In 1989, as a high school exchange student, I decided to immerse myself in the quintessential American experience: sports. I played football in fall, ran track in spring, embracing the “go big or go home” mentality. However, my athletic journey was far from smooth. I was not a gifted athlete, but I found a certain comfort in running, despite not being the fastest on the track. As a power runner I relied too much on physical strength which simply wasn’t the best for my physique.

The Pain of a Power Runner

Track Power running ©www.thesole.showReflecting on my high school track training, it was dominated by traditional power running and heel strikes. This approach, coupled with weight training, focused on big strides and push-off power. There was no discussion about efficiency, breathing, or running mechanics. The mantra was simple: put in all your effort if you want to go fast!

As I pushed my boundaries, I found little improvement. Worse, I developed shin splints, an overuse injury that was excruciating. But as a teenager trying to fit in, I didn’t want to give up. I kept going, ignoring the pain signals my body was sending.

Turning Point: Barefoot Running

Fast forward 30 years, and I found myself reintroduced to running. But this time, it was different. I had discovered barefoot running, a movement practice rather than a sports activity.

A few years ago, I was introduced to barefoot running by Wim Hof. After a year of training with cold adaptation, I was looking for a new challenge. I embraced the barefoot running philosophy, got some technique training, and read the barefoot running bible, ‘Born to Run’. Within a year, I ran my first 51k ultra marathon in the Swiss Alps wearing ‘Five Fingers’, minimalist shoes for basic protection.

The Joy of Natural Movement

Running barefoot in a natural environment was fun! It was a stark contrast to my teenage track days when I thought I hated running and would never do it again.

I realized that I had been running wrong. ‘Just putting on running shoes and go run’ is the biggest cause of injuries amongst recreational runners and amateur athletes. Most bodies are tense, stressed out, misaligned, and augmented with footwear that takes away all feedback from your feet.

Once you remove the competition element (including competing with yourself) and add some biomechanics, things start to click. My runtime is now about relaxation. There is no competition, no PR to beat. More barefoot benefits come naturally with time.

The Barefoot Running Philosophy: Less Power, Less Pain

Becoming a barefoot runner is about relaxing every part of your body, staying mindful and alert, and tapping into a movement archetype present in all of us. Our physiology for running connects into fascia, breathing, and mental resilience. Strength and stamina will be a result of consistent practice.

Physical pain in voluntary action is something to avoid, no matter what. So whenever you feel something is up, never push beyond pain. Find out why your body is asking for attention. It’s a marker you can improve on technique or release unnecessary tension.

30 years after my personal ‘running retirement’, I never imagined I would run an ultra distance, let alone have fun doing it. Training for such an event ramps up your weekly mileage, but besides the occasional blister, there was never any real pain. I’ve run more in a year than I’d ever done in my life! It surprised me, but above all gave me confidence.

Over the past few years, I’ve learned that a movement practice calms the mind instead of stressing it out. When you feed yourself with natural sensory input, you’ll be busy scanning your environment, feeling, connecting, processing, instead of thinking unproductive thoughts. Every body is capable of doing amazing things as long as you understand this key principle of efficient human movement: relax.