I’ve been wooed by the premise and promise of barefoot running. I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers (a barefoot running “shoe,” not a marital aid), and joined the revolution with enthusiasm and resolve. But as much as I want to love these things, the jury is still out.
Read Born to Run and a host of articles online, and you will learn that the only conclusive studies regarding standard running shoes (lots of support and uber-cush) and injuries, show a direct correlation between the price of the shoe and the propensity for injury: The more expensive the shoe, the greater your chance of getting hurt. But put on a pair of Five Fingers (no matter how many times I say that, it still sounds dirty), and not only do you get intimate with all ten toes (think toe socks with a thin rubber sole), but you shorten your stride, start to run more on the balls of your feet, take the pressure off of your knees and back, your head hair grows back, your back and nose hair recede, and you can bend steel pipe with the back of your knees.
You revert, in other words, to a natural form of running, like our ancestors enjoyed when they came down from the trees. But after running “barefoot” for a month or two now, I am getting a better understanding of why the average life expectancy of our nomadic brethren was somewhere around the area of 36-years-old. I can barely walk. My Achilles tendons and calf muscles are killing me, and after a couple of miles, I turn around and shuffle home without bending my ankles. Our ancestors died before they got past their thirties because they were eaten by sabre-toothed tigers when they limped home after any hunting expedition that took them more than 2 miles from their cave.
But, as I said, I want to love them. They are hip. Revolutionary. I can now get them on (with each toe in its own little cubby) in fewer than 5 minutes without injuring a finger, and I have learned to allow at least 20 minutes extra per workout to field all the comments and questions I get when people see them. And I know that as of right now, barefoot running will absolutely keep me from suffering through any running related back, knee or hip injuries – primarily because at the moment, I can’t run.
The instructions for running in these things clearly stated to “start slowly” and ease into it. In hindsight, I think they could have elaborated in far greater detail, something along the lines of “start really slowly.” I spoke with a fellow hobbler at the gym this evening. She gave me hope. She saw me lilting from side to side (in regular shoes) without bending my ankles and shouted out, “how do you like barefoot running?” She alleviated all my worries by letting me know that after six short months, she is finally (and happily) up to 3 miles per day with only moderate pain in her Achilles and calf. Her advice and some similar threads online encourage me to keep working it. Stretch. Build strength. Stretch. Definitely keep running. Ice it . Try 6 Percocet with a two martini chaser. Stretch.
I’m not hurting myself, they tell me. I am building up the “right” running muscles… so I won’t get hurt – something that’s never happened to me in about 25 years of running.
I am suddenly reminded of the doctor who, many years ago, held an x-ray in front of me and explained that I had two cracked ribs (something I had guessed, since I was walking around bent over at about a 70 degree angle). Mistaking me (a white belt) for an oncoming HUMVEE, some paramilitary wannabe in my martial arts class had tried to run his very expensive running shoe (there’s that correlation again between expensive shoe and injury) through my chest and out between my shoulder blades. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with covering my head with both arms, I would have blocked the kick. I explained to the doctor that the classes were important so that I could protect myself on the gigs and not get beat up by some drunken lout in expensive running shoes. His response was, “how often does playing with a jazz sextet get violent?” (I think he meant outside of drum solos.)
As it turned out, in 15 years of night clubs, private parties, and road trips, the only injuries I ever received were in that class. But I was ready.
And now, I find myself limping toward an injury free tomorrow and am wondering just what the hell to make of this shoeless evolution. I’ll give it another few weeks, and if I’m still shuffling, I will quietly donate all Five Fingers to the local Dojo.