By Steve Maxwell
In my quest to continually improve and evolve (both personally and in performance) I’ve been known to boldly enter new terrains–sometimes going where no coach has gone before!
When it comes to exercise options and explorations, I’m not above checking out new fads and gizmos –I even admit to being a gear junky–yet at the same time I’ll pare things down and simplify. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself…I am vast, I contain multitudes!*
For the last year, I’ve explored barefoot running and became thoroughly convinced after reading assorted magazine articles, then Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run and Danny Dreyer’s book, Chi Running.
My decades of observing people running and “working out” for not only the wrong reasons, but in the most absurd ways, left me critical of aerobic exercise. What I saw passing as healthy exercise was anything but and, in many cases, was the source of more harm than benefit. Yet over the last year I began to see running in a new light: more as a skill than exercise. McDougall makes a compelling argument that running is hard wired into our DNA and that we, as a species, owe our very survival to our inherent running abilities. Instead of using running to fulfill some external desire–say fat loss, cardiac health or beating an arbitrary time–I discovered a simple joy in the experience of running in and of itself. Running barefoot has added to that by teaching me to use an economy of fluid, effortless, and efficient movement I’d never experienced since childhood.
My first exposure to the potential of minimalist footwear came from a client training at the gym where I worked, a fit man in his sixties, claimed to run five miles, every other day, in a pair of hard rubber flip-flops. He replaced his flip-flops every two to three weeks. I couldn’t imagine such a feat not resulting in all manner of dire consequences, was astounded, and figured him for totally insane. He used to come into the gym in Philly in the coldest weather, bare feet in those flip flops. He told me he simply hated shoes and had been doing this all his life. I’ll never forget the guy, he was quite a character.
First, let me explain the difference between barefoot training and barefoot running: I’d long ago been introduced to the concept and practice of minimalist footwear for resistance training and kettlebells and how wearing stiff-soled shoes assist the feet in transmitting more stimulus to the brain which in turn results in recruiting more muscle fibers, which in turn allows you to lift more weight or perform more explosively in exercises like the KB Snatch or heavy deadlifts. Wearing thick soled, heavily padded shoes creates dumb feet, a sort of neural amnesia. The brain doesn’t know where the feet are in space or relationship to the ground surface.
If you want proof, look at what the top Olympic weightlifters wear: wooden-soled shoes.
As a jiu-jitsu player, I’d been running about barefoot on the mats for years. You might say I was fairly used to going shoeless. Still, it’s one thing to skip rope or swing kettlebells barefoot on the padded mats, and quite another to run about in the asphalt jungle and rocky roads out there.
After reading about various indigenous people in Kenya and parts of Mexico running long distances barefoot, I was intrigued. The point that these runners were injury-free, while north Americans running in space-age shoes have a high incidence of injury made the temptation irresistible. Statistically, in the US, running is one of the highest injury-producing sports, despite the ubiquitous and highly-engineered footwear available. There are shockingly, no supported research that these shoes prevent injury in any way. The current trend is to accuse the shoes as the source of these injuries.
My interest piqued. No one is a bigger shoe wh*re than myself, so what was I gonna do? I’ve always been known for flashy sneaks and shoe-coordinated apparel. At one point, I was maintaining a habit of 35 pair of shoes and still always out on the street, looking for the next hit.
When I moved into my camper van, possibly the most painful aspect of the transition was culling through my shoes, deciding who would come and who was left behind, as I couldn’t bring them all. In fact, being forced to weed through my vast possessions was a cathartic experience and led me to rediscovering my inherent simplicity. I became hyper-aware of just how much sh!t I’d collected over the years and how “owning” stuff, was in fact a lie, everything is ultimately on temporary loan, and is not any source of happiness or fulfillment. If anything, all the accumulation was the source of my anxiety!
So, in this way I was forced to make choices about my new and minimal approach to footwear and somehow adapted to the somewhat charming idea of not needing any at all. I remember how impressed I was in a conversation with a well-known barefoot advocate who told me how nice it was not packing shoes for his frequent business trips anymore. I thought: Amen to that! Because there’s nothing worse than forcing a zipper shut over protruding Nikes!
Let me recount the steps I took in weaning myself from footwear to the point that I can (should I wish) run unshod even on concrete–which I don’t necessarily recommend…
The first thing I did was switch to minimalist shoes with virtually no cushioning and a thin, flexible sole. Nike Free shoes usually fit this description and I worked my way down from the 5’s to the 3.5’s.
I also studied the POSE and Chi Running methods, which are easily researched.
Highly cushioned shoes encourage heel striking, which is how most people–including myself–have been taught to run. You can’t however, heel strike when running barefoot (or in unsupported footwear. In fact, heel striking was non-existent prior to the development of the modern running shoe. The bare feet will always push off the forefoot, like a giant spring. Jumping rope is a developmental exercise which strengthens the feet, ankles and calves and makes running easier, thus my next step was skipping a lot of rope with the least padding I could tolerate, in order to desensitize my feet. I also began experimenting with running on softer surfaces; at the time I had easy access to some of southern California’s beautiful beaches so I’d get in a weekly session–or two–of longer runs interspersed with sprints on the firm sand near the shoreline.
Next, I tried the Vibram Five Finger shoe, which separates the toes. Vibrams feature a contoured sole which protects the plantar surface while permitting the natural gripping action and micro-motions of the foot.
I confess I had much trouble bridging the gap from Nike to Vibram. My feet were still too sensitive and I still preferred a shoe. I ordered a pair of FeelMax shoes from Finland, which has no support whatsoever and what seems to be the thinnest sole possible. They fit like a booty or sock, and so lack the secure fit of the Vibram, which can be treacherous on awkward footings, due to the foot slipping about inside the shoe. I frequently wear them for body rolling and training on flat ground, since they are reminiscent of wrestling or Sambo shoes.
After switching between grass, beach, and sidewalk, I finally made my first 5km on the concrete (in my Vibrams) just days before attending a MovNat course, where a whole new barefoot indoctrination would commence. The first day involved a desensitization exercise involving a coarse and sharp gravel road which left limping about on my my traumatized feet. Yet despite the superficial discomfort, I’d suffered no injury and truly my balance and spacial proprioception were noticably improved. In the following days, in the (somewhat) natural setting of a public campground, Erwan LeCorre had us entirely shoeless, running and jumping rock-to-rock, log-to-log and picnic table-to-ground. When jumping for accuracy, I felt like I could stick the landing like a little tree frog. Just try jumping from one uneven rock to another (or walking along narrow and slippery deteriorating logs) in running shoes! Before the gravel road initiation/hazing, my feet were still resistant to wearing Vibrams–I found the toe separation especially disagreeable–but on the second day of the MovNat course (when we were permitted to re-don our shoes, if we so wished) those Vibrams felt like pillows, further indication that what we identify as pain is a matter of subjectivity and can vary as the body is given perspective and context.
The final day of the course brought the coup de grace: a 2-1/2 hour ramble through the local woods–including crawling on all fours, climbing rocks, scaling trees, balancing and jumping upon logs, a strenuous rope climb and swamp wade–we made our final run along a macadam road. Disappointed by my lack of speed and the extreme fatigue in my legs (we’d been told to do this exercise in a fasted state) I sensed my my form degrading. When fatigued, the human body (and mind) inevitably resorts to the habitual. Obviously, I hadn’t assimilated the program as much as I’d hoped and imagined.
Since returning to balmy San Diego, I gone for a few beach runs, which always feel effortless, and on a recent trip to Oslo, I ran through a lakeside forest in my Vibrams, traversing ruts, rocks and roots without issue. I think I finally have this barefoot thing down: it’s all about the shoes.
Although Erwan and Chris McDougall both run barefoot on concrete, I’m still unconvinced such a practice confers any worthwhile benefit.
My girlfriend, an awesome runner who runs me into the ground, has run and trained barefoot most of her life. She started running barefoot as a child, when her brother told her about Zola Budd (who always wore shoes running on roads) and she easily took to wearing Vibrams, but only wears them when the terrain appears injurious to bare feet, which she prefers. She’s run on concrete, but in general avoids it since there are more pleasing surfaces readily available. It’s not that there’s any problem with running on concrete, should the ability and desire exist, but neither can I discern a compelling reason to do so…
Humans, after all, universally invented shoes…for a reason. An interesting insight: A well-known barefooter, who was forced to drop out of a fifty-mile, hard-terrain, trail race at mile 35 due to cumulative foot trauma, confided that the source of trouble lay in the heat-absorbing, black-colored Vibrams he’d been provided for the event and, in retrospect, he’d have surely finished the event had he opted for commercial trail-running shoes. That being said, humans have survived and flourished without needing over engineered running shoes or chunky hiking boots while traversing rough terrain over the eons.
Something that I have observed amongst the barefoot enthusiasts I’ve encountered is that the number one (exhaustively!) discussed topic is always the current favored “barefoot” …shoe. Here I am, newly converted and divested of my former sneaker collection only to discover so-called barefoot training holds so much shopping potential.
At least the bare foot shoes are easier to pack!
I’m in San Diego for the next few months, coaching Diego Sanchez for his upcoming UFC title fight 12 December. I’m really enjoying this gig–check out some of the training videos on my youtube page. I’ll soon be starting a conditioning class at the University of Jiu-Jitsu, open to the public, as well, so if you’re in the area, definitely come on down and see what new (and time-tested) money moves I’ve got in store and, as always, check out my new shoes!
In Strength & Health,
Steve has several great workshops coming up all of the US and overseas. Make sure to check out his schedule at: http://www.maxwellsc.com/events.cfm