Barefoot running

One of the biggest joys of running is a conversation with yourself. A conversation that meanders from worrying about dinner tonight to rediscovering layers of Ghalib verses to placing bets on the future. They also occassionally involve a groaning muscle or joint asking if I could slow down a little and begrudgingly, accepting that I wouldn’t today.

During 2013, I gained more than 25kg in weight. Alcohol typically brings with it dumb decisions and mine always involve fried or baked goodness. I love it. I’m really proud that I managed to excel academically at business school, made friends for life and did some really stupid shit. I also went from always training for my next marathon to a constant pain in my heels; medically called plantar fasciitis. The pain ensured that walking for long, let alone running was unbearable.

My training regimen over the last few years had been simple. Put on shoes and run. I didn’t care about timing myself or the surfaces I ran on or if it was raining. This love affair had started among the trees at Lodhi gardens in Delhi and had continued at the Godrej Vikhroli grounds in Mumbai. The first time I heard that barefoot running makes your feet stronger, I ordered the Vibram 5 fingers from Amazon to try. I was hooked from Day 1. I could run faster in them than I ever had earlier even though I stepped on an occasional pointy stone that made me question my sanity. Once there was also a rusted nail that found its way into my thumb but what’s life without glaring looks from a doctor giving you a tetanus shot?

After a couple of years of dragging my fat bottom around, the pain became pretty unmanageable. Something had to be done. One of my close friends, who was also a national level squash player showed me a youtube from ASICS. They dropped an egg from a few metres high onto a layer of gel and it didn’t break. When at the base of your feet, this gel cushions impact. From a guy who moved around my office barefeet, I had to wear my first pair of Kayanos even at home. Over the next 6 months or so, the pain went away but I never got back into running. I was scared. What if running caused another heel injury?

Fast forward to October last year, I was serving notice at work and had spare time. I also found myself itching to get back to running but was determined to not get another injury so dove into all research I could gather. Since I never made notes from the Internet, I’ll recommend the two books which went deepest. Born to Run where Christopher McDougall makes a strong case for running barefeet. His core argument is that hunter-gatherer feet are designed to run long distances and pronate naturally. Providing cushion breaks natural stride, makes feet weaker and more prone to injuries. Running science by Owen Anderson extends this argument and is an exemplary book overall which everyone designing their own training plans should pick up. It makes a strong case for a running stride that feels natural to you, not necessarily the most elegant one and running with thin midsoles which lets your feet take some beating. This also means that the life of a shoe isn’t 500Km but till you feel comfy running in it.

Armed with this knowledge but held back by my apprehensions, I started doing basic training again in ASICS Quantum 360, the most arch and midsole support I found without being bouncy (looking at you Nike Air Zoom). I also got an Apple watch to track how much was I pushing myself. I started doing 3K everyday in around 20 minutes, barely a jog let alone a run but loved that I could do it everyday for 30 days without being injured.

On the 31st, I let go for the first time in years and ran a 28 min 5K. That felt AMAZING. In my bones, I knew I was still quite slow and tired easily though. Took my old Vibrams out again and started training in them once a week. Also, got back to my old habit of no training plans. I’ll do today what I feel like. It might be a fast 3K or a more measured 10K. Once the headphones went inside my ears, this decision was made and my brain’s conversations took over.

By July of 2020, I had lost about 12Kgs in weight and running much better. I also added the Nike Free RN 5.0’s to my shoe cabinet since Vibrams continue to be a nuisance. They always start a conversation with fellow runners. My honest recommendation despite my years of love: don’t. You feel deep impact of all uneven surfaces like pebbles. You get used to it over time but the risk of foot injury is really high and the better stride / feet strength can be achieved by running with no shoes on a known surface. The Nike Free’s are a pretty good compromise that let me run any distance I wish without feeling like a sadist. I’ve also found a rotational formula that works for me. If I feel like breaking a personal speed best, I use the Free and if I want to go for distance (generally comes with unknown terrain), I go for the Quantum.

The conversations in my head today veered into the science of running so thought I’ll pen them down in case it helps anyone else gets back into running.

Ciao! Ravdeep



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