I’m eight days in to my 30-day barefoot running program and here are three things I’ve noticed.
1. When I eat less meat, I run better. As Chris McDougall explained, when our species was just starting out we did indeed need concentrated sources of high-quality protein to fuel the growth of our huge melon-heads. But now that we’re fully grown, do we need meat all the time and at every meal? The quick answer is no. Fear of protein lack, like fear of terrorism, has taken over our consciousness. I don’t know all the science. It’s all conflicting and conflicted anyway. All I know is: when I eat more nuts and seeds, more leafy greens, more fruits and berries, more green superfoods like spirulina and wheatgrass, more vegetable protein, and less dead animals, I feel like a gazelle.
2. I’m calmer. Running without music, as it’s necessary for me to do so I can really concentrate on my breathing and form, has turned my runs into moveable meditation sessions. I’m calm when I run and this serenity has stayed with me throughout my day. For example, yesterday afternoon I discovered a flood in my basement. I went downstairs to do some laundry and it looked like SeaWorld without the orcas. No problem! I found the offending pipe (there was a tiny hole in the cold-water feed that runs up to my kitchen sink), sealed it shut, and will call a plumber. So we don’t have cold water in our kitchen at the moment, but hey, who needs it? I’m a barefoot runner. It’s all good. See how easy that was?
3. I direct my mind to the soles of my feet. The barefoot running program I’m on doesn’t just concentrate on correct form. It also reintroduced me to the sensation of actually feeling my feet touch the ground. I’ve been walking barefoot, lightly jogging barefoot, and wearing my barefoot running shoes for longer runs. All these activities draw my attention to the soles of my feet. Highly padded shoes have made our feet weaker and put up a barrier between our bodies and nature. Modern running shoes are just a blip on the continuum of the history of human running. Our ancestors ran barefoot, or with simple, thin, homemade sandals. By learning barefoot running, I’m not only allowing my feet to tell my body what naturally feels right, I’m connecting with the ancients. In an old Zen story, two monks are arguing over a flag flapping in the wind. The first monk says the flag is moving. The second monk says the wind is moving. The Zen master, overhearing the argument, says it’s neither the flag nor the wind that is moving. It’s the mind that is moving.
Like my mind. Moving, down, down, touching earth.
- Don’t give a fuck.
- Learn proper form.
- Drink wheatgrass and/or other green foods.
- Go meatless.
- Grow long hair and/or a beard.
- Find the right shoes.
- Or no shoes.
- Leave your technology at home.
- Lose the Lycra.
- Run when you feel like it.
- Take naps.
- Drink a shit-ton of clean water.
- Get a roller. Not that kind of roller. The foam kind.
- Get naked.
- Down with coffee, up with green tea.
- Take a sauna.
- Find your drishti.
- Eat less, run more.
- Work less, run more.
- Maintain creative indifference.
- Maintain creative fidelity.
- It’s OK to walk.
- Think like a child.
- Stand up.
- Do something else.
- Lose your boss.
- Take your time.
- Relax. Breathe. Have fun. This is your Original State.
After a few days off, I’m now on day six of my 30-day plan to transition to a barefoot style of running. I say “style” because I’m not sure if my final goal will be to run with or without shoes. Merrell, the shoe company who created the program I’m using, calls it “bareform” running. I like this phrase better, but as my spellcheck proves, it’s not quite a real word.
I realized today that what I’m really aiming for is not so much finding a new style of running, but rather a reset to the running style all humans are innately born with. Watch a barefoot child run and you’ll see correct running form right in front of you. Chest open, shoulders back, feet landing under their center of gravity on the mid- or forefoot (NOT the heel!) and plenty of laughter.
Today I did some stretching, some posture resets, some barefoot walking. My training program only called for walking today, but I couldn’t help breaking into a few 30-second runs.
One of the keys to running this way is light, quick steps at a high cadence, about 180 total steps per minute. Some training programs recommend using a metronome to keep your paces light and quick. It makes sense if you think about it. The less time you spend with your feet on the ground, the quicker and nimbler you’ll be. You’ve heard of baby steps. But as I ran around the red gummy track today, I envisioned quick rabbit steps instead. Light, light, light.
I’ve also started reading John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy. I’ve always loved the look of Updike’s books, uniformly graphically designed to be canon-worthy. And the easy-reading Janson typeface most of his novels and short stories use is to me the only font that says “literature.”
I even drank some wheatgrass juice for the first time today. Not sure how running like a rabbit, reading about a Rabbit, and eating what a rabbit eats all ties together. But there it is.
I’m done with day four of my barefoot challenge and it seems the stars are aligning. Another 30-minute walk this morning, posture resets, and stretching. Later in the afternoon, I went to a sporting goods store and found a pair of barefoot Merrell trail shoes on sale for half price. I started reading ultra-marathoner and vegan emissary Scott Jurek’s biography today, and I’m learning a lot. I notice it’s important to be mindful when starting a new journey, but to not let the details get me down. I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to write everything down, to make lists and resolutions. I have a manila folder that says “running” on it where I stuff all my self-help scraps and notes. I’m wearing my mala beads, remembering to stand up straight even when I’m not practicing my running form, trying to drink less coffee and more green tea, upping my intake of nuts and other healthy fats, using my myofascial roller to ease the stiffness of these old joints. On some advice from a friend, I even bought a few bags of Epsom salts and starting soaking my feet every evening. An element of serenity is starting to manifest. I feel calmer, my mind is quieter. And I’m starting to understand the appeal of the whole mani/pedi thing that my women friends are always on about. I think about my brother and sister monks, running around Mount Hiei right now, in their flimsy straw sandals, carrying lanterns through the night, and stopping to pray at all the appropriate shrines along their path. I run around my college track, dodging the occasional toddler, stray dog or tennis ball, keeping my eyes on the horizon.
Day three of my challenge was another 30-minute barefoot walk, some posture resets, and ten ankle circles. Before I left my tomb-like basement office to walk over to the field house for my workout, I watched Chris McDougall’s 15-minute TED talk. Again. If you’ve ever doubted that humans were indeed born to run, then watching this will change your mind. I’ll let Chris speak for himself, but one of the ideas he asks us to consider is that we evolved as a roving band of pack animals. Equal parts competitiveness and compassion. And of course, that running was a key part of our survival. Without the ability to run long distances in hot weather (no other animal on the planet has this skill), none of us would be here today. Running used to be a part of our daily lives. And it used to be fun. For many of us, as McDougall points out, running is instead a painful chore, something we do because we had pizza and Ben & Jerry’s last night. But it doesn’t have to be.
I noticed again today that walking barefoot demands mindfulness. Maybe “demands” is too strong a word. Encourages, perhaps. I stand erect, gaze at the horizon, rather than the ground, and walk slowly and consciously, trying to stay aware of the sensations of every step.
During breaks in Zen meditation, we perform what’s called kinhin, or conscious walking. We pay attention to every thought, every breath, every step. The Buddha said that when a monk sits, she knows she is sitting. When a monk stands, he knows he is standing. And when monks walk, they know they are walking. Sounds simple, but try for even five minutes to walk with complete mindfulness. Our modern ways of rushing from place to place, pulled by our conscious and unconscious desires, makes it almost impossible to do so. Unless we have practice.
I was also thinking again today of the running monks of Mount Hiei, who I’ve written about elsewhere, and who I consider my spiritual brothers and sisters. They run their marathons in flimsy, homemade straw sandals. Rain or shine. Day or night.
I’ve begun wearing a mala bead bracelet I bought at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery in Woodstock, NY when I was there recently for a writer’s festival. It’s fragile, but reminds me of my commitment. To follow through with my 30-day challenge. To move past fear and pain. To ultimately use this body as an instrument for awakening.
The first thing I notice is that my cooped-up winter toes are really ugly. The second thing is that standing straight takes a lot more effort than you’d think.
Today I started a 30-day barefoot challenge, based on a gradual training program created by the shoe company Merrell. Yes, I know. The final outcome, besides being able to run 1.5 miles in barefoot or bareform shoes, is to buy said shoes from Merrell. But I’ve done a lot of research and it’s not so much the shoes, but the form. I’m going to keep my posts short: around 300 words each day. I’ll tell you what I’m doing and what my observations are. Nothing fancy.
The first thing I need to overcome is fear. Not just fear that I can’t finish a 30-day anything, but a stronger fear: that I’ll hurt myself. Running shoe companies use this fear to sell us their products. More and more cushioning is supposed to lead to fewer injuries but the fact is there’s not a single study to prove this point. As Chris McDougall said, when someone tries to swim for the first time and sinks, we don’t encourage them to wear floaties for the rest of their lives. Instead, we teach them proper form. Learning to run, or in my case re-learning to run, is no different.
So, I took my first literal and metaphorical steps today. I did five posture resets (based on the video above) and walked barefoot for thirty minutes on the indoor track at the college where I work. Just maintaining proper form and being mindful of the sensations my feet were sending to my brain took almost every molecule of attention I had. It was like meditation, in a way. Equal parts concentration, relaxation, and following the breath. I felt energized afterwards. I also ordered a roller and found an old lacrosse ball to start a daily routine of myofascial self-massage. These old bones are tired, but in thirty days, I hope to be a born-again runner. Follow me.
One set of workout clothes, one empty mayonnaise jar, one plastic garbage bag, one slightly-crazed helping of enthusiasm. This is my plan, probably minus the mayonnaise jar (I use an actual water bottle) and the plastic garbage bag (too crinkly and distracting). Starting this morning, I kicked my Tastykake habit to the curb and began my early-morning sessions at my local Y. I set my alarm for 4:15 am, turn on the coffee, slip into my gym clothes, and am on the indoor track, with some Radiohead in my ears by 4:45. I run/walk for 45 minutes, do some planks, relax in the sauna and head home by 6, to wake my sleeping family and get ready for my work day. This has been my habit on and off for the last five years or so, but winter, especially around the holidays, always seems to knock me off course. The body wants to hibernate and pack on the pounds for a long sleep, but we have to resist the urge. I quit drinking almost six months ago, and had an overly-optimistic idea that this fact alone would allow me to magically shed weight. But I made up for my steady diet of wine and beer with other substitutes, namely root beer, pizza, and slice and bake cookies. And the occasional box of swirly frosted cupcakes.
But as I watched Silver Linings Playbook for about the fourth time a few weeks ago, I realized that it doesn’t take much to change your life’s course. One of the reasons I think I’m a Buddhist is that I don’t really believe in the soul. I’ve never been convinced that there is some kind of inherent, untouchable me-ness to me. I seem instead to define myself simply by my likes and dislikes. In this age of self-curation, this is what most of us do, I think. The ever-present facebook “like” is the defining gesture of our day. I’ve always had a weak sense of self, easily swayed by other’s beliefs and actions, which may explain why at such a young age I believed that drinking would make me cool. I followed other people’s examples and twenty years went by, unthinking. I’m still swayed by three-star reviews in Rolling Stone. Almost any criticism of a work of art that I love will make me second-guess myself. And yet, works of art can inspire me for my own good. My weak self also responds to motivation. Like the kid I was who actually believed he was Han Solo, so I also, even in adulthood, find it easy to take on the character traits and motivations of others. Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings, with his minimalist approach to better health, inspired me to put down my bad habits, don the metaphorical plastic bag, and get out on the road. Or at least the indoor track.
The larger theme here is really: what makes us who we are? If our true self only materializes when it bumps up against things we either like or not, then might we be less fixed than we think? But if we are more than our likes and dislikes, then where is that immutable core of our self? If one day I’m sitting on the couch eating an entire pizza and drinking three A&Ws, but the next day I’m in workout clothes running before the sun comes up, which one is the real me? Or do we refine our life as we live, burning off the excess baggage until we become a fine-tempered instrument, beyond birth and death? Maybe the reason I’ve always been drawn to the details, fictional or not, of other people’s lives, is my belief that if I just adopt a few utilitarian rules, I can finally refine myself. Maybe I think a pair of old gray sweats, a water bottle, some running, and a little enthusiasm will be enough to turn the corner on my lethargy and self-sabotage. Or maybe it’s late, and I should just go to bed. The coffee is ready to brew, and 4:15 am comes early.