Sunday, April 25, 2010

Barefoot Golfing

We all go through life following one sort of status quo or another that occasionally needs to be challenged. Golf shoes are one of those status quos that I've been rethinking the past few years.

I'm not exactly sure when the idea of barefoot golfing first occurred to me. I do recall a new pair of golf shoes causing so much pain that I took them off around the 12th hole and finished the round just fine sans-shoes. Seeing David Gunas Jr on the Golf Channel play on "The Big Break" reality show barefoot was also part of the inspiration.

You would think a sport having a history of loud fashions would be open to barefoot golfing. Following the evolution of Golf fashion and attire is much like following the evolution of Klingon foreheads. There are fads, phases, and styles that all Golfers would just as soon forget ever existed.

We're not known for having the greatest fashion sense to begin with.

But barefoot golfing is not about fashion. In fact, it's a minimalist approach to golfing that removes yet another obstacle to understanding true swing mechanics and the Kinesiology of how the feet are used.

I started experimenting on the driving range barefoot a few years to get a feel for how the body transitions from my back swing to follow-through. This worked great except for the fact that putting the shoes back on for actual rounds was like playing a different game. The old adage of "practice like you're competing and compete like you practiced" holds true. If barefoot golfing worked on the range then I'd have to play barefoot on the course to reap the benefits.

I played a few rounds without shoes (mostly as a single) at some public courses in Oregon and today play quite regularly in Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) KSOs. Some days, if the conditions are right or if I'm feeling a sand pebble in the KSOs, I'll go without the VFFs.

"How do you play without spikes?" I wondered this myself. The sport of Golf has almost universally transitioned from steel to soft rubber spikes in the past 2 decades without impacting player performance. But do you really need spikes at all?

In reality golf is a sport of 3 distinctly different "sub-games", only one of which benefits from spikes. If you think about it, golf spikes make no sense at all and in fact do more damage to your game. I've seen more players slip or lose their footing because of a) worn spikes or b) spikes catching the ground while turning.

It's taken me over 20 years, but I've finally discovered that true power comes from turning the hips and using the abs to whip through the ball. Both feet are going through all sorts of transitions throughout this type of swing, from providing a base for coiling the body to raising the right heel and pivoting on the toe to follow-through.

There are really only 2-3 places on the feet that can benefit from having spikes. The rest of the foot needs to move freely to be effective. The short game and putting really don't need spikes at all (in fact, spikes on greens are the bane of the game, but that's a whole different discussion).

In wearing my VFF KSOs, it's often crossed my mind how cool it would be to inject 2-3 strategically placed spikes onto the soles. It would be the perfect golf shoe! Then lo and behold Vibram releases the Bikila running shoe with extra traction in most of the places that could benefit a Golfer, so now I have some experimenting lined up for Summer 2010.

Could the Vibram Five Finger Bikila running shoes also be ideal for Golf?

An interesting thing happens when exposing the toes and bare foot to the ground during a swing. All 52 bones (26 in each foot) make lots of small adjustments throughout the golf swing in response to each minor transition of weight. The toes will subtly move in ways that have a gripping effect.

In fact, it is much easier to maintain a center of balance while barefoot, thus ensuring impact is nearly identical to how the ball was addressed.

Ah, the dreaded sand trap. With or without shoes the traps are the worst part of my game. Barefoot is not so bad, but I was worried that getting sand in the KSOs would cause some discomfort. That turned out not to be the case. The KSOs actually do a pretty good job of living up to their name and "Keep Stuff Out".

It's a violation to ground your club in a sand trap to get a sense of what lies beneath, so Golfers commonly dig in with their feet to get a feel for sand texture and depth. +1 to barefoot golfers in this situation as you get an immediate feel for the sand.

A lot of benefits come into play on the green when putting barefoot. Walking around the putting surface and feeling every contour feels like I'm getting an extra 10% in information about the greens. I'm a big fan of the Dave Pelz school of putting and establishing a strong pendulum base is quite easy to do barefoot or in KSOs.

Simply put, golf shoe spikes ruin greens. No Golfer would argue against that. Spikes provide no value on the greens and only do damage to the most important part of the course where the real money is made.

The heels on golf shoes shift the pelvis into an unnatural position, so 99% of putting strokes are already compensating for bad posture. Dropping the heels to the ground allows your body to correctly and naturally form a strong base from which to build a consistent stroke.

Golf courses use chemicals on the greens and fairways to keep them lush and green. I won't lie, it concerns me. One school of thought says the feet will absorb just about anything, so they should be pampered. Another school of thought says the feet evolved from persistence hunting and can take just about any kind of abuse.

My thinking is somewhere in between. The gains have far outweighed the losses (so far).
Common sense says don't walk through ground under repair with obvious heaps of fertilizer, don't directly touch the feet, make sure to clean/scrub afterwards, etc....

I'm probably far more likely to catch a cold or flu from the customary handshaking before and after rounds than I am to get sick from absorbing some fertilizer (man, I hope I'm right about this!).

Posture and Pain
Last but not least is the benefit of posture and playing pain free. In recent years I always awoke to considerable back and shoulder pain the day after playing a round of golf. Was I not stretching enough? Should I stop carrying my golf bag? Am I swinging too hard? Nothing seemed to work. But this year, since I've started golfing in KSOs and barefoot, the pains have pretty much gone away. Walking the course with a pull cart has become an enjoyable experience.

As alluded to in Putting above, the heels on golf shoes thrust the pelvis forward into an unnatural position causing a cascade of skeleton adjustments and problems. Golf is basically 4 hours of walking and standing with an occasional swing. Are golf shoes designed for that 5% activity of swinging or the other 95%? Both? Adjusted posture is where I've experienced the biggest gains and derive more enjoyment from golf by going barefoot.

What most people consider pain when walking barefoot is actually just a sudden change in sensation. There are a lot of nerve endings in the feet, so "yes", when you transition from grass to dirt, the brain definitely knows it. It takes awhile (2-3 months) to adjust and relax. You will never adjust for gravel... that's just frakkin painful; hence my preference for KSOs on courses with lots of cart paths.

Final Thoughts
If anyone from Vibram is reading this and wants to tackle a niche market, give me a shout. I think the Bikilas are on to something. It would be awesome to have several pre-fabricated holes on VFFs for strategically inserting spikes in just the right places for golf.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Week 8 Progress Report

The first 5 weeks of training in Vibram FiveFingers were followed by 3 weeks of running barefoot sans-shoes. I've discovered some resources on the web that indicate this is backwards; that barefoot training should happen before VFF training. Oh well, I think there are good arguments either way.

After 8 weeks of training, some significant changes in form have emerged:
  • Toe striking is the preferred gate and feels more natural
  • Heel striking is gone. Mid foot strikes are common on trails to distribute body weight over tricky terrain (gravel, foliage, debris).
  • Overstriding is painful, so I just don't do it
  • My pace should be 180+ BPM but it's closer to 165-170 BPM (needs improvement)
  • The runs are decidedly non-aerobic (more fat burning, less sugar burning)
  • The chronic lower back and knee pains are gone, but replaced by....
  • Some cramping along the plantar aponeurosis (PA) on the left foot (see image below)
My research indicates that years of wearing shoes will cause some muscles to atrophy, so the minor pains I'm experiencing are a re-awakening of muscles that need strengthening.

The PA cramping tends to set in within the first 2 miles on the left foot when I'm running on the balls of my feet. When this happens, I adjust to a mid-foot strike and within 5 minutes the pain somehow subsides (or tissue stretches out?). There's a possibility of tearing the PA during the strengthening process, so listen to your body and throttle back at the first sign of pain. I have no idea why the right foot doesn't have a similar problem. The right foot is definitely used and strengthened much differently than the left when playing golf, throwing a ball, or kicking in martial arts.

Because the runs don't get to a level of heavy breathing, I get the sensation I could run all day. Distance runs seem much more achievable. I've started scoping out some local 5K, 10K, and even (gulp) marathon runs as possible barefoot running challenges.

As a Musician, I'm accustomed to locking into beats-per-minute. One trick I'm trying is thinking of a 90BPM tune and running to it in double time. If I were road racing, I might try assembling a mix tape of all 90 BPM MP3s for variety (or record my own hour long groove in the home recording studio), but right now I find barefoot running too mentally engaging to be bothered with a headset and music. I can't put a finger on it, but hearing is one of those senses that changes when running barefoot. It's as if a primitive dependency is awakened that uses hearing to anticipate the conditions of each footfall.

Comments such as "Ouch!" accompanied with finger pointing are not uncommon as I run through the trails around Tryon State Park :-) It's interesting how many people want to 'debate' the pros/cons of barefoot running rather than respect it as an individual choice. That's probably to be expected in the town that invented waffle-bottomed running shoes (Nike in Portland, OR) and pumps millions into the local economy.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Go Through or Around the Mud?

What prompted me to graduate from semi-barefoot running in KSOs to pure barefoot running? In a word "mud".

I went out for a trail run dodging the occasional mud spot when suddenly I realized "This is crazy. I'm running defensively and going around mud spots for what... to keep my shoes clean?"

In fact, it was the mud dodging maneuvers that were the most precarious and likely to cause injury, so the KSOs came off and I embraced the trails... mud and all.

Some thoughts on running on muddy trails:
  • Walk don't run. Walk through the heavy mud spots where it makes sense.
  • On downhill slopes, be prepared to slide 2-5 inches at any moment. I took a surfer stance on some slopes and just rolled with the slipping and sliding. Balance is critical.
  • Get dirty. Don't worry about getting ankle deep in mud. Go straight through the mud. It'll wash off.
  • Calculate wisely. If your foot is going to disappear into the mud and you're not sure what is below (glass, shrubs, rocks) then proceed carefully.
  • Distribute your weight over entire foot in rough spots. Anything but heel first is the norm on trails.
BTW- VFFs make good gloves for the hands on cold days. Keeping them in hand is a welcome fallback option in case the trails get too rough.

Inclined Treadmill Exercise

Barefoot running requires some adjustments to form, namely:
  • Run on the balls of your feet (no heel first gait)
  • Lift the knees
  • Work the hamstrings (they will hurt initially. That's normal)
You can learn this form on a treadmill. Of course you'd rather be running outdoors to develop these skills, but often times a treadmill is the only option in the Winter.

When running on a treadmill, start out for 5 minutes with a 2.5 degree incline to simulate an actual running condition (body falling forward). If you want more of a challenge, then just run longer. Steeper inclines or a faster pace (more than 5 MPH) are not advised. You want to condition your muscles for stamina and endurance. Not sprints.

The incline will force a toe first footfall and work the hamstrings (I mean seriously... the hamstrings are going to hurt. You may be hobbling for a couple days afterwards, but well worth it once you hit the trails/roads).

Please be sure to check out additional treadmill running tips at

Monday, April 5, 2010

Toughening the Feet for Barefoot Running

I picked up a lot of great points from this video of Born to Run author Christopher McDougall, but one that really stood out was the idea that developing foot calluses to improve barefoot running is a bad idea.

You see, I initially started training under the misconception that developing calluses was part of the 'toughening' process, so I wrote off blisters as just a part of the training process.

"Not true", says Christopher. If you're developing blisters or calluses while running then that indicates a flaw in your technique. I've since made some adjustments to avoid further 'pushing off' from the forefoot and try to lift the foot straight up, much like a boxer does in the corner before going into the ring. It's more of an up/down bouncing feel.

Barefoot Training Trails

Here's a Google Map link to the trails I've been training on. I live close to a couple parks with great trails that provide a variety of terrain and distance options (anywhere from 1.5 to 8 miles depending on my mood).

My run/walk ratio in VFFs is about 70/30 on this trail. When completely barefoot that inverts to 30/70. It's just safer to walk most parts in early spring when there's still lots of mud in the trail.

Curling in VFFs?

I recently joined the Evergreen Curling Club in Portland (caught up in the post Winter Olympics hype) and briefly considered wearing my VFF KSO's to curling practice. I ultimately decided against it, but I'm not going to ignore the idea. Maybe another day :-)