Back to basics – barefoot running or my VFF testimonial

Sat morning Longjog - 30 km - 05
When I started out on my running career back in the summer of 2006 with the Holzstraßenlauf half-marathon, I was just testing grounds, in search of a replacement for my fading football passion. While I struggled to finish those 21 ks in a little more than 1:30 hrs, it was easy to realize that running would be just that – a rewarding, pleasurable, healthy pastime.

It’s been four years now since I started to run on a regular basis. Running has done a lot for me and I have done a lot of running, covering about 10’000 miles (16’000 km)n in the interim.
Graz Marathon 2008 - 11
After seven marathons it’s changed the way I feel, eat, sleep and organise my every day. And it has also brought in contact with my limits, which is generally a good thing but when it is achieved by pain, running starts to lose its allure. For me the limit was set by inflamed achilles tendons, also called Achilles Tendinitis. Doctors claim that it is caused by overtraining and partly I agree, blaming my over ambition. I had to slow down my pace and cut down on my mileage, ice-massage my Achilles tendons and tread them with incense ointment. Thus I could continue but the inflammation would never really leave.

I consulted a specialist who suggested treating my tendons with injections of steer blood followed by intense physiotherapy. While I could see the value in strengthening my feet and trunk by therapy, I was suspicious about the injections. You might have been able to life with the fact that they cost a fortune. But since it turned out that they were only targeting the inflammation, I was sure I could go on without them. I was sure that the inflammation would return as soon as I got off the syringe and back to my running routine. Thus I consulted a physiotherapist, Wolfgang Schriebl that is, who gave me a brimful of valuable advice, taught me some simple (but crushingly hard) exercises and made me aware of the importance of warming up properly before a run. After a few months I saw him again and he was very content with my progress. As a matter of fact, his verdict only confirmed the situation at my heels. It had improved tremendously. I was almost free from pain and whenever my tendons got inflamed after a hard running week, the inflammation tended to retreat much more quickly, mostly after one single rest day.
Marthon Salzburg Vorbereitung - 4
But there was still a limit set by my tendons. They reacted very sensitively to speed work. Whenever I approached 3:30 min per kilometer in tempo runs they started to scream out loud again. Then, one sunny spring day in May after the Boston Marathon, I instinctively took off my Asics DS Trainer (a shoe with arch support and thus not really supportive of the foot arch) and jogged for five minutes barefoot on the soccer field at the Rosenhain USI track. It was a funny sensation. The running actually felt good and bad at the same time. It was as if my feet were screaming out “Yes, thank you, that’s what we like!” but at the same time they seemed to be struggling to come to terms with the lack of cushioning of the high technology running shoes they were used to.
Not only did I enjoy the authentic feeling of the dewy grass on my feet, it also seemed as if my legs appreciated the barefoot cool down a lot. I had the impression that I recovered better and faster afterwards. But what stuck deepest was the fact, that despite the lack of cushioning at the heel, my achilles also felt better afterwards. I decided to throw in a barefoot run after each tempo run whenever possible. A habit developed, 5 to 15 minutes barefoot a week, which was not much, but enough to make a significant difference for me, my feet and achilles tendons.
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Then Jean-Pierre set up his families tends in Austria for another summer holiday. At that time I had throttled my running to about 70 ks a week, mainly because of the heat, relaxing from the post Boston Marathon overtraining which I had afflicted on myself once again out of over ambition. Now I was looking for a way back and increasing my mileage slowly and steadily also with an eye to the Römerlauf which I wanted to run together with JP. Crossing the Seggauberg with a hard 500 m climb and a 100 m elevation, the Römerlauf is not an easy run.
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I was curious about how JP would fare, especially on the second half with the demanding uphill and downhill sections in his rear view mirror. There JP revealed a stunning running talent, of which, it appears, he was the most surprised. Running, then, became our favorite topic whenever we met. He pointed out Born To Run, a book he was immersing about why we run.

It tells the far out story about a race in the wild, remote and hot canyons of Mexico between the best American ultra-runners and a hidden tribe of Mexican super-athletes. Interwoven is a strong case for running the natural way, barefoot or with minimalist shoes, dropping the gauntlet on the high technology running shoe industry by blaming all those running injuries on their artificial products. It’s a very passionate claim bordering to the desperate. But with my running and injury experiences, it somehow rang a bell – a growingly louder one. It also provided an explanation of why my tendons had improved in the last couple of months. While I had been aware of that fact, I found it difficult to locate the cause for it. Was it the strengthening exercises, the incense ointment or the barefoot cool down? The discussions with JP slowly revealed that my barefoot routine might have contributed more than I had originally expected. Now, after having dived deeper into the ocean of barefoot running, I can clearly see and fully appreciate now the benefits of barefoot running for my achilles ailments and they are huge.

After finishing the book, Jean-Pierre handed it on to me and encouraged me to read on after I got stuck after 50 pages or so. I am grateful that he did. I enjoyed the book and gained a lot of valuable insights. I also realized that there’s a lot more possible than I had imagined before. Thus the book also provided inspirations and a new perspective.

Immediately, I began to check my running shoe stable, realizing that too many of my shoes had too much technology under the hood, which, from a technology perspective, was awe inspiring but from a feet health point of view was rather sobering. I also started to increase my barefoot sessions, realizing soon that it would take a long time to make long runs on hard surfaces like pavement or even tartan. Since there is an ever growing barefoot scene in America, shoe companies have started to jump the bandwagon, offering shoes with a barefoot feeling. There are quite a few to choose from, starting from Barefoot Ted’s Luna sandals to Vibram’s Five Fingers (VFF) and of course there is Nike with its Nike Free and a lot more.

After reading of a barefoot disciple who not only ran an ultra marathon in VFF but also winning it, I decided to give them a go. At first, I thought that my elephant feet might rule me out of the game, but then I realized that Vibram was kind enough to consider my size and make it possible to select the size by simply measuring the length of your feet. Failing to find a shop in Austria selling the VFF, I remembered a conversation with my friend Vinzenz who praised Amazon for having a solution to every shopping problem. Thus I tried a search on amazon.de and surprise, surprise, they had a choice of VFF on their website. I was looking for the running version of the VFF, the Bikila, and was lucky enough to grab the last shoe in my size. Three days later, early morning today, they were delivered right to my doorstep.
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I couldn’t wait to try them on, dreading that they might not fit. When I pulled them out, I never thought that they could ever fit on my feet but after slowly and gradually inching forward with my toes, I was suddenly in there. After each toe was in the right pocket, I pulled up the head cup and nestled my heel into the VFF heel cup. Then I pulled the single strap closure across my instep and secured it. After wiggling my toes, I immediately felt at home in my VFF. I was caught by surprise. They did not only fit, they actually felt comfortable. I needed to test them. Now. Without putting off my VFF, I jumped out of my pajamas and into my running shorts and dashed out of the house for a 35 minutes morning jog.
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I was excited. How would my feet react? Would they need time to adjust? Would I get blisters? Would the VFF rub the sides of my toes? None of it! With every stride the good feeling got better. The running felt great and with the VFF it even felt better. In Born to run the author claims that running barefoot changes your running style, shifting the impact of your stride from the heel to the middle and fore foot, thus resulting in quicker and shorter strides. I had noticed that when I was running barefoot and I could notice it again in my VFF. It was clear to see. I was running differently: more carefully, with smaller strides and lighter. What a difference to the sloshing in my Asics Evolution, which are heavy on the foot due to their stability and cushioning technology.
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I ran across some gravel, up and down a hill, and after 25 minutes I had done the longest barefoot run (or more rather minimalist shoe run) in my life, feeling that I wanted to go on and on. I considered running up Roseggerweg for a longer foray into the woods but then checked my enthusiasm – I didn’t want to spoil that good feeling by overdoing the whole thing – and returned home. I felt great. My feet even felt better, like just having had a wonderful foot massage. My achilles tendons also responded approvingly. Now I was even more excited. These shoes really surprised me in the most positive manner.
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When I went out for my 3 x 3’000 meter tempo runs (3:35 min/km) this afternoon, my legs were perfect. The morning run in my VFF had loosened them and I was ready for a tough session. After completing the tempos, which I ran in my Asics DS Trainer, I changed over to the VFF and cooled down running 4 more kilometers. My morning’s verdict still holds and here I am sitting looking forward to an early morning jog with them tomorrow!

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