I am a totally barefoot runner. That means, no Vibrams, no "minimalist" shoes (the latest marketing-hype keyword), no sox, no nada!
I have not run a race with shoes for the past three years. In 2009, I started learning how to run, and started to participate in triathlons and other races.
I do not do this for the trend, or the novelty, or because I'm too poor to buy shoes (although that did come into play when I was a student!)
I spent a lot of time in my childhood on rocks and stones and seashells, etc...barefoot. I did gymnastics most of my life, so barefoot everywhere, plenty of martial arts so again, barefoot everywhere. Those sports also assist you in building up the skin on the soles of your feet. Most of you martial artists and gymnasts out there can attest to 'ripping up' your feet over and over on the floor or the mats, building up calluses, etc..., right? All of that helps in minute ways.
When I began to race, I did my first 'mini' triathlon in my shoes. During the run portion, I was uncomfortable because my feet felt heavy and I kept feeling the shoe dig into my toes and the tongue of the shoe moved around and scraped the top of my foot. Fed up, I took them off, hid them behind a tree along the course, and continued bare foot, intending to pick them up on the way back. It felt great! It was hard to stay on the pavement which was gravelly and hot, so I ran partially on grass when it was available. It was also only a 2 mile run. I even walked a bit (because I was not an experienced runner). I took my time. It felt good. I grabbed my shoes on the way in and ran through the finish line holding them in my hands up in the air!! Everyone was shouting: "Wow!! barefoot!!?? Barefoot!" I never looked back, so to speak. It became my way.
Now, becoming a barefoot runner didn't just happen overnight after that. I had to 'break in my feet' and get them used to both distance and sensations derived from the ground. I ran on pavement, grass, sand, dirt, chip seal and gravel. I took a few clinics with a well-known proponent of natural and barefoot running (Barefoot Ken Bob) up in Long Beach (California). He also came down to San Diego to hold some clinics and I joined a few groups who were dedicated to runners who run barefoot. We learned techniques, practiced together, helped each other out, and held some events on the beach for new runners. (The beach is a great place to begin!!) We ran up and down hills as well as backwards and forwards.
My pace slowed down by a lot at first. I hobbled over difficult areas and even walked when I could not handle the terrain below me. But that was the training period. I eventually got used to all of those surfaces. It takes time. You have to accept that your speed will decrease for awhile.
You have to accept sore (but not injured) feet for the first little while as your skin forms its protective covering. What you are feeling are sensations produced by the nerves in your feet. If you didn't have any nerves, you'd walk on glass and stuff and tear up your feet totally. You'd not feel anything and therefore, not try to avoid anything.
Now you are probably going to ask the infamous question that I have been asked a million times. "Don't you ever step on stuff like glass or razor blades, or shark's teeth -- or in the case of some slimy areas -- used syringes??"
And here is my answer for you: "You know those two spherical balls that you have in the front of your head, on both sides of and just above your nose??"
Yes, when I run, I can't always turn my head and talk to my running friends. I need to keep the head slightly angled looking down. But hey, that's extremely good for your windpipe position and breathing...
I look ahead of where I'm about to step and because I don't take long steps, I am going to be able to see exactly where my foot comes down. If there is a piece of glass there or something undesirable, you can bet I am NOT gonna put my foot there. I'll shift my hip angle or jump/skip/hop a bit to avoid that thing. Like anyone else does with shoes. Do you run over pieces of broken glass with your 200 dollar running shoes? Likely not.
So that settles that question.
Next, the shift in pace. Yes, I was only a beginner runner and my pace was slow to start and just got slower. To give you some numbers to work with, I was running a 10 minute mile and I went up to a 12 minute mile when I went barefoot. It took me about 3 months to develop my foot soles and that was with running not more than 2 miles 2x week or less in the first month. I needed recovery time, sure, but I also needed time for my feet to recover. Next two months, I added mileage, but only as much as I could handle on my feet. My cardio and 'running' abilities were improving, but I had to go slow for the feet. I never ran more than 6 miles at once in that period.
The time investment required will foil many who are not prepared to sacrifice that much prep time to learn how to properly run bare foot. Inevitably, they run too often and too long, and they get hurt because their feet are not recovering and that causes them to run with really bad form. Try running gracefully when the soles of your feet are sore!!
So these folks get hurt, or else they stop the barefoot thing.
Patience is a virtue. So is protecting yourself. This short-term inconvenience of slowing down and running less frequently is exactly what is required to be a good (and happy) barefoot runner for the long term. However, as all of us in the health field know, this formula is exactly what people find hardest to follow.
Once you are accustomed, and your feet are great with it, your pace will again increase.
I know only about 25 other barefoot runners personally, with whom I have actually run. I know approximately 4 full-time Vibrams runners, and have seen dozens try out Vibrams for one race, ruin their feet, and put shoes back on. There are a number of reasons for this.
When you learn to run completely bare-foot, you must adopt correct running form or else you will destroy your feet (and other body parts). The ability to feel the tiny pricks in your feet from things on the ground actually helps to instill good running technique. Over time, when your sole develops its protective thick cushioning, you will no longer feel discomfort from the debris underfoot, and by then you will have developed a very solid technique.
If you wear anything to protect your soles, and therefore, mask any sensations, you will not be so inclined to pick up your foot as you are supposed to, and you will be practising with bad form. The longer you practice with bad form...you know the story.
The technique is all about how you pick your foot off the ground, not about how long and forcefully you can push it into the ground. Runners in shoes can remain in contact with the ground for longer periods (because they do not experience any sensations such as pain from the ground debris) and because they roll from their heel to the front of their foot -- landing on the entire surface of their shoe-sole, therefore, causing a longer visit with the ground. When you experience sensations, your first instinct is to pick up your foot from the area which is causing you discomfort. You put your foot down, feel something uncomfortable, then pick up your foot quickly to relieve the discomfort. Well, this uncomfortable training is the best way to obtain great "foot-lift" technique. But you will not get this training when you wear shoes or Vibrams.
The folks I know who are regular Vibrams runners also train a lot in bare feet (on grass or other softer and easier surfaces). It is not necessary for them to develop the soles of their feet, but they are interested in practicing correct running form. Because the Vibram sole is not as thick as a regular running shoe, they still have to learn a good running technique that involves lifting the foot and placing it down from the mid or fore foot; not from the heel (or else it will hurt!) The barefoot training helps with the good form, and the Vibram soles protect their feet. They are big winners in this game!
Caveat: My regular Vibram running friends who have good form and who have run marathons and ultras sometimes complain about Vibrams causing them to sweat, crinkle around their toes, and just be plain old stinky after taking them off because it is hard for air to get into the shoe between the toes of the shoe.
The large majority of runners who TRY Vibrams and get hurt and consequently, do not stick with them, do not prepare themselves properly with correct running form. They run the way they always did in shoes, and they get hurt. They hurt their joints, get stress fractures, heel issues, Achilles issues, etc. You can't make a long contact with the ground, starting from the heel of your foot, when you don't have a thick sole to land on. In fact, as people are discovering now, you can't even do that in a shoe that has a thick sole!
So to summarize: run with good form, whether you are in shoes, Vibrams, or bare feet.
Run in water!
Running through water is awesome training for the technique required in barefoot (or Vibram) running. It forces you to LIFT your FEET!
There is no end to the complaints and injuries I hear about from runners who wear regular shoes. I am far, far, far from a running expert so I cannot even address those issues. However, many of my physical therapist contacts and friends have shed light on the numbers of those runners because they see them constantly.
Not enough stats yet on how frequently barefoot runners end up in physiotherapy, but look at it this way: Big shoe companies are now investing millions of dollars creating completely different shoes than they had on the shelves five years ago, back in the heyday of "Barefoot running is for the birds!". Some of their money is going to research, not just design. There will be some stats soon enough.