Since starting to run fairly regularly to prepare for Army Basic Training back in 2000, I have learned a whole lot about running and myself: what motivates and depresses my running desire, how to enjoy running, what my limits are... the list goes on and on. I could probably fill a few books with revelations that were earth-moving to me - revelations that had to be gained through personal experience. I do not by any means claim to have become an expert; on the contrary, I have just hit the tip of the ice berg, but I have learned a whole lot and come a long, long way.
Here are a few things I discovered that changed my whole outlook on running (or fitness in general) that hopefully will give you something to chew on.
1) I took my shoes off.
Feeling your exposed foot land on the ground surface provides a vast amount of sensory information to your brain that just isn't achievable shod. The experience is quite visceral and freeing, so much so that I found it addictive. Since my first barefoot run, my mileage, speed, and overall fitness have come a long way. I am a better athlete in every way today than I was at any point previously in my life, and I have my bare feet to thank for that.
The recent emergence of minimalist shoes onto center-stage in fitness circles has raised questions about the benefits of bare feet. "Can't I get the same benefits from shoes that don't impede my form?" Well, yes, you can run efficiently much more easily in minimal footwear than in traditional trainers. However, you really cannot truly "feel" how your foot lands on the ground until to take away all barriers between your skin and the running surface. I discover slight form flaws even today when I run barefoot: I'm scrubbing my foot (rotating it on the surface), I'm heel striking ever so slightly, I'm pushing off, etc. I would never realize these mistakes if I were wearing shoes of any kind. Even socks-only would not provide sufficient feedback to tell me when I'm torquing my foot just before lifting it.
2) I started paying attention to my cadence.
The word "cadence" has many negative associations in my mind. Most importantly, I learned to run incorrectly to the sound of a drill sergeant's cadence - clop, clopping down the road in formation during Basic Training runs. That's not the kind of cadence I'm referring to here. The number of times your feet touch the ground per minute (cadence) has a tremendous impact on everything your body does during a run. My plodding footstrikes prior to "waking up" fell in the 120-140 ffpm (footfalls per minute) range. That's painfully slow, by the way, and did prove to be painful period. I was over striding and slamming down on my heels when running. According to numerous natural running purveyors, 180 ffpm is at or near ideal for the majority of runners - an obviously significant increase from my clop-clopping 140 ffpm. This is not an easy change. I'm not saying it hurt; quite the contrary. But you are retraining your body how to land when running which means lots of muscle conditioning to develop muscle memory. It will not be "natural" your first time... or your fifth... or probably your twentieth. You will constantly slip back into a slower cadence when your muscles get slightly fatigued or when your mind wanders. Just know that it takes time to fix form. If you have not tried speeding up your footfalls and think it is no big deal, go outside and give it a shot. Then come back and comment below... about how I'm right. Upping cadence forces you to shorten your stride and land under your center of gravity, which in turn reduces impact forces and, as many runners have found, reduces likelihood of injury. It's totally worth doing this whether or not you intend to try barefoot running, too. Quick tip: download some songs that are 180 bpm or find a metronome for your Ipod.
3) I read everything I could get my hands on.
I stumbled upon the whole barefoot running thing after I started researching ways to run that would not exacerbate my back pain. I am certain I would have given up on running altogether if I had not incidentally stumbled upon Ken Bob Saxton's website one afternoon. One thing about me: I'm a bit of a sponge. My family has always said that I get on a topic that interests me and proceed to absorb any and all information about it that I can get my hands or eyes on. Websites, short non-fiction books, and magazines are like fountains knowledge that I tend to suck dry with a quickness. (Sidenote: if you are anything like me, stay away from Cracked.com because you will spend endless hours trying to reach the bottom of the vastness of awesome that is their many thousands of thoroughly entertaining, information-rich articles.) A good place to start would be Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I think every runner needs to read this book. It is paradigm altering if a bit overrated in barefoot circles (i.e. basically worshipped, lol).
The RunnersWorld Forums and the Barefoot Running Society Forums have been the most consistent source of solid feedback and minimalist shoe news. The great thing about a web forum is, of course, that everything you are reading is from another layperson (at least most of the time; very few pro runners posting on the barefoot forums. lol) who is taking their time to give you tips and hints. It kinda gives you a warm, fuzzy sense of belonging. /lame:)
4) I got some decent running gear.
*Sigh* Materialism. I know, I know: "What a corporate sellout." But before you judge, let me just say that "decent" running gear does not mean "expensive" or even "brand-name." It just so happens that many of my favorite running shirts (base layers) are Target-bought C9 brand. I do have some brand-name gear that I paid super-sale prices for (1/2 price or lower), and I carefully researched my needs before taking the plunge. So far, I can definitively say that I have had the best experience with the Brooks brand by far! They really seem to care about making gear that does what runners want it to do. Their Infinity shorts (I got my Infinity IIs on sale) are absolutely awesome and a personal favorite of my barefoot bro, Jason Robillard, author of The Barefoot Running Book. What's funny about this topic is that so many people are brand-loyal about their running shoes and would never hear of purchasing a generic knock off, but they scoff at the idea of branded clothing, hydration gear, etc. Hypocrisy, lol.
The other true benefit of getting decent gear besides the obvious functional gains is that you want to go try it out! Getting new shorts or calf sleeves or watch or water bottle can be a major motivation to enthusiastically hit the road or trail. When I find myself in some running doldrums, I try to think of what small, inexpensive item I could add to my running arsenal that would bump my enjoyment level up a notch. Now, I have not always been correct. In fact, I run with less gear today than I did a year ago, but I still get motivated to put whatever doodad I've acquired through its paces.
And that's it. Happy running.... and reading.... and buying!