My First Barefoot Experiment

January 17, 2012

All of us runners are a little strange in one way or another, right? Our non-runner friends always inquire why we would want to be on our feet for so long only to end up at the same place we started, exhausted and malodorous. At times, I cannot figure it out either. We keep at it through cold weather, extreme fatigue, dehydration, and stomach problems. Then there are the injuries. Oh, the injuries. Sore knees, twisted ankles, angry IT bands, and pulled hamstrings to name just some of the common runner ailments.

Recently, I wrote about hurting my Achilles by stupidly running on sneakers with worn out support. It started feeling better after a week of rest, ice, and a healthy (but safe) does of ibuprofen. Then I ran on it for about an hour on a nearby trail with a buddy. Though it felt good during the run, by the time I got back home it was screaming once again. That was a Monday. By the subsequent weekend I was fed up with the prospective of this once-a-week run pattern. Or worse.

Combining frustration with this recent injury and the general strangeness of a runner’s mind, I decided to try an experiment. Fresh off (finally) reading Born to Run and Chris McDougall’s more recent follow-up story in the New York Times, I felt like it was time to try something different. I also happened to have just read about another recent Harvard study on running mechanics. Only something outside my accepted running comfort zone could possibly work at this point. Realizing it has become so cliché to say that I had “battled through injuries,” enough was enough.

So I went about my Saturday like any other day, minus the running part. Finally, when 11 o’clock rolled around that night, I pulled on some shorts and laced up my running sneakers. Knowing full well what I was about to do, I wanted to make sure the gym downstairs was empty. To my dismay, there were actually two other people who were about to witness what I am sure was a peculiar sight. After some amount of stretching I took a deep breath and unlaced my sneakers. Constantly peeking around to see if I was on the business end of any “what the $%!# are you doing?” stares, I set my shoes and socks next to the treadmill and climbed aboard.

After almost 19 minutes of running barefoot, I powered down and stumbled off the treadmill. As in most scientific experiments, there were two kinds of results. Here is my report.

What went wrong:

  • Blisters, blisters, and more blisters. My feet looked like they had just stared down a paintball firing squad. They felt like it too.
  • A general feeling of awkwardness. I felt wobbly. Sporadically throughout the run I had to re-center myself on the belt.
  • I ran slower than I had intended. Not wanting to overdo it at first was probably smart, but I reserve the right to get pissed off at myself for holding back on any run.
  • I am pretty sure I still did not exhibit anywhere near perfect form.
  • Did I mention the blisters? They were painful. I started out hoping to go three miles. A few minutes past mile one I figured I could push through two and a half. At the two mile mark, I forced my legs through one more “lap” around the virtual track on the display and called it quits.

What went right:

  • There was no pain in my Achilles. The only time it bothered me was when I put my running sneakers back on to walk upstairs.

And that one success, my friends, was all the difference.

This is not to say that in one treadmill session I miraculously discovered my own Tarahumara form and will never be in pain again. Far from it on both counts. I also do not want to imply that running sneakers are inherently bad and caused any of my injuries. They have served me very well over the years. What the experience did tell me is that there is, in fact, a stride that I could practice that would go a long way towards achieving the goal of injury-free running. I covered 2.25 miles in 18:45, and those last 400 meters in 1:44. While that is significantly slower than my normal pace, it was a hard run given the pain under my feet and the nerves experienced with never having attempted this before. Also, my calves were sore like they had never really been used to run until that night. Since really, they hadn’t.

There are radical ideas out there. But as we well know, history’s most glorified inventors and innovators had ideas that all started out as fringe. Oddly, only a few of my running friends called me crazy when I told them about my experiment. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me given how popular barefoot running is these days. Or maybe it just speaks to how nuts all of us runners really are.

So if you see anyone trying out this brand of crazy in the future, try not to laugh. Especially since that would be embarrassing as we passed you.

Finally, if you had a hard time visualizing the trauma visited upon the bottoms of my feet, here it is:



  1. Time to get some Vibrams, Steve. Join the club!

    • I had no idea you had them, very very interesting. Though since my barefoot experiment, I have purchased a pair of the Brooks PureCadence, one of their minimalist sneakers from the new PureProject line. I am still easing into them, but will definitely be writing more on how that goes pretty soon!

  2. Nice post…ouch.

    • Thank you! And yes, the blisters were pretty bad for a few days. Fortunately, they are better now though. I imagine it is something like playing guitar, where your fingers have to callus before they stop hurting.

  3. I know the pictures of your feet are pertinent to your post but perhaps future posts can have more attractive pictures. Your using both english and metric distances tend to confuse. Your 400 meters in 1:44 translates close to 7 minute miles, right (arithmetic in my head)? Is your normal 5 – 6?

    • The pictures were a must. If I am going to be a thorough and mildly authoritative source here, the least I could do is share my gross, blistered soles.

      And the 1:44 400m translates to a 6:58 mile. My “normal” these days can range anywhere from 6:15-7:00. But the 8:20 per-mile pace of the first 2.25 miles was really what I was speaking to for the “slower” pace. That said, it is still strong and I (or anyone) should be happy with it. Which ultimately, I was.

  4. Well done taking the plunge! The first time’s always the hardest. Regarding the blisters, this is a very common problem when running barefoot on treadmills. They have a tendency to cause more friction againt your feet.
    I’m assuming it’s cold outside where you live, but I’d receommend giving it a go outside some day…you’ll likely not get the blisters and still get the benefits you already saw.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks! It was definitely a unique challenge. The blisters were kind of expected, but not to that degree. Even though it was a treadmill, it was still very cool to feel the ground that closely below my feet.

      And I have thus far been happy with my minimalist shoes, though still working on stride and acclimating. It is fairly cold here, so once the weather starts to ease up there is a good chance I will try another barefoot run.

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