Barefoot Butterflies


A familiar story?

I was desperate for a solution, and barefoot running promised it.

I’d been battling multiple torn calf issues for months. Nothing was working. I’d scoured the net – forums, blogs, articles – for a cure. Barefoot running kept cropping up.

Barefoot running promises a more natural running style that strengthens your legs – reducing the chance of injuries and increasing your efficiency. And barefoot running is free! The drawbacks? You’ve got to build into it slowly or you’ll do yourself some real damage. And you’ll look like a freak, of course!

Unfortunately in this modern age of asphalt and discarded beer bottles, running barefoot is not always practical – enter minimalist running. Minimalist running shoes are very light but offer some protection to the soles of your feet. And they are still cheaper than regular running shoes.

I’d tried ultrasound, massage, dry needling, compression. Why not try barefoot? So 18 months ago I bought some Nike Frees. Then 10 months ago, at the Gold Coast Marathon expo, I picked up the “Born to Run” book – a good read about a tribe of legendary Mexican barefoot runners. And I took it to the next level and bought some Vibram Bikilas.

I must mention that I have a healthy dose of cynicism for any emerging trend that promises great things. And triathlon is littered with emerging trends! It feels like the infomercial folks have homed in on us, with our desire to improve, our propensity to buy that improvement, and our upper-middle incomes. We have periodisation, reverse periodisation, carbo loading, paleo diets, compression socks, performance pills, diet supplements, salt tablets, back-to-back long run/long ride advocates vs splitting them over the week, power balance bands… The list is endless.

Typically, my approach is to look for the logic in the pitch, consider whether it is something I could do on a regular basis (and actually would do), and if so, give it a crack. If it works (even if it is the placebo effect) then I’ll adopt it. On this basis, I needed to give barefoot running a go.

The problem with barefoot running is that you need to build slowly into it. While I spend most of the day barefoot (one of the benefits of working from home), I’ve never done any barefoot running – not even short runs. Exercise slots are hard to find in my life, and I’m never going to drop a 50 min run so I can do 5 mins of barefoot running. I didn’t want to jeopardise my Ironman NZ training, so the Vibrams stayed in the closet. Now I’m training for the Gold Coast Half Marathon and I still can’t see how I can fit it in.

Who really does have an off-season? Who’s willing to to spend a year out totally revamping their running style? Hell, I’m over 40 – I don’t have any spare years!


But another thing happened at the GC Marathon expo: little TJ showed a lot of interest in the race. He wanted to sign up then and there! So this year my 8 year old and 6 year old are training for their first ‘marathon’, the 2km dash! Our first 1.2km run was cranked at 9 min/km pace (slower than my walking pace when I’m doing the run/walk!); several weeks later and we’re down to 7 min/km pace. (Poor kids, haven’t got the HR straps on them just yet!).


So here I am out doing 10-15min training runs at a leisurely pace. Queue LIGHT BULB! I now have my barefoot running opportunity!

I’ve been wearing the Vibrams during these short runs for the last few weeks. The rest of my running (as per the GC Half Marathon Intermediate guide) has been fully shod.

So far my feelings are mixed. My calfometer has been swinging wildly between injury-free (I’m cured, I’m cured!) and fully rooted (I’m doomed, I’m DOOMED!). I can’t blame the Vibrams – it’s the speedwork and 5km races I’ve been doing. But already I’ve become wary of putting the Vibrams on. The last thing my calves need right now is extra load – and that is exactly what barefoot running does!

I want barefoot running to strengthen my legs and improve my run technique so that I’ll see these calf pains start to disappear. I’m certainly fed up with the 10-15 mins of calf massage I have to do every night! I wonder if there’ll ever be a right time to do barefoot running?!

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2 Responses to Barefoot Butterflies

  1. idreamofkona says:

    I’ve been doing a bit of barefoot work for a while now, I have had problems with weaknesses that would become a real issue over the 24+ hours I expect my next ultra to take. Trying to squeeze them in has been tricky, but I’ve found short runs on recovery days help, and putting them in a back-pack and swapping them out for a few miles mid run. I really struggle to keep my pace down in them, so I’m impressed by holding 7min/km. Fingers crossed it’s the magic bullet for your calves…

  2. jontsnz says:

    Running for 24+ hours? RESPECT!

    The kids get a bit upset if dad runs off and leaves them behind (yes, I tried!) so I have no option but to run at their pace. It is pretty hard to hold good technique when running so slow though.

    How do you find changing them mid-run? It takes me 3-4 mins to get them on (I seem to have “toe alignment” issues!)

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