Thursday, July 8, 2010

Running Overweight

I have written in this little blog about how I discovered running when I was a teenager and developed it a little into my mid 20s, but then stopped for many years, but always wanted to return to it.

I have been trying to become a runner again for at least the past 6 years, and each of several attempts has somehow been waylaid.  And my latest attempt to begin again has been only recently, and after a 6 month layoff to heal a bad case of plantar fasciitis.

Now that I've recapped that information, I would like to mention a that significant factor that has been adding complications has been that I'm overweight.  In fact, one of the factors that kept me from returning to running for many years was that I became very very overweight.

I just read a blog that gives advice for people who want to start running while they are overweight:  Training: Overweight and Starting a Running Program at  This made me want to write about this aspect of my running.

Overall, the article is sensible, but the only part of the article that I cringe at a little is the part where he recommends getting a really good pair of shoes. The author says:

"It is important for all runners to be in high quality running shoes, but this is even more important for overweight runners. Running shoes are designs to absorb the impact of your body weight. Heavier runners need to make sure that they have shoes designed to support their weight and they will need to replace their shoes more often than most. Most running shoe brands have a model of shoe that is designed to support women over 140 pounds (mean over 165 pounds) to help in protecting your joints and lower-legs. Go to a running store and have yourself fitted for shoes and plan to replace your shoes every 3-4 months. [all emphasis mine]"
At first glance, this advice seems logical and sensible, just as the advice to get a good pair of running shoes for any runner seems sensible.  In fact, this is exactly what I thought, and I was a good girl and made sure I got a really supportive pair of shoes so that all my weight would not hurt my joints.

But some of the experiences I have been having now, with barefoot running has changed the way I view this advice, and I would like to explain why I now object to this advice. I object cautiously, because am a baby new barefoot runner and I don't want to be "cocky" about it in any way.  I humbly and carefully object based on the experience I am having at present as an overweight runner wearing minimalist shoes and also running barefoot.

In order to explain, I want to backtrack a little and tell a bit of my running and overweight story.

I first started gaining  a significant amount of weight after I got married.  In fact, within a couple of years I had gained well over 100 pounds, and was to put on even more than that while pregnant.

So, I had this big obstacle in my mind that I needed to lose weight first before I could ever run again.  The experience of being that heavy was so traumatic, after having been a relatively normal weight growing up, that I couldn't imagine myself running.  All I could picture was that my whole body would become injured under the strain of all that weight:  my knees, my feet, my hips, etc.... In fact the thought of the way everything would shake and move around horrified me and seemed downright dangerous.

Because I gained all this weight so rapidly I started having problems with my feet.  I now -- many years later and looking back -- realize that the foot problems were not, as I thought then, merely because of how heavy I was -- although that was part of it -- but it was more so because of how rapidly I had gained the weight, and how my foot strength was not able to increase fast enough to accommodate it.  I'm not sure how much extra weight the feet can condition to carry.  There may be some top limit on it.  But I thought the weight itself was over the limit and my feet were in such pain, that in the middle of the night if I woke up to go to the bathroom, I had to hobble like a crippled person.

Now, I had always gone barefoot or in my socks in the house.  This was my habit for years and years.  But when this foot trouble developed, I decided that it was because I was standing with all that weight on a tile floor washing dishes without shoes on.  So, I bought a very supportive pair of shoes and began to wear them all the time.  White New Balance Walking Shoes.  This is a complicated situation, because I believe starting to wear supportive shoes further weakened my feet.  Although the weight was a factor, it was more that the weight was gained so rapidly, leaving the foot strength behind.  Now, by wearing supportive shoes, I had started down a slippery slope to weaker feet, when what I really needed was stronger feet, to accommodate the extra poundage. Not stronger shoes.  Stronger feet.

Okay, got a little sidetracked there, but I don't think the details about the feet are irrelevant to the story.

Essentially, this new condition of being morbidly obese prevented me from even thinking I could go out running.  I would drive in the streets every morning and see the runners out there and stare longingly.  But the dream of being out there with them seemed so so far away. Too impossible.  I was in a kind of despair about it for along time.  I felt I was trapped.  I want to start running.  I can't start running until I lose weight.  I can't lose weight.  So I can't run.

I made attempts to manage my food better over the years and kind of went up and down with the weight.  But I never got to the point where I thought I was light enough to begin running again without injuring myself.  I always thought that being heavy would put too much stress on all my joints. (And actually, maybe it would, if one did not proceed with a smart gradual plan to condition right.)

Finally, about six years ago, I became very determined to correct my food imbalances.  I joined Weight Watchers Online (I was already a lifetime member for many years) and seriously tackled the weight.  I lost 70 lbs.

For the first 8 months of this serious attempt at improving my nutrition management, I deliberately did not exercise.  I did not want to use exercise as an excuse to eat more.  I wanted to learn how to manage food based on my nutritional and caloric needs in feast or famine.  I didn't want to have to depend on exercise, but I wanted to be able to adjust my food intake based on activity, and be happy with the lesser amount of food required when one was less active.

After the 8 months passed, however, and I had lost about 50 pounds without exercise, I decided it was time to begin a walking program.

And it was after losing 20 more pounds while walking regularly -- for a total of 70 pounds lost altogether -- that I decided I could finally run.  I was very very excited about this.

Well, I could tell the whole story about that first time running after all those years, but I will skip over it.  I was gradually adding stretches of running to my walk and feeling really great about it, but then something happened  that threw me for a loop and completely derailed me from this attempt.  I became very discouraged and halted all my work.  I ended up stopping my newly found return to running, and I ended up gaining more than half that weight back.

So, now let us fast-forward to last year, and a new attempt to run again.  I had been losing weight again, and was now down to -50 from my original weight.  This was 20 pounds heavier than when I had begun to run again the last time.  I didn't want to wait to lose that 20 pounds to begin running again, because I had decided to use a training program for an "absolute beginner" to do the Disney half marathon, and I needed to start on a certain date and it was time to start, according to the plan.

So, I began while I weighed 220 pounds. I was a little worried about this, but I had built an 8 week walking base using Chi Walking, and had completed a 5K in 48 minutes walking ( a good walking clip) and was feeling pretty good.  Besides that, I was planning to use the run/walk method, which seemed conservative and realistic, and I was going to be building very very gradually.  And besides that  I had bought myself a fantastic new pair of really supportive running shoes to start my training.

However, things did not go well, and by the time I had got up to 6.5 miles, I had to step things back because of a bad case of plantar fasciitis.

I went down to the Disney marathon and could not run in the 1/2 that I had signed up for.  My family was there and I am the only one in the family who has not run the Disney 1/2 or the marathon.  They've all done it.

But I did think it was very interesting, as I watched the marathon, that there were a LOT of overweight runners running in the marathon.  Really?  I marveled.  There are overweight marathoners!!  Boy, they must eat a lot.

(The same blog over at has a post about how marathoners can be overweight: Training -- Dissecting the Overweight Runner  It all comes to food intake and nutrition management, just like you would think.)

And now, after this very lengthy post, I am going to discuss my latest discovery.  I have found myself in the unfortunate position of having gained about 25 pounds since I last stopped running last Thanksgiving.  I now weigh about 245, which is up 45 pounds from the weight was when I made my first attempt to get back into running (only -25 from my all-time high starting weight of 270)

But, despite the pounds, I did not want to wait this time to get down to a better starting weight for running.  Despite the plantar fasciitis last year, and the fear of reactivating it or re-injuring my foot, I have begun again.  AND I have begun in minimalist shoes AND now I am running barefoot.

And the miraculous thing is that my feet, knees, hip joints, etc ... feel fantastic!!  I was really worried about attempting barefoot running while overweight, but it seems to be going very well.  In fact, I am not even having to use the run/walk method at all.  I am running at a very slow pace, probably over 12 min/mile, but, nevertheless, things are going well.  I'm feeling very good, with no joint pains anywhere.

I now believe that, just like any runner, good form and proper alignment, which can be learned through barefoot running, can aid the overweight runner and prevent injuries and undue stress, just like it can for any more standard weight runner.  The only difference is that the foot strength needs to be developed to a greater degree and, actually, all the muscles need to be stronger, and just as the process of developing muscles is a slow one that must be taken in stages, the key to overweight running is to build that strength even more gradually than the lighter runner.

An overweight person can become fit enough to manage and slug his weight around.  He or she has to take the weight into account as a factor, but I think that using supportive shoes could actually even harm the overweight runner more because I think our feet  become very weak in those shoes, and, if anything, an overweight runner needs stronger feet than others, not weaker ones.

Having said all that, who am I?  Am I anybody who knows anything? No!  I give some opinions based on a little bit of head knowledge from reading, and a very little bit of experiential knowledge.  It is my opinion only and should not be acted on.  Just thought about a little bit.

In the meantime, I know the difference between running when I am a more standard weight and running when I am this heavy, and it is a much more wonderful experience running lighter.  So, I do plan to adjust my nutritional approach again and start taking care of myself and not eating more than I need.  But I just wanted to say that just because I don't have a handle on all that just yet does not mean that I can't run AND that I can't run barefoot.


Neil Zee said...

You are a runner! Simply. Run always, no matter what. You deserve it. That was an awesome dissection of your challanges and I am sure it helped to write it down. I read the same article as I run at 240lbs right now, and knowing what little I know about barefooting, I called BS about the shoe bit too! I was very injured at the end of my first half marathon training and I directly attribute it to the false sense of security the high cushioning shoes they advised me to wear gave me. Since that time, I got rid of my orthotics, insoles, and now my shoes and my knees hips back feel amazing!

Do what you do for you!


Avocational Singer said...

Thank, Neil, for bothering to read my ramblings. It's a weird kind of lonely adventure going out to run barefoot, so having a place to write about it, and another fellow human to observe and comment, is great.

I think I found that article as a link on your blog. So, thanks for that too.

Kim from Milwaukee said...

Fresca, I found your blog through Barefoot Ted's and I'm soooo excited!!! I too am an overweight exerciser, and I have found that any foot pain or hip pain has disappeared after only walking/running about a week. It's amazing!

Your blog is just what I needed, to know that someone else out there is blazing the trail for us chubby girls. Thank you for the courage it must have taken to start running again, as well as to start running sans shoes.

Feel the freedom of the feets!!!!

Avocational Singer said...

Kim, Thanks for your enthusiasm and excitement. It was really amazing to not have hip pain, or really any pain in the joints at all after starting to run barefoot. I think that kind of pain discourages a person from continuing if she gets it in the beginning, so to have a way to go out running and feel like the joints are safer is really wonderful.

Judith Nunez said...

I started to run @ 270lbs but can't take the toe pain. Great advice will try it tomorrow. Are u still doing weight watchers? Running? Please keep updating :-)

Avocational Singer said...

Hi, Judith. It's great to see your comment. Yes, I'm still running, except that for a few weeks ago I experienced an injury from Kung Fu and have to take a little time off to heal the injury. I'll be writing about that.

With barefoot running I do not have toe pain because instead of pushing off with my toes, I am lifting the feet. I was very careful in the beginning not to run too far or too frequently. I only ran 100 yards or so my first time out and very gradually built to running a mile. I definitely think that overweight people can do this safely, but it must be done very carefully and slowly. We are dealing with a LOT of extra forces and stresses on the body due to the extra weight and we CAN become strong enough to absorb these forces, but we have to work up to it gradually.

An efficient technique that minimizes all the forces is a great help to overweight runners. That's why concentrating on good form, in my opinion, is more important for overweight runners than concentrating on speed or distance.

A lot of overweight runners are eager to be doing longer distances in the hopes of burning more calories so they can lose weight. That impatience can set us up for failure and we'll do too much too soon and then end up doing nothing -- right back in the same boat as we started.

Slow, careful progress will reap big payoffs later.

Judith Nunez said...

Thank you so much I'll:-) stay focused.

chowie75 said...

Loved your story! I'm 5'2" & 288 lbs. I am looking for guidance. I bought the new Balance minimus before reading this...just walking through my home is lovely! I do, although, have knee issues that have been following me for over 2 years. I want to walk/jog - LOSE WEIGHT! Any advice would be great!

Avocational Singer said...

Hi there, Chowie, thanks for your comments.

I am far from an expert on how to exercise or lose weight. I have experimented with different programs and I read a lot and try to use common sense when devising exercise plans for myself.

There is not a lot of information on plus sized fitness. There is SOME out there, but you really have to dig for it.

I am very careful about how much stress I put and how fast. With everyone who approaches fitness, heavyweights and lightweights, there are a lot of injuries from using poor form and progressing too much and too fast. The need to use proper form and progress slowly and build strength gradually is especially true when you are carrying extra weight into fitness. I believe it can be done but a plus size person has to be even more mindful of these principles.

My advice for plus size people is to be happy with less for a long time. Consistency is more important. Be happy with a modified version of a movement and be content to use that modified version for a long time before you move on. Let strength develop very gradually. Be content to be slower than all the other people. Let speed come later.

Have lots and lots of PATIENCE and FAITH in the process. Learn to love movement for movement's sake, not results. Learn to become really curious about the best way to do things -- how to step, what angle to touch the ground, etc ... Live in the moment and love what you've got now!

Also, instead of seeing extra weight as a liability, see it as an asset. There is a whole movement of fitness people who do bodyweight exercises. The extra weight can be used to make yourself strong if you're smart about the way you work.

Lastly, read everything you can get your hands on from good sources. If you want to run barefoot, read Barefoot Ken Bob stuff, Jason Robillard, Michael Sandler, etc ... Google "plus-sized fitness" and "exercising when overweight" and find message boards where there are lots of people working out at heavier weights discussing their programs.

All this comes from a non-expert. Hope it is helpful.

Gerhard said...

Fantastic posting! Thank you for sharing. It is always very difficult for plus size people which no-one else seem to remember or think of. All the additional forces we have to keep in mind still, no excuse, we can use it to our advantage like you said, if used properly.

Natalie said...

Thank you SO much for sharing your experiences with anyone willing to read them. I too put on a lot of weight within a couple year period from 145lb to 230lb and really thought my only choice of movement and exersize was Yoga type stretching and some walking. I have wanted to get into barefoot running ever since I first learned about it a couple of years ago. I have read many of the essential books about it but found that although they all talk about the health benefits of barefoot running none of them mention anything about weight issues. They all seem to be aimed at getting regular size people out of their shoes, a noble cause indeed but what about me? I have simply assumed I have to wait until I reach a "normal" weight before I can run. Now I'm going to just begin, begin very slowly and very small amounts, but do it. Thank you so much for your courage and encouragement. You got a "big" sista on the other side of the world cheering you on and following your lead (from a long way behind)

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience! It was such an encouragement to read as I am beginning my weight loss journey. I did have a question & forgive me if I overlooked the question, but where did you begin running? Outside or on the treadmill?

Avocational Singer said...

Cassandra, thank you for your comments. I started running outside.