100% Barefoot !
OUTDOOR Journal Janvier 2014
A hiker at heart, I’d never been very interested in running. My love for hiking was partially fostered by a stint in the French army with their elite mountain infantry. During my year of service, I traced back and forth over Alpine footpaths, summer and winter alike. And that’s not to mention the nine years I spent living in the Alps and its idyllic hiking conditions. Despite all the time I had clocked on trails however, running never appealed to me. I always suspected it would be hard on the joints.
Three years after leaving my beloved mountains, I now live by the sea, in Casablanca, Morocco. Almost 39 years old, I’ve become an osteopath, as well as a runner. My natural running style has always been characterized by pushing off from the ball of my foot, rather than the heel, as most people do. This lessens the impact on your foot. It just came naturally to me. I didn’t have to think about it. I spent about 20 minutes that first day, shoes on my feet. Distance, speed, time, the way my foot hit the ground — I didn’t worry about any of it. It just flowed. I ran solely on feeling.
However, as I kept running, I experienced persistent aches and pains in my calf muscles. After a run, I’d go back to my place and it was difficult to get up the stairs. My calves would tense up immediately and the next day when I woke up, they were tight, my legs heavy. It got to the point where I couldn’t walk up my stairs, or even down the street normally. The bottom of my foot was also very sensitive, especially along the outer edges. My routes started to seem unbearably long. Professionally, I understood that the body isn’t designed for some of the physical demands of distance running and that it takes time to adapt.
Already an experienced athlete in several sports (downhill skiing, hiking, and surfing), running would require another radical change to the way my body was used to working. This new sport caught my attention for a couple of reasons. I wondered: would I be able to run often? Would I make progress? Would I suffer or evolve? Would I do both? To find out, I kept at it, sticking to my same regimen. I was still pushing off just as naturally from the ball of my foot, without trying to go faster, or farther, or for a longer period of time. I decided to experiment with my style, including varying my posture, trying different types of steps, as well as changing the length and number of strides I took. I had read the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and it seemed to me that I was working on an answer to the questions posed there. My aim was simply to find a style that would allow me to run for an hour without pain during or afterwards.
An even more radical change was in order. That’s how I ended up running barefoot on the hard sands of the local beach. To my great surprise, the aches and pains rapidly diminished to the point of disappearing completely. Better than that, I finally lasted longer than 20 minutes. I know that’s nothing for a runner, but for me it was amazing. What was the reason? Was it the new surface? Or, was it being barefoot? Intrigued, I went for a barefoot run on my original asphalt route. I got the same result, without shoes no aches and pains here either. I had my answer. This new development arose from my shoeless running style, not the terrain. Stripping away the barrier between my feet and the ground made my steps more precise, lighter, too.
Barefoot, you can’t cheat. You’ll find yourself achieving former goals of distance, length and pace effortlessly, natural results of a cleaner stride, one that doesn’t hurt you. I finally understood that the quality of one’s movement matters more than anything else. My new and improved, more effective stride has become as fun as it is enlightening. As it turns out, my lift-off increased as my ability to absorb the shock of impact improved. I brought down my heel and took advantage of the range of motion in my step, propelling myself further and faster than before. That first time barefoot, I suddenly felt like I was running on air.
Ever since that day, I have sought to recreate that feeling, and in the process, I’ve put more and more distance between me and those energy wasting impacts that destabilized my stride, physically tearing me apart. In this way, I developed a more efficient running style, better controlling the strains on my body. It’s been incredibly gratifying to take charge of my athletic performance. I still have to put shoes on to run from time to time, depending on where I find myself, but each time I do, it alters my sense of lift-off. Since I’ve started running barefoot, there’s not a brand in the world that could convince me to launch from my heel. I run every other day, between 40 and 75 minutes. I don’t rush. I want to be in harmony with my feet, unfettered.