at the least, they may have been like more recent examples where male explorers and settlers went first (and women were in short supply).

This doesn’t imply that gender relationships back then were structured in any specific way.  But, it’s fair to imagine a charismatic leader, a visionary, whose name we’ll never know, who led early exploring parties up the Nile River, and out of Africa — 60,000 or more years ago.  The first “age of exploration”?

The study was published this month in Nature Genetics.