ToeSalad.com: Interview with Damien Tougas

Damien Tougas of ToeSalad.com Regular readers of my blog may already know that I've been transitioning to a barefoot running style over the past few months. I've had painful shin-splints for the past decade and despite trying just about everything that I could, including buying expensive "padded" running shoes, I have been unable to get past the problem. That is, until I switched to a barefoot style.

I've been a reader of Damien's blog (ToeSalad) ever since he spun it off of his main blog (ADVENTUREinPROGRESS), but had never taken the leap into minimalist shoes. I wasn't sure what to make of it to be honest. However, after extensive reading and with more than a little encouragement from Damien, I took a stand and decided to try it for myself.

The difference was immediate for me. My first run was shin-splint pain free and other than some new calf ache (barefooters will know what I am talking about) I was running and enjoying it for the first time in years. I was blown away! I had all but given up on running, resigning myself to the fact that I must just be one of those people that isn't built for running. Wrong! I was just doing it all wrong.

In the process of my transition I've become friends with Damien and gotten to know a lot more about him and his amazing family (you should be reading his blog!). So, I recently asked him if he would be willing to let me interview him about barefoot running and answer some of the questions I had and maybe some of the questions you may have too. Thanks Damien!

And now – here's Damien Tougas of ToeSalad.com.

What is barefoot running? Does it mean I can't wear ANY shoes?

You have to be careful on this one. Barefoot running means running without shoes or socks or anything between your foot and the ground. Some people say barefoot running when what they really mean is minimalist running. Minimalist running is running with some form of footwear, but typically it is very thin and light, offering a minimum of protection, as close to barefoot as is comfortable without actually being barefoot.

Barefooters don't like it when people put something on their feet and call it barefoot running. Some of them don't even like the term "barefoot shoes", and in some ways I don't blame them. I prefer the term "minimalist" as I think it better describes the situation.

From my perspective, minimalist footwear means using as little shoe as you can get away with for the conditions in which you will be using them.

What are the benefits of adopting a barefoot running style?

The single biggest benefit to barefoot running is something called "proprioception". In Lee Saxby's book "Proprioception - Making Sense of Barefoot Running (PDF link)" he describes proprioception as follows:

"Proprioception is the sense of our body’s position and orientation. We use this sense to move and the more feedback, the better the movement. About 70% of that feedback comes via pressure receptors, mostly located in the feet. The human foot needs protection, but thick, shock-absorbing soles greatly reduce sensory feedback and therefore limit the quality of movement."

Basically by wearing less shoe (or no shoe) we get back in touch with the ground. Our body uses our muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments to provide stability and shock absorption instead of relying on shoes. As a result we get stronger. The sensory feedback we get from our feet helps us to move with better form thus reducing impact and injury on the body. In theory.

Of course in practice, barefoot and minimalist runners still get injuries. The biggest cause of injury is known as TMTS, or too-much-too-soon. When people discover how wonderful it is to free their feet from traditional footwear, they often go at it too hard. Your body needs adequate time to strengthen and adapt. If you don't give it enough time, you can get overuse and/or strain injuries.

Fixing Shin Splints?

I just bought new Asics with great padding, are they now bad for me?

Maybe. It all depends on your form. If you have good running form (forefoot landing), and strong feet and ankles you probably are alright. You can run in a lot of things without injury if you have good form.

Modern running shoes don't, for the most part, promote a good form. So if you don't have good form, the shoes certainly won't help you, and could even make things worse. Minimalist shoes promote good form because they make poor form uncomfortable.

How did you get involved with the minimal footwear movement?

It is a long story, which you can read all about here. In a nutshell: Many years ago I had some physical problems that prevented me from doing the activities I loved: running, hiking, and cycling. I was told I needed special expensive orthotics in order to be able to do any activity. I didn't like that answer, so I started doing some research that eventually led me to the theory that maybe it was my shoes causing the problem. I did some experimentation on myself and quickly discovered that when I when barefoot and used minimalist shoes, my problems gradually disappeared. My eyes were opened.

Several years later I decided to share my findings with the world via my blog. That time also happened to coincide with the release of Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run. My involvement has continued to grow as people continue to ask me questions and turn to me for advice.

On sizing, most get it wrong

How does someone get started with barefoot running?

Start slow. I can't emphasize that enough. Disclaimer: I am not a barefoot running expert, despite what a lot of people think. I am a minimalist footwear expert, but not one who can coach people on proper running form. I came at this from a lifestyle perspective, I wanted to solve my problems for everyday use: running, walking, hiking, backpacking, etc. I have aspirations to become a barefoot running coach one day (anyone want to sponsor me ;-)), but I am not there yet.

There are a lot of great resources for learning proper technique. Lee Saxby has created some free videos and resources that are accessible from the VIVOBAREFOOT site. Also, programs like Pose and Chi running are also great for teaching proper form.

How long does it take to get accustomed to the barefoot technique?

Dr. Mark Cucuzella answers this question much better than I can. You can read his response here: How do I Transition My Running to More Minimal Shoes?

This is a great question and one I get asked frequently. There isn't a set formula that can be applied to all situations. There is a big difference between transitioning to a Newton shoe, a pair of FiveFingers, or completely barefoot. Newton shoes have more protection than your bare feet and therefore will require less time to safely adapt than a pure minimalist shoe. The most important question to ask is whether you are prepared to set your goal as running barefoot/minimalist rather than a set amount of mileage per week.

Paradoxically a young runner would need to transition into traditional running shoes in my opinion. Imagine the kid playing soccer in flat Sambas or the Kenyan runner being given a first pair of elevated heel running shoes. Do we suggest "take it slow in these or you may get hurt". We should though, and maybe this is part of why so many high school runners get hurt now as we read stories of runners of years gone by and wonder how they ran without injury. So, the first message is DO NOT LET YOUNG RUNNERS TRANSITION INTO TRADITIONAL RUNNING SHOES AND CHANGE THEIR NATURAL RUNNING MECHANICS...

Where can we go to read more?

ADVENTUREinPROGRESS - In early 2009 I wrote a series of blog posts on the topic of minimalist footwear. It was written as a chronicle of my journey, as well as the research and reasons behind why I believe minimalist footwear is best. This series culminated in me giving a seminar to fellow employees at my place of work.

ToeSalad.com - After writing about minimalist footwear for the last couple of years on ADVENTUREinPROGRESS, I thought it was time to create a minimalist footwear community site. A place where everyone could share with others their minimalist footwear stories, experiences, reviews, links, and photos. A place to learn, ask questions, and find out what works and what doesn't in the real world.Some shameless plugs:

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