When barefoot novelty becomes a bare necessity

When I began running barefoot over a year ago, each barefoot run was a thrill. My feet experienced a world of exciting new sensations, I was running smoother and lighter than ever before, and running was simply fun! Over the ensuing several months, some of novelty, but none of the pleasure, wore off. My strength increased and I was able to run about half of my mileage barefoot. After following this system for some time, a distinct trend appeared. I deeply looked forward to those barefoot runs and approached them fearlessly, confident – no, certain – I would feel great. Coincidentally, a subtle dread for my shod runs began to grow. When I laced up my shoes, I could sometimes squeak out a good run, but just as often would slog through, tired, sloppy and achy. I hesitated to give up my shoes for fear of reducing my mileage, but began to resent those miserable junk miles. Finally, I became fed up with the frustration and – just over two months ago – took off my shoes for good. I had reached a turning point where I was no longer running barefoot just for fun, but because I found myself unable to run shod without significant discomfort. Bare feet had become a bare necessity.

The switch did not come without its sacrifices, however. Given that I was still adjusting to the unique demands of barefoot running, I had to cut my weekly mileage in half. This is no easy feat for a running junkie. Yet the patience required to start from scratch, in essence relearning to run, has proven beyond worth the challenge. I’ve learned more about proper biomechanics, my body’s strengths and weaknesses, and the delicate relationship between form and function, over the past ten weeks than over my entire 17 years of running.

Shod running forces one to perceive their form as if through a frosted window. In contrast, barefoot running allows you to perceive it in high resolution, as if through a microscope. Any structural imbalance or mechanical error is immediately apparent, as your feet afford the most exquisite and accurate sensory feedback. This feature builds the framework for a foolproof system to rapidly correct and optimize one’s running form. A few examples from my own training adaptations illustrate these benefits.

Overstriding > ankle pain

Slight overstriding on my right leg contributed to ankle pain. (Gait analysis courtesy Jennifer Reiner, DC)

Slight overstriding on my right leg contributed to ankle pain. (Gait analysis courtesy Jennifer Reiner, DC)

A major impetus for going bare was perpetual instability and strain in my ankles. I felt chronic fatigue in my posterior tibialis, Achilles and peroneal tendon, before and during the first few weeks of my switch. Playing with my form, I noted that the strain was alleviated when I landed with my feet under – not in front of – my center of mass. I had been … (gasp!) overstriding. It’s quite likely I’ve been doing so for many years, probably contributing to prior injuries, but it only became apparent barefoot. It’s not only visibly obvious, but also audibly detectable, as I hear a distinct slapping sound when my form gets sloppy and I return to my overstriding tendencies.

Heel-striking > shin stress

As my ankle issues resolved, the stress moved up my lateral shins and I acquired mild symptoms of anterior compartment syndrome. A bit of research suggested that shin pain can result from heel-striking, which can easily be resolved by adopting a forefoot strike. Within just a few days of consciously landing forward on the ball of my foot, my shin pain had cleared up. Intriguingly, though I was running barefoot and (mostly) avoiding overstriding, which are often associated with forefoot striking, I had still retained a subtle rearfoot strike.

Forefoot striking > forefoot ache

No gait change comes without some cost. With my forefoot shift, I experienced some moderate tightness and bruised sensations under the ball of the foot. Cautious not to overstress my feet with these new changes, I’ve been focusing on modifying my form according to my body’s current needs. If I feel excessive tension in my shins, I’ll emphasize a forefoot strike; when the forefoot acts up, I relax back into a rearfoot strike. When barefoot, these rapid shifts – and their immediate benefits – are easy and effective.

Foot immobility > abrasions

Immobility in my left big toe joint caused ankle rotation and shearing.

Immobility in my left big toe joint caused ankle rotation and shearing.

While I haven’t suffered a blister or cut in many, many months, my left ball of foot (under the base of the big toe) tends to get disproportionately tender compared to the left. With my increasing mileage, this had become increasingly problematic, and recently became coupled with a growing callous under the neighboring second metatarsal. This was a clear sign, that would otherwise have been masked by shoes, that there are still some lingering mechanical issues. My insightful physical therapist, who noted immobility in my big toe, prescribed some exercises to increase flexibility and mobility in the big toe joint. After only a few days, I’ve already noticed much less abrasive shearing. Yet again, another simple fix.

Personally, this recent barefoot journey has been immensely successful, enabling me to retrain myself to run well and consequently resolve chronic injuries, all the while restoring hope that most running problems can be overcome by simple training modifications. Yet despite the fact that I had to take off my shoes to discover this, I’m not convinced that it’s purely an issue of footwear. Rather, successful running fundamentally comes from proper form. Some can achieve this regardless of footwear. Others, such as myself, will need more help from tools that encourage mechanical corrections. For me, one of simplest, not to mention liberating, ways to do so has been to break down the barriers between body and environment and let my feet directly sense and respond to its rich surroundings.

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One thought on “When barefoot novelty becomes a bare necessity

  1. Another awesome article on your website, keep up good work!

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