Learning to walk barefoot again

May 14, 2020 by Joshua
in Fitness, Visualization

For years I had to wear orthotics when running in regular running shoes and still felt back pain to where I gave up running. Switching to minimal running shoes returned me to pain-free running.

Interviewing podcast guest Nir Eyal, he talked about barefoot running. Most people mean ‘minimal shoe’ when they say ‘barefoot,’ but Nir meant barefoot. I decided to experiment running barefoot.

Switching to minimal shoe running, where I land on the balls of my feet, took months of building up my calf muscles and getting used to the new gait. Now I’m used to it. Running barefoot means building up my soles to handle the pavement. In Manhattan, running along the Hudson running and bike path, the surface is smooth, but here in semi-rural Douglas County, there aren’t even sidewalks.

I’m not worried about the surface in general once my feet acclimate to the pavement. Here are examples of marathon winners who ran barefoot in Olympics, New York, Boston, and more. Here’s a video of an Olympic athlete winning the marathon gold barefoot. I just have to take time to build up the bottoms of my feet.

Two habits get me walking nearly daily—my sidcha of picking up a piece of trash daily and my mom’s habit of walking at least 10,000 steps daily. I started walking a few yards barefoot and have progressed to two miles walking barefoot. We got snow last week here, so the cold weather limited my trying too many new things at once

My first two-mile walk at last felt comfortable. Partly I felt my feet must be developing thick enough skin. Partly I misread and found the next morning blisters at around the same spot on each heel.

Here are pictures of the blisters a couple days later, after I drained them and they refilled. They looked bigger and badder the first time but I didn’t feel like taking pictures. Now I want to show them as honest markers of my experiment.

Right heel
Left heel

You can also see a couple cuts on my left foot. Despite the blisters and cuts, the experience has become almost fun, at least a modest challenge.

I look forward to moving from walking to running. I expect more cuts and blisters on the way to stronger feet.

EDIT: a couple weeks later I tried running and scraped my toes on the ground. Here they are after healing a few days:

When I saw as much skin scrape off my big toe as I did, I thought they’d hurt a lot, but they looked worse than they felt.

EDIT: June 21 update. From an email to Nir:

I planned to run barefoot in Manhattan for the first time yesterday and tell you how much I loved it.

I loved it, but holy shit, I tore my feet up even more! I jogged down 10th Street to the river with shoes on, took them off, and started running, shoes in hand. The ground was so much smoother than out in the country, I felt free, painless, and ready to switch to barefoot forever. Plus I’ve been reading more about barefoot runners who have won marathons in the Olympics, New York City, and Boston so felt confident.

After about a mile, I hit some very hot ground. Not long after I hit some rough terrain. I kept going. Eventually I realized all my walking in the country, I landed on my heels. Now I was landing on the balls of my feet. They were starting to blister and hurt.

I put my shoes on and walked back — more like hobbled. So now I have two giant blisters like the ones in the pictures you saw but on the balls of my feet.

I’m not complaining — on the contrary, I value the learning experience. It hurts, but I wouldn’t call it suffering, Just learning. I’ll keep developing my soles. I’d guess I’ve developed them at least halfway to where I can run barefoot indefinitely.

EDIT: June 25: I ran about two miles barefoot this morning with no problem so I think the blisters last time came from the heat, not the surface.

Still plogging, by the way, not just jogging.

EDIT: July 5: I ran barefoot to 45th Street and back along the river—about four or five miles. No problem. On the contrary, when I put my shoes back on to plog from the river home, my feet feel confined, the shoes heavy. I think I’ve converted to preferring barefoot. It feels more free and fun.

Am I becoming an eccentric middle-aged New Yorker? I’ve switched from worrying people might think I’m weird to watching oncoming runners’ eyes to see when they look down at my feet. I’m curious to see their expressions.

New York City means as long as I’m not hurting anyone, do my thing.

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