I went for my first barefoot run of the year, today. Spring is sprung.
Why the first? If the ground is too cold, your feet go numb and all of the essential cutaneous feedback that is so desperately needed for barefoot running is lost in the numb of the cold. One of the things that automatically happen, at least to me, is that as soon as my shoes come off, I immediately start scanning the ground about ten feet in front of me. Every little piece of grit, gravel or crack in the stone has to be computed and avoided. This might sound tricky, but it is achieved with remarkably little effort, and certainly no practice. But something miraculous happens when you make an error, and it is why you need to be able to feel what’s beneath your feet. So you lose concentration, easily done, and you step on a medium sized pebble. Before you can ‘think’ a response to your error; before you can tense up to brace yourself against more pain; your body has already responded and dealt with the stone. If the muscles in your foot were to tense up, they become more likely to tear. So, just like when you catch something in midair before you consciously know that you have dropped it, the muscles in your feet at the precise point of impact, go soft. Your weight shifts around the pebble, but not onto it. By the time your brain has realised what it has done, the problem is already addressed and dealt with by the foot and you are moving on to the next stride. It is a miraculous experience. Our bodies know more about the world than we do.
The second thing that I re-realised about barefooting today was the silence. Even in the most minimalist of minimalist shoes (Vivobarefoots, Vibrams, or the ultra-whisperers – Nike 3.0 v2s), there is always the click of the sole onto concrete. But, there is no mistaking the tender quiet of skin. You move with such mineral stealth that you can barely hear your own feet. It’s is not so straightforward as this, but I can’t help but believe that the reason so many people find that skinning is the mysterious cure for their injuries is that their running technique is immeasurably improved without protection. Imagine how carefully you might drive if, instead of an airbag, there was a spike waiting to impale you at your first careless error. Skinning is treading softly, more softly than you would believe. It is the finest of all running experiences for me.
To give you some idea of the difference, here are two files. One is a recording I made of someone on a treadmill at the local gym. The only other one I have is from the Venice Lido (my apologies – I never meant this for public consumption. It is the sound that matters) – compare for yourself the different noise levels and consequent impact gradient of these two runners – then decide which you’d rather do.
The recordings were made with the same phone, without any sound adjustment.