Your average runner has much to consider before heading out for a run. Do you try to stay cool and dry in your moisture-wicking tank, or bundle up in a hat and gloves? What socks are best for preventing blisters? Have your shoes surpassed their mileage limit? How much water and fuel should you tote during your long run?
Running barefoot eliminates many of these concerns, as the fit, cost and lifespan of socks and shoes become irrelevant. But barefoot running carries its own unique set of considerations that the typically shod runner may not anticipate. Since ditching my shoes I’ve encountered several new challenges, some of which are easily addressed, while others I have yet to conquer. Below I discuss the issues with which I’ve most frequently struggled, along with whatever solutions (if any!) that I’ve discovered.
The beauty of going bare lies in the rainbow of sensory input from the earth to the feet. But sometimes these sensations can verge on intense, especially to the novice runner. With time, the trained barefooter should be able to run lightly enough that even the roughest gravel doesn’t phase them … or so I’ve heard. But for the rest of us who are still growing, challenging terrain can be the greatest limiting factor to enjoyable running. When I first began running barefoot, I restricted myself to the smoothest concrete and paved surfaces, still my favorite terrain. As I’ve become more adventurous, I’ve discovered the pleasures and benefits of diverse surfaces, and now incorporate as many different types as possible into my runs.
Smooth, flat, hard surfaces permit greater stability in the ankles and other joints, and can be an excellent way to reinforce proper form. However, miles of concrete can rapidly tire the feet. Veteran barefooters will attest that rough gravel is ideal for learning how to run lightly and softly. Even the slightest friction between foot and ground will tear up the feet, encouraging you to “place” and “lift” the foot, rather than skid, shuffle or push off. Even if you despise gravel running as much as myself, there is absolutely truth behind these claims, and it can be highly beneficial to incorporate brief rough stretches into your runs. Perhaps the most fun terrain, as any child will readily tell you, is grass or soft dirt. Besides just feeling magnificent on the soles, the natural variability of the surface is a great tool to strengthen the feet and ankles, and train the body to rapidly adapt to uncertain terrain. However, all that instability can also fatigue the legs if you’re not well adapted. And while that soft green grass may look inviting, it’s also a great hiding spot for twigs, stones and bugs! I’ve had one too many carefree grassy sprints abruptly disrupted by bruises, thorns and bee stings.
Blisters, abrasions and callouses
I lump these issues together as they often share both common causes and common fixes. The first discovery a new barefooter will likely make is the pain of blisters on the soles of the feet. Over my first couple weeks of running barefoot, my feet developed multiple small blisters on my toes and balls of my feet. As blisters are a direct result of friction, their location can inform about what you’re doing wrong, and help to easily correct your form. Blisters on your big toe? You might be gripping or pushing off aggressively during foot lift. As you self-correct, the blisters will quickly disappear. In fact, I can’t even recall my last blister. That said, I do still struggle with mild abrasions and callouses, both on the ball of my left foot, which too reflect improper form. Gait analysis confirmed that reduced mobility in this foot causes mild sheering at foot contact. Clearly, I still have work to do.
The best treatment for these form-related skin problems is, of course, to identify the problem and correct it! In fact, this is the only sustainable solution. That said, there are a few tricks to help you deal with – and dare I say, keep running through – these issues. Obviously, keep any open blisters or abrasions clean and protected. I’ve also found that applying vitamin E oil, or using finger and toe blister Bandaids, can expedite skin healing. For callouses, moisten the skin and then carefully file down the callous (don’t break the skin!) using a nail file. If you need to run with such an “injury”, a bandaid won’t last a quarter mile. However, covering the bandaid with a layer or two of strong athletic tape works wonders (I love leucotape). Be sure to to include the bandaid over the wound, to avoid irritation from direct contact with the tape adhesive. Using this application, the tape has remained intact for me over distances up to half marathons. I’ve had limited success with liquid bandages and super glue for short runs, but find that they wear off much faster than tape.
Unless you run exclusively on treadmills or tracks, bruises – from rocks, acorns, uneven sidewalk, you name it – will be unavoidable. Usually, these are pretty benign. I often get them on my metatarsal heads or heel, and can easily run through them without pain. Gentle massage can help initially, and mild bruises typically clear up within 24 hours. However, in rare situations, a severe bruise can lead to more debilitating trauma. Just a few weeks ago, I trod on a rock at mile 2 of a 14-miler. I finished the run, only to notice the dull bruise after finishing (endorphins are both miraculous and dangerous!). I’ve been suffering intermittent burning, aching and numbness in that heel ever since, which I only just recently connected to that bone bruise sustained weeks ago. Oddly, I’ve been able to continue easy running, as it’s most aggravated by walking or downhill running. There’s not much one can do to treat a bone bruise, besides wait the natural course of healing, although I’ve found some mild relief from taping and cold/hot contrast water therapy to flush out the inflammation.
“Don’t you cut yourself on broken glass?” asks everyone, all the time. I have yet to discover this planet laden with broken glass which shod runners apparently inhabit. However, if you’re running through a rough part town, a construction zone, or the Las Vegas strip (as I just recently attempted!), you just might encounter some glass. While this may be the greatest fear of many new barefooters, it actually poses much less risk than imagined. The skin rapidly adapts to barefooting by thickening, becoming remarkably resilient. I have indeed stepped on broken glass – probably way more often than I’m even aware – but have only been cut once. This, due to my own stupidity. I jumped full force into a deep puddle, only to discover a shattered bottle lurking within. The sole of my foot was covered in shards of glass, but only one managed a tiny puncture. I removed it, cleaned it, and was out running the next day. So runner, fear not the broken glass.
As I’m still admittedly a barefoot noob, there’s certainly much more I have yet to learn. So please, share your thoughts! What are your favorite ways of dealing with rough terrain, blisters, bruises and cuts? What other challenges have you encountered in your barefoot journey that I may soon discover?