Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why and How I Became a Barefoot Runner?

I came from the sport of Bicycle Road Racing at the International level.

In that season I logged over 750,000 mile of racing and training.

Because of those decades of being bent over my bikes handlebars my body optimized itself for being in that position and not being a “Bi-ped” or person designed for moving gracefully or efficiently across the land. (I mention this because most of you did not grow up running as a natural and daily part of your lives. Most people grow up wearing shoes and moving from chair to chair especially as the decades pile on).

I came to a season 3 years ago where I transitioned to running from cycling and I quickly learned that my feet were so atrophied from being encased in carbon fiber soled shoes the right one had gout and many of it's bones were fusing due to calcification and the left one had no stability at all.

From coping with decades of seasonal crashes and being in a leaning forward position for so many miles my pelvis tilted unnaturally forward at the top and my gluteus and quads were very over developed.

Most short races or criteriums are run in a counter clockwise direction around courses that are less than a mile in diameter for up to 40 miles. These are very high speed races with lots of anaerobic level sprinting in tight packs where elbowing for room to pass with riders all across the road pursing cash prizes for being the first person across the line on any given lap where the winnings can be anything from $25 to $1,200 lots of crashes due to landing on the same side so many times my body had compensated by twisting my pelvis counter clockwise when viewed from above resulting in a timing difference for the nerves firing in my right leg faster than my left creating a timing difference when applying power over the top of the pedal stroke. This added in the wonderful effect up the biomechanical chain of creating a scoliosis spine, a dropped right shoulder and my head literally being a whole inch off centered on my shoulders to the left due to the scoliosis.

Why did I bother to illustrate this?

Because 3 yrs ago after a brand new "Star Wars" grade $10,000 carbon fiber "Wonder Bike" I was breaking in on by taking it down a small mountain grade at 61 mph decided to disintegrate with zero warning (frame exploded out of no where!) leaving me on the asphalt with significant road rash I felt like Forest Gump once he had run back and forth across the USA enough times he just stopped and knew it was time to go home. I knew that I had turned my last pedal. A nice couple in a Honda CRV was kind enough to stop as they witnessed the whole thing happen and they offered the pieces and myself a ride home.

I got a full refund from the manufacturer of that rig and after a week or so of my burns healing I began to get the itch for sweat, lungs full of outdoor air and bumping up against my max heart rate.

A few days later I woke up with the distinct impression I was to go buy a pair of running shoes.... and run again.... Something I had not done since back in my late teens to early 20's in the mid 1970's.

Never the less I immediately loved sweat, breathing deeply and feeling myself moving across the land under my own power again. That quickly evolved into dreams of being able to run as far as I used to be comfortable riding a bike in a day (25-160 miles at a clip was normal) I figured if my engine (heart and lungs) was more than adequate for it all I had to do was get my feet and legs up to that level of adaptedness.
Within a coupe to 3 wks I was running 12-17 miles per day but dealing with chronic knee pain, shin splints, blisters, blue toe nails, foot fungus, back and hip pain, ankle and toe joint pains to name just a few parts that I hobbled home with.

Oh, and my wife who occasionally went out running with me for part of those miles told me I didn't run upright. She said my posture was like an Ape! Hunched over and loping instead of being vertical and graceful. I was both embarrassed and knew something was very wrong but I'd figure it out if I kept stressing my body and allowing it to adapt before going back out to lay up the next layer of adaptation stressing.

Well over a few months of realizing I was also on the hook for replacing $130 shoes every 21-28 days due to my heavy heel striking style which caused the heels to be shot in that little mileage (about 280-325 miles per month) I hated that. After my bike broke I and I took to running one the things I realized I had done over the decades is wasted 100's of 1000's of dollars on bikes and all the gear needed to ride and support them and wished I had all that back and in the bank. I couldn't help but think that being fit should not be a financial drain of any kind.

As my knees and shins got worse I began to research on the internet how others had coped with this stage and gotten to where they now ran at least a marathon or 2 per month or how the 100+ milers (Ultra Runners) seem to do 1-2 of those per month, month after month relatively injury free.

This lead to my meeting a fella out of Huntington Beach called Ken Bob Saxton over the Internet who ran a marathon or 2 a month Barefoot! Ken Bob has his own site dedicated to Barefoot Running at

As we exchanged message through post on his website I eventually got him to agree to a phone call. On that call after sharing my laundry list of symptoms he explained to me that we were never designed to wear modern day running shoes as their design actually had no relevance to how our biomechanics were designed to function. Meaning most people whether walking or running have been "Retrained" to land on their heels when in nature no Native or Natural tribes land on their heels. Instead they land on the balls or the pads of the "mid foot" so that the cantilevered structure of the arch is activated as a natural "leaf spring" not unlike what is found underneath the back axle of most pick up trucks for both suspension, shock absorption and load carrying capacity if you care to get down on your belly and look up under one if you've never done so.

Landing on the heels not only by passes this natural beginning to optimal loading of your weight during the "walking or running gait or movement" It encourages us to over or hyper extend the knee by over activating the "hip flexors" in effect straightening out the upper and lower legs bones to make the knee joints into nothing more than a non cushioning biscuit to be smashed on every heel strike while the shoe makers tell us they have put adequate "Super Duper Star Wars" form and other dinosaur juice based technology into the heel areas to protect us from the "pounding of the pavement" (actually our ignorance and stupidity) This behavior and programming (as it is a form of hypnosis since the soles of our feet were designed to supply us with feed back so that we would constantly adjust our stride, gait, sole firmness, angle of sole contact, feel for the need to lighten the loading of the foot if something potentially injurious were under it and to be more conscious and intentional about where we place our feet or step for more certain and safer footing)

I knew a ton about the biomechanics of Cycling and optimizing ones position on a bike comfortable and relatively injury free mega mileage with very high speed capacity. I had never thought of running in regards to actual biomechanics, efficiency, gait break down and optimization of fluidity during the movement of shifting ones weight from one side of the body to the other at higher and higher speeds.

Ken Bob Saxton in all his simple wisdom shared with me a single sentence that forever changed how I looked at running.

He said, "Barefoot Running FORCES CORRECT BIOMECHANICS." Within seconds of hearing that statement it hit me like a ton of bricks why all those years of paying for Chiropractic treatments, working out at the gym, seeing various doctors about foot, leg, hip, back and neck pains was a huge waste of time and money and why not even the Chiropractor could give me a viable or straight answer as to why they could "crack me" back into correct alignment but could not teach me one thing I could do on my own to retrain my body to stay stacked up properly so I didn't need them or the MD's dumb ass suggestions of replacing knee joints, or the nutritionist suggestions of taking supplements to support the joints and such. Totally bogus paths to permanent and sustainable health for the rest of my life!

No needless to say within a couple of days of pondering this totally out of left field idea of heading out the door without my "Foot Condoms" I woke bolt up in bed at 130am one night with the distinct impression I was to go out for night time run of perhaps 10-12 miles as the pain in my knees and shins was down to "tolerable". So I got dressed and slipped on my Camel Bak on to have a place for my keys and bit of water and headed out the door. I didn’t get 10 feet down the sidewalk approaching where it curved around the end of my garage when I heard as if there was someone on the roof of my garage, “Lose the Shoes!” I spun around triggering the motion detection lights on the front of our garage and looked up. No one there! I thought, “I must not be fully awake and am having an awake dream bleeding through out here!” Pondered that for another second and went to set into a running gallop only to hear it just as loud again! I spun around looking towards the house expecting to see someone who would bust out laughing after having successfully pulled a very funny prank on old serious Erskien! Nothing! No one! At this point I look to the sky and state, “Is that you Lord?” Knowing full well in my soul I prayed for more guidance on navigating and mastering the mind field running had unveiled that I was taking more hits than I thought I could endure through.

So in a split second I felt confirmed that this nonsensical suggestion was of Divine Origin and I knew that so many forks in the roads of my life where I thought that direction was not logical had in fact turned into blessings in disguise. I took my Asics Star Wars shoes off with their Super Duper Super Feet orthotics and stuffed them into the outer pockets of my Camel Bak as I didn’t know how far I could go without them or if I’d reach a point where I’d had enough barefooting but still want to go more miles.

So off I went….

It took me all of about 50 ft on the cool smooth concrete sidewalks to find myself feeling “Giddy” (That joyous feeling that makes a plan face develop a smile for no definable reason other than the feeling to smile just flood upward out of the soul like a well that just became a geyser of pure fresh cold water!)

Suddenly I was so happy I literally did just begin smiling and could feel it and KNEW beyond a shadow of a doubt that the end of my “Valley of the Shadows” journey through what seemed link endless and deepening pain was coming to a close! Adding to the joy was the realization and confirmation that God had heard my prayers and actually waited for me to become humbled enough to ask for “His WILL for my Life” over my own (how to run in shoes or according to mans way over what he built this “Space Suit” called a body to do by NATURE.

Nonetheless, that day began my Barefoot Running Adventure into a realm of Running that is invisible to those who only know it through the filter called shoes. I’ve logged over 6800 miles in the last 3 yrs or so and I can tell you there were many miles and months of discomfort, aches, pains and bruises to endure but not one moment did I ponder going back to shoes or riding my bike. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was a Divinely Inspired Path for me and that my traveling this path would become a liberating and healing path for literally millions of others to discover the most obvious yet hidden door to healthy mobility, fitness, inspiration and sanity built right into the very fabric of life there is.

I did reach a point where my soles were so bruised from rocks and pebbles (the gritty kind that’s everywhere here in Southern California) that I realized I could not go back to my “jacked up back end squishy running mattress shoes” so I got a pair of Vibram Five Fingers(basically a soft rubber casting of the sole of your feet with a Lycra top and they have toes like gloves so your toes can spread out naturally. The soles are cut with “S” shaped lines to make them extremely flexible in all directions for a much closer to barefoot feeling but with enough rubber to mute some of the feed back normal to going pure Barefoot.

I have since found an much cheaper and simpler “Minimalist Sort of Shoe” called Huaraches made by Invisible Shoe owned and run by Steven Sashen of Colorado that I like a lot more than the Vibram’s as they are open, lighter, do not rub against the toe nails in the latter miles of long runs and as mentioned are much cheaper. I am most impressed with how much they mute out gravel and grit on top of concrete or hard packed trails yet give me plenty of feed back about pressure or loading of the foot parts, natural flexibility of the whole foot, quietness and how well they cling to the soles despite being held on by merely pieces of rope! I am finding that on days when speed is the priority the Huaraches are what I prefer. On days when just cruising miles and being more intimately involved in what and where I step are OK I go completely Barefoot. Due to the light weight of the Huaraches I am more likely to bring them along in my Camel Bak’s outer pocket for extreme surfaces, latter miles of a super long run or to be able to go into Barefoot Unfriendly businesses for resupplying during long runs.

If you have questions or would like any kind of consultation on what your dealing with or insights on some sticking point in your adaptation to Natural Running feel free to contact me through any means I’ve listed on my Facebook Profile. My prayers for you are that you discover what I have and it blesses you even more than it has me.

PS: I might also add that I have become inspired to plan a “Run Across America” to launch in the Spring of 2011. Not sure if it will be completely Barefoot or supplemented with such minimalist shoes as above depending on how my feet continue to adapt to more extreme terrains and surfaces. I’ve put all that in God’s hands as he has and is my Coach on the “Road of Life” anyways. J

Erskien Lenier.


Nathan said...

Fantastic story. I'm ready to head out for a barefoot run right now thanks to your inspiration. Please keep us abreast of your plans for running across America.

Gibrán said...

Wow, this is really amazing! I have started to run just 5 months ago and am doing only 8 miles 3 times a week, with shoes, of course.

I would like to ask you:

-Do you run barefoot on asphalt? Doesn't that hurt like hell?
-What do you think of Nike Free, at least as a way to ease into barefoot running?
-Have you had any complications specifically because of running barefoot?

I am a bit afraid to, you know, just go and dump the shoes, specially on asphalt (the only track available to me at the time)but you have inspired me to at least consider it!

Erskien Lenier Barefoot Ultra Marathon Runner said...

Gabran: I run on Asphalt and Concrete and some rocky trails. 99% on Concrete and Asphalt.
The key is to relearn what "Natural Runnings Biomechanics" behave like. All shoes teach unnatural movements of the feet, ankles, lower leg bones, knee, thigh and hips resulting in eventual injury.
Barefoot Running gives such perfect and consistent feedback through the soles of the feet that one can immediately and continuously adjust the foot landing, the foot placement in relation to your natural center of gravity (Under the Pelvis), turn the whole body from the soles up into one giant spring and use gravity as the primary driver for forward motion more so than muscles pushing one across the land.
A great "transition shoe" or "bail out" shoe for when you've gone as far as your soles can take for the day is these: by Steven Sashen. I use them for traversing jagged rocky stretches and thorn infested areas. They are light, cheap and easy to stuff in a Camel Bak hydration bag pocket until needed.
Barefoot Running you find is the comprehensive solution to all known running related pains and injuries. What is common for shoe wearers is unknown for Barefooters.

Put your fears aside and bring your shoes along on your first Barefoot run. Just find a smooth stretch of side walk and slip off your shoes and begin landing on the balls of your feet towards the outside surface rolling inboard as you load the foot. Bend your knees and stand torso tall while leaning forward only at the ankles and feel the magic begin. Once you've gone as far as is fun put your shoes back on and don't barefoot run again until your feet have fully absorbed the prior session. You'll find over the weeks, months and miles the distances become further and further and eventually you will leave your shoes at home! Warning! Once one does the above shoes will never feel right again! :) Add me to your Facebook Friend List as Erskien Lenier. Let's stay in touch.

okultrarunner said...

Erskein - Your history of your entry into barefoot running is quite a literary work. Very interesting. I am in the process of getting a pair opf Vibram Five Fingers to see how they will work for me. They also push the boundaries of current running philosophy & goes perfect with my foundation - Know No Boundaries.

Do you have any tips to keep inmind as I start to runin them? I am a marathon & ultra distance runner but in shoes so far.


Erskien Lenier Barefoot Ultra Marathon Runner said...

Ken: The key is to practice your "Form" while standing still initially. YouTube "Pose Method" and watch a few videos to get the visuals on the various parts of the Natural Running "Gait Movements" Once you have those down it's as simple as adding a slight lean forward at the ankles only to create forward motion.

Understand that even being a Ultra Runner right now your basically about to start all over from scratch as far as you feet, ankles, legs and hips are concerned. There is going to be weeks and months of various levels of soreness as you awaken the pathways that have atrophied from artificial running habits adopted for running in poorly designed shoes.
As mentioned before to others: Run Barefoot and bring along your Vibrams as a "Bail Out" shoe for once you have gone as far as you can and feel good at the sole level. Only use any kind of layer between your soles and the ground during recovery days or stages when your feet and legs need "the Mute Button" activated to cut down the amount of feed back your soles are providing you with until they have completely absorbed the prior workout. Then off with the Vibrams and go barefoot again. Week by week and month by month you will see that your going further and further and more hours barefoot before any kind of tenderness comes about. One day you will forget your Vibrams and the concrete will feel like your running on pillows! Then you will have masters Barefoot Running.

Mohammad Yousuf Mulaifi said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful Article

Paul said...

What an awesome post. You've left me truly inspired.