During the nokkon Runnerview with Sally Coggins she put me onto the book “Born to Run” by Christopher Mcdougall, which started my interest in barefoot running. I think every runner in the world bar me has heard of this book, as my level of reading usually peaks at street signs or toilet wall inspirational quotes, and even on a good day that’s a stretch. Conversations with innovative running coach Enfer Running about body movement also fuelled my minimalist curiosity. I wanted to know whether my own running could benefit and how my body would react to the barefoot element. So naturally I set an unrealistic goal; to run a 50km beach sand ultra….barefoot. I quickly got my training back up to where I wanted it and scoped a 30km uninterrupted section of beach in WA, with the plan to do an out and back run. The next morning I packed large and headed out. All went well up to 10km when foot and sand abrasion became apparent. By the 25km turn around point I had some serious blisters under my toes, I could feel a lot of liquid between the soles of my feet and see some traces of blood. I thought about the exponential factor of endurance running (if you are in trouble at half way point, its going to be one hell of a slog fest home bound). After a little rest and a few test runs, I called the run off and banked it is as “needs more work”. Those of you who like to set challenging goals will be familiar with the feeling when an incomplete goal starts to haunt you. You keep thinking about it and it won’t leave you alone. Everything you see is a cue for it. Your latte foam starts looking like a pristine section of flat white beach sand. There is a personal drive that is relentless to just #getitdone and experience the relief to have that goal ticked off the list. However, realistically we know that’s a pipe dream. The relief is temporary and the accomplishment is just replaced with another poorly thought out act of insanity, sending us back into the vicious cycle of goal achieving. With that acceptance of human insatiability/greed for personal achievement, it was time to move ahead.
The plan begins
From here I started looking at foot conditioning and coming back again to conquer this personal goal. The plan changed and thoughts were – “If I couldn’t do it barefoot, I’ll do the next best thing and run it Tarahumara tribe style with some sandals”.
I short-cut the 500 years of training and conditioning the tribe has spent wearing in their running sandals and purchased a pair of Barefoot Ted’s Luna Sandals. size 9.5 leadville pacer model 9mm sole and prepared myself for instant results.
My goals were to wear the sandals as my running shoes and casual shoes for a normal week of running training. I wanted to gather some information on if they would be suitable to do the 50km beach ultra in, natural movement feedback, how they would effect my feet, body, endurance, technique, movement, performance, what would happen when I ran in shoes again and most importantly if my wife would still love me if these became a wardrobe staple.
My immediate thoughts on receiving them were:
-they aren’t super aesthetically pleasing but in saying that they aren’t ugly either. Try and imagine an Italian designer Croc modified by a Spartan solider. I would of preferred the leather straps and leather sole but they weren’t advertised as a trail running model and most importantly… they weren’t on sale for $60.
-that strap is going to destroy the soft unadulterated skin between my toes.
-surprised how the ankle strap runs around and under the sole and contacts the ground. Wouldn’t that cause it to wear and snap?
On putting them on I realised just how well designed, soft and what an unrestrictive feel the strap system has. They have a great ability to adjust the straps on heel and toe for ease of fitting adjustments and fine tuning. Getting them on and off is a simple pull of the velcro heel tension strap.
-the sole is definitely as advertised and feels barefoot.
-they seem a bit big and flippery around the surrounds of my foot. This proved useful later on uneven terrain. The wide sole protected the edges of my feet allowing for movement without my feet sliding off the soles. My initial trials around the house did result in me tripping over the toes twice. I had a vision of doing that whilst running and sending my front teeth into the pavement or breaking my wrists. Fortunately I never tripped on them running. I put it down to just getting used to them.
Time to hit the road
Day 1: Friday
AM: 11km negative split, out and back with Shaun, Nathan, Pete. Port Melbourne to St Kilda return with light rain on a paved path surface. On first steps I immediately moved to a flat mid foot strike (I usually pronate a lot and run forefoot strike). It appeared that it was a natural response to spread the foot strike impact more evenly. I Started first 3-4kms with quiet foot strike, ran through multiple puddles in light rain. After 4 kms foot strike noise increased and Nathan commented on this. At the turn around point I could feel my calves working harder. We progressively increased intensity with my feet impact noise varying depending when I was focussing on adjusting foot strike. I felt abrasion on side of right foot in contact with the sole, ending the run in a 4:00min km finish at speed.
I ended up with a 1/2 inch blister on right foot which I attributed to abrasion of skin and sole caused by water in sandal. This was also consistent with my barefoot beach ultra attempt as blisters became apparent when running on wet sand. My calves were sore from fatigue. The new form adjustments and controlled landings were working a different location in my calf muscles.
PM: 8km progressive intervals with Michelle. South Wharf on 1km loop road surface.
My calves were sore but once they warmed up, no problems. The blister from the mornings run was fine, no issues.
I had a noisy foot impact on start up until I had warmed up and then could hold form. It required self awareness during speed changes to maintain quiet impact and it was much easier to hold form because the interval rest periods minimised fatigue.
Day 2: Saturday
14km The Tan and Yarra run with 500m sprint lap. Pete and Liz. Surface- road or compact path surface.
My calves had fatigued badly and were about as difficult to get started as Grandads antique 2 stroke Victa lawnmower (manual choke). My blister on right foot remained but no pain. My form consistency required significant self awareness to maintain. From 4kms it was a battle. I used foot strike noise as self awareness cue, and yo-yo’d good-bad-good-bad-badder. We threw in a mid run 500m Sprint loop. Foot strike impact was very noisy and sharp bends at speed felt unstable as my feet slid slightly sideways on soles, although no issue with speed. It was difficult to make any form adjustments at speed, so I just went for it. I also had very noisy impact on Anderson St descent. I couldn’t adjust form to quieten the impact. I took it as an indicator that I need to work on my hill descent form…something I already new but hadn’t done.
Day 3: Sunday
20km 800m elevation Dandenongs trail loop, with Ash, Pete, Macca and Liz. Undulating rises with progressive climb on loose forest trail.
My calves were now fatiguing badly. The blister still present but healing and not being aggravated by running. It took 1km in for the rust to come off my calves and start to sustain a semi fluid movement. We completed the 10km climb to Sky High Dandenong with hill walking sections. No issues on climb. On the 10km return I had multiple rocks in between heels and soles, harsh impacts on descents and felt every uneven surface and rock. I felt unstable and had concerns for rolling an ankle over the rocks. I was constantly stopping to get small rocks out from heels. I could not consciously adjust form enough to prevent issues and pulled a classy ass plant when I slipped over on steep descent (moments before this I had taken a photo of Pete sliding and were laughing uncontrollably) those damn forest karma fairies. There were no problems on the limited flats. The poor form and scuffing continued to flick rocks up into my sandals. Even though I knew this was happening, I didn’t have enough strength to adjust to better form. It turned into a #getitdone run. This run appeared to be a high risk of injury due to poor body control, poor descent form and neglect for picking clear paths of travel.
6km with Shaun and Liz. 3km out and back intervals on compact limestone trail and path.
What was left of my calves felt sore and fatigued quickly at about 3kms. The rocks on path were flicking in under heels which was consistent with my point of fatigue. There were more noisy impacts on pace work after fatigue. I ran through beach sand which came out of sandal easily whilst running, and moved onto grass on sections to quieten impact noise and for the feel of a softer more forgiving impact surface.
Day 5: Tuesday
AM- 12km Port Melbourne Loop with Pete and Chris from Gorun. The surface was paved path. My calves were sore but I ran consistently with a pace increase tempo finish. No significant noisy impacts and managed to run occasional intervals without issues. Once again moved onto the grass if there was the option.
PM- 9km Yarra, The Tan and Anderson St hill repeats with Michelle and Simon. My calves fatigued significantly. It was hard to hold form entire run, even when running slower pace. The Anderson St descents were poor control and very noisy impact, with foot movement across soles.
My calves were very sore at end of day. Considered wearing shoes for the first time on 2nd run.
10km out and back tempo negative split on road surface with Liz in Docklands. I put some focus on feet landing under body which kept impact noise relatively quiet. I noticed noisy impact at start of run until body self adjusts to fluid run movements. On 5km return focussed on cadence and this contributed to better form and no impact issues. I felt abrasion with side of left foot on sole causing a blood blister. This could be contributed to the soles now starting to form a concave shape more around my feet, change in form due to fatigued legs, tightening the straps tighter in preparation for tempo and/or the many corners and turns in this run. Finished the day with beach sprints on Flinders beach, no issues with the dry or wet sand.
21km on road or compact path at easy pace around Melbourne City, with Liz, George, Adam, Pete, Ash, Bel, Paul, Edyta, Alice, Michelle, Nicole, Adam and special appearance from Sally (coincidentally the sadist who sparked the barefoot ideas). There were no issues with running and the calf fatigue was starting to ease. I could feel the blister on my left foot and light fatigue set in around the 10km mark, though it wasn’t substantial enough to flick up rocks into heels as previous runs. We accelerated to tempo at 3km from finish with good form. My new blister on left foot burst during tempo but I didn’t feel it.
Conclusions and takeaways
After 7 days my feet looked like and felt like a mess. To say they switched on to feeling impact would be an understatement. They felt like every little receptive nerve in them were functioning at 110%. The skin was much harder and resilient now, even starting to crack on my right pinky toe.
My calves felt it the most. The controlled, self aware foot strike gets them working overtime, and combined with the isolated calf muscle conditioning that comes with form change… they were pretty cooked. Every run needed a significant warm up to get them moving and feeling ok.
The practicality of the sandals were great. They make prepping for running easy and they pack down very small if you want to take them anywhere with you. They are great for the beach and no searching for you favourite socks in the stinky dirty washing basket. It was very convenient to have them worn casually and also to run in.
The best takeaway I got from these were that they are an amazing indicator for form and impact focus due to the loud slapping loud noises when running out of form. It is a great cue that I was getting tired, something had changed or I needed to focus on certain techniques in certain situations. As an education tool, you certainly learn a lot about the way you are moving in the moment.
Generally my feet rarely see the sun, so this was a massive change for them. In hindsight I would be more incremental with my introduction to barefoot with a planned minimalist shoe pathway.
In the future I will use them intermittently based on their benefits, current body condition, race purpose and goals, environment. It’s not the type of footwear I would use in every situation and would avoid runs where I am going to fatigue and be out of form, and/or runs with a lot of sharp corners. They are simply another option that his its time and place based on conditions and what you want to get out of your running.
I will continue to use them in training to keep familiar with mid foot strikes, keeping muscle memory in calves, and familiarity with the movement.
There was a strong feeling of connection with environment, particularly on the Dandenong run. I enjoyed the minimalist feel of less is more and the mental confidence to be able to run with less tools or “essentials”. It was basically running at its simplest form. Combine that with running in natural surrounds and with an amazing group of people, it made for a very special experience.
I found if I ran with good form, am self aware of my movements, actively listening and looking for bad form cues then wearing sandals or shoes makes little difference to my performance. The risk was once I had fatigued, started running “sloppy” and it’s harder or not possible to hold good form. I believe shoes in this state may offer more preservation and protection from injury through using more cushioning soles than the sandals (more forgiving). I would happily train in sandals in short course work or very easy pace distance where I know I won’t fatigue to badly and the surface choice wouldn’t be too much of an issue for me. This may allow for good form, and exposure/muscle memory to mid foot strike which the sandals promoted, whilst still keeping calves conditioned for this movement. I enjoy the connection and feel of the surface you are running on, and the feedback you receive from feel and noise as to when your form may be slipping. As for blister prevention- don’t get water in them or if you do then dry them out quickly and condition your feet for resilience.
My wife’s opinion of them “they stink, get them far away from me”. Which turns out they are very easy to clean by simply wearing them in the shower and giving them a scrub.
I am looking forward to seeing what happens when I put shoes back on and run. That’s next week, and as for the beach 50km ultra……the haunting continues 😀.