Tag Archives: barefoot

Announcing RaceBarefoot: Race reviews for the barefoot runner

In 2014 I returned to racing after a 2.5 year hiatus due to an incessant string of injuries. During this (too-)long period of rehab I ditched the shoes and retrained myself to run, discovering the joys and benefits of running barefoot. My first barefoot half marathon was an exhilarating personal victory and I of course was stricken with the race bug. I was eager to find my next race, but immediately became frustrated by the lack of race information geared towards barefoot runners. Beyond the usual considerations of race support, aid stations and number of porta-potties, barefoot running poses unique challenges, such as gravel, chipseal or extreme heat to name a few. To my dismay, as I researched the ideal course on which to attempt my first barefoot marathon, I found no reliable sources for such specific race details. My efforts to research barefoot-friendly races amounted to fruitless chats on social media and emails to race directors. With great frustration, most of my “How barefoot-friendly is Race X?” inquiries were met with resounding silence.

Out of this frustration was born the motivation to develop a race review resource targeted specifically at barefoot runners: a community for barefooters to share their race experiences–from heavenly smooth pavement to long stretches of challenging gravel to amusing commentary from the peanut gallery. A year after discovering this gaping hole in the barefoot running community, I’m thrilled to announce that RaceBarefoot.com is finally live!

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I invite you to visit the site, share your personal tales of barefoot race victories or disasters, and peruse your fellow runners’ reviews to help select your next barefoot race. We hope that, with the birth of RaceBarefoot.com, no barefoot runner will again have to face the “information abyss” as they research their next 5k, half marathon or ultra!

As the site is newly launched, it is still in beta form, so please feel free to contact us at racebarefoot@gmail.com if you notice any errors or oddities!

Infinite thanks to Lance Troxel for his impeccable design skills and to Russell Reas–master developer–for devoting innumerable weekends to transform my vision into reality.

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Barefoot Running Workshop 3: Hills, Speed & Precautions

Many thanks to all who attended the final session of our Barefoot Running Workshops! In today’s workshop we built on the fundamentals of running mechanics covered in the first and second workshops. We tweaked our speed and hill running techniques, addressed safety issues unique to barefooting and took running video selfies for gait analysis. Here are some of the highlights of the day’s fun …

Happy, dirty feet, post-hills and sprints!

Happy, dirty feet, post-hills and sprints!

HILLS

Downhill

When running downhill, the impact on the body increases due to acceleration from gravity. When you drop a ball, it will fall faster when it hits the ground if dropped from 10 feet than 5 feet; similarly, your body will actually descend faster towards the ground when plummeting downhill than climbing up. The secret to effective downhill running lies in using that acceleration to your advantage, rather than letting gravity get the better of you.

Minimize bouncing. With that extra distance between you and the earth, downhill running comes with additional vertical motion. Try to minimize any unnecessary upwards motions, like jumping or bouncing, that will only exacerbate the stress from the downward fall. Aim to stay low to the ground and level on the horizontal plane.

Bend the knees. The knees serve as shock absorbers, so bent knees can greatly counter the added stress from downhill running. This also facilitates a low, steady stride, making it even easier to avoid bouncing and pounding.

Avoid breaking. Embrace gravity, don’t resist it. Steep inclines will automatically increase your pace, and a faster than normal clip can feel uncomfortable. A natural – often subconscious – response is to put on the breaks, stiffening the joints to counter the impact. This defense mechanism is far from beneficial, creating unnecessary tension as we clench in resistance, which only opens the door to injury. Take advantage of the acceleration and allow yourself to float. Once you release and embrace the descent, the ride will feel more like flying than a downward crash.

Don’t over-stride. Over-striding is always dangerous, but exceptionally so when running downhill. What’s worse, downhills actually encourage over-striding, as they entice us to extend the leg out in front as a protective mechanism. This only forces you into a heel strike and increases stress on the shins and knees – a dangerous combination when coupled with an already elevated impact from the incline!

Uphill

In contrast to downhills, uphill running requires us to fight against gravity. Maintaining proper form will keep you strong to efficiently conquer these demands.

Lean into hill. Exaggerate your forward lean to counteract the incline. But take care to lean not at the waist, but with the entire body. Collapsing forward will only increase your workload and make that hill feel extra torturous!

Stay tall. Since the goal is upward movement, aim to lengthen the body upward. This is where good posture is key, keeping the back tall and long, head high and looking forward.

Steady effort. Powering up a daunting hill may not be the best tactic to smoke your competition. Your strong sprint could easily backfire, leaving you exhausted by the time you summit. Rather than keeping a steady pace, aim to maintain a steady effort. This of course, means slowing it down on those inclines. To track your effort, monitor your breathing rate; regular breathing means regular effort and is a good indication you’re not over-exerting yourself.

SPEED

Increase forward lean. To run faster, we need to increase the amount of forward motion per step. This extra ground coverage can be achieved relatively easily be simply leaning forward.

Light feet and high cadence. Faster speed does not in fact require higher cadence (leg turnover rate). You should strive for the same high cadence as always (at least 180 steps per minute). However, when sprinting this high cadence will even further work to your advantage. Speed can be more strenuous on bare feet, encouraging shearing and friction. Keeping your foot-strike light and cadence high can minimize these effects by reducing your ground contact time.

Open stride. Don’t be afraid to open up your stride. Barefoot running often encourages a shorter stride, but a longer stride can help support speed for any runner. Allow your hips to open a bit more and your leg to lift a touch higher than usual, but remain fluid and never force a gait change.

 

PRECAUTIONS

Blisters & Abrasions

Blisters and raw skin are relatively common for novice barefoot runners. While unpleasant, these can be valuable training tools as they’re telltale signs of sub-optimal biomechanics. Use their appearance and location to pinpoint your weaknesses. Blisters on your toes? You may be pushing off or gripping excessively. Calluses on your heel? You may be striking too far back on the rearfoot. Abrasion on the ball of your foot? Try not to scrape, shuffle or shear the foot on landing, but lightly place and lift instead.

Dangerous” debris

The greatest concern for the new barefoot runner is cutting or bruising their feet on all the glass, rocks and dirty needles littering our earth. In truth, such dangers aren’t prevalent and are relatively innocuous to the conditioned bare foot. That said, there are of course certain encounters that are best avoided by even the most experienced barefooters. 

Urban debris. Most obvious are artificial hazards such as shards of glass or rusty nails. Large dangers are easily avoided by scanning the ground, and smaller ones may not even penetrate the thick, tough skin of the foot’s plantar surface. Of course, in the unlikely case you sustain a bad cut or puncture, seek medical attention!

Natural debris. More likely to take down a barefoot runner are hazards lurking naturally in the trails and grass. Thorns and burs love attaching to feet and although painful, are easily pulled out. Landing hard on a stone can bruise, but the feet will become resilient to even the most daunting rocks and pebbles as the feet strengthen with experience. A less often considered risk, but one that’s taken down yours truly on countless occasions, are bees. Depending on your reaction to bee stings, you may want to seriously reconsider running in grass, especially during the spring and summer, when bees love frolicking through the grass as much as we humans do.

Environment

Heat: Depending on your foot conditioning and tolerance, hot ground can pose unique challenges to the barefoot runner. But because of the reduced foot-contact time when running compared to walking, it’s surprisingly easier on your feet to run on hot terrain. Some surfaces heat more readily than others, so stick to concrete or dirt over pavement. The painted white lines on roads can offer some refuge, as long as you’re careful to avoid cars!

Cold. In some aspects, the cold can be more hazardous to the barefooter than the heat. In extreme cases, the feet can go numb, which reduces sensory feedback and encourages poor biomechanics (not to mention posing a risk of frostbite!). Feet often warm up after just a few minutes of running, but if you do lose sensation, stay smart and stop or put on some protection. Just a pair of socks will often suffice to keep the feet warm while retaining a mostly barefoot feel.

Wet: Running through the rain, mud and puddles can be one of the most exhilarating barefoot experiences. But stay cautious of smooth surfaces, which can become dangerously slick when wet. Water can also soften the skin, making it more likely to rub raw on rough terrain or long runs.

As both a student and teacher, these workshops have been a far more rewarding and educational experience than I originally anticipated. More importantly, they’ve also served as a fantastic tool to connect with the small but passionate community of barefoot runners in San Diego. Given how fun and successful this “pilot” series has been, there will definitely be more! Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with suggestions for what you would like featured in upcoming workshops, and stay tuned details about future events.

Happy barefoot trails!

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The structure-function paradox: Thoughts from a barefoot-curious reader

One perk I’ve enjoyed since starting this blog has been connecting with like-minded readers … runners, barefooters and scientists. Occasionally readers will reach out with their personal stories or questions (which I love!) The other day I received an email from a reader curious about the importance of toe and metatarsal alignment for foot health. His insights into foot biomechanics, enthusiasm for optimizing his own barefoot experience, and curiosity for the best path to do so – were striking. As he raised some interesting questions that are relevant for anyone considering transitioning to a barefoot lifestyle, I’m sharing his message, along with my response, below (note that I’ve removed his name for privacy and have trimmed the email for brevity).

I’d like to say thank you so much for documenting your experience, it is an invaluable source of information. I have great investment in this movement for myself (patellar tendonitis, fallen arches), and my family (bunion sufferers). I’m going to cut right to the chase. You seem very knowledgeable about the biomechanics of the foot, and I feel there is a significant sliver in the venn— diagram between our two philosophies. What about our toes alignment with our metatarsal shafts?

This is an idea that I see very rarely addressed among barefoot runners. I’m not sure how much of this information you’re familiar with, probably all of it but just in case I’m going to breeze through it. The shod VS the unshod life, a developed condition. I feel like this is so often ignored. In my rehabilitation from conventional footwear, I’ve been made aware of the deformation that has taken place in my bones and tendons that has bent my big toe inward, bent my small toes outward, and given me hammertoe. Why do I see so few barefoot runners addressing this? I work everyday to stretch and re-align my great toe into its natural place, a continuation of the metatarsal shaft, so that it can once again be in its place of maximum support.

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I even invested in a product that re-alignes my toes back to the way they were, so as to, over time, affect the bone and tendon structure, pushing them back into alignment. But seeing your story, how you came through without the use of these, and how your toe alignment between 2011 and 2012 didn’t seem to change much. In your recent pictures it’s hard to discern the alignment of your toes, have you seen a difference since 2012?

Does this idea hold water to you at all or do you consider something else entirely more important than alignment. I would love to know, I’ve been trying to make sense of going completely barefoot, but with my great toe alignment (about the same as yours in 2012) it just doesn’t make sense to me, I feel like I’d be putting weight on a delicate system that no longer is in the proper alignment to do its job properly. Am I completely off the mark? Any thoughts would be extremely appreciated.

I love this last picture, and it is the most profound and affirming to me, a (mostly) un-contacted tribe within the amazon. Their toes are my every day goal. I know little biomechanics, but this has philosophy has resonated with me. Am I wasting my time with this? Is this new information to you? What made you feel your path was best?

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MY RESPONSE:

Thanks for your email. I love hearing from others with a shared interest in natural, barefoot living. Indeed, I’m aware of the deformations shoes make on our feet, and that toe separators can help reverse this (I actually have some myself).

I think the answer to most of your questions lies in your goal. If your main aim is simply to realign your bone structure, then sure, work on this just the way you are. For me, better toe/metatarsal alignment has been an incidental consequence of pursuing my other goals – overall healthier, stronger feet that allow me to move the way my body is meant to. So there are two, albeit related, issues here: structure and function. You seem very focused on changing your foot structure, but for what purpose? If it’s so that your foot (and body) will also move better, the best way to achieve that is simply to use your feet the way they’re meant to be used. By going barefoot as much as possible you will quickly build muscle, tendon and bone strength and as a consequence, your foot shape will also change.

I gave up shoes four years ago and have indeed noticed major changes since then. The toe splay hasn’t been dramatic, but my arches have become strong and high and my feet and ankles have gone from soft and dainty looking, to thick, toned and defined. This sounds odd, but my feet have become my favorite physical asset – I’m proud of their transformation into powerful, beautiful structures. At this point, I could care less how my toes splay, since my feet are functioning magnificently, allowing me to walk and run for miles on end, pain-free and carefree!

You’re concerned that you could injure yourself by going barefoot if your bone alignment isn’t perfect. This is a slight possibility, but easily avoided by simply listening to your body. I would be concerned less about proper alignment than general foot weakness. The risks of walking or running barefoot excessively before you’re ready come from inadequate strength, and the only way to strengthen your feet is to use them! Sure, going out and sprinting a 5k for your first barefoot run will injure you. Instead, go for a short walk until your feet start to fatigue. Then call it a day. Or run around the block for 2 minutes. Give yourself enough rest to allow your feet to recover and rebuild before you try again. Over time, you’ll be able to walk further, run longer and start noticing remarkable changes in how your feet feel, look and function. When I gave up shoes in 2011 I couldn’t walk barefoot more than a few minutes before my feet hurt. I walked barefoot for a couple years to build up base strength, then began running barefoot – literally starting by running one block. I now regularly run 40-45 miles a week barefoot.

I seem to have written a novel, but this is an important and interesting topic for me! My last tidbit of advice is to not over-think it … just enjoy the improved sensory experience and awareness your feet give you and savor the growth, however gradual it may be. Happy barefooting!

What are your thoughts on the relative importance of foot structure and function, and how they influence one another?

I love hearing my readers’ experiences and questions, so please don’t hesitate to reach out!

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Return to racing, bare and proud!

As I crossed the finish line of the San Diego Half Marathon this past Sunday, I choked back the tears as a powerful flood of emotion overcame me. Two years ago at this time, I was recovering from my second metatarsal stress fracture, just one of a series of severe injuries that kept me sidelined from racing – and nearly from running at all. Over the previous two years, I had tried – and failed – to treat my torn achilles, peroneal and extensor tendonitis, hip bursitis, metatarsal stress reaction and two fractures, by experimenting with every therapy in the books and every shoe available (seriously, you should have seen my shoe rack). My running accomplishments had rapidly diminished from regular marathons to hobbling a few painful miles at best. Each successive injury was followed by yet another, sending me faster into a downward spiral of intensifying hopelessness, as it appeared that my running days were nearing their end.

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Running rebirth

There was a deeper imbalance that was untreatable by rest, physical therapy or new shoes. It was time to hit the reset button and retrain myself to run … from scratch. When I vowed to give up shoes a year and a half ago (September 7, 2013 to be exact) I was terrified. This meant intentionally reducing my mileage to frustratingly low levels and risking more broken bones or worse (as the media promised, with headlines to the tune of “Barefoot Running Can Cause Injuries, Too” and “Barefoot Running Injuries: Doctors See Health Problems Ranging From Stress Fractures To Pulled Calf Muscles“). Although I had been dabbling in running barefoot for a year or so prior, I had approached it as a casual occasional training tool to improve my form, not to mention have a little childlike fun on the side! It seemed unsustainable for the distances and regularity I had been logging and longed to return to. Yet, as every conventional option had failed me, the novelty and craziness of barefoot running offered just the glimmer of hope I needed.

As I progressed through my barefoot journey, the initial apprehension quickly wore off. The requisite patience was offset both by the thrill of running painlessly and freely, as well as by the small, victorious milestones along the way. I vividly remember the satisfaction of completing my first barefoot mile, the giddiness after my first 5-miler and the astonishment after finishing my first 10-miler. The experiment was working!

Racing: The missing piece

Yet, although I had overcome the chronic injuries and – most importantly – had regained my love for running, there was still a missing piece to my inner runner. Due to the incessant injuries, followed by the gradual transition to barefoot running, I hadn’t seriously raced since my last marathon over three years ago. I knew from others’ experiences that returning to full performance (in terms of distance and speed) after switching from shod to barefoot running can take years – around a decade by some estimates. While I dreamed of returning to racing, I was admittedly terrified. Foremost, my barefoot training required a new level of control and precaution, forcing me to limit my terrain mostly to smooth pavement and concrete, and to abandon speed and distance goals. But further, racing for me has always been a chance to explore and test my physical and mental limits. Barefoot racing was uncharted territory and I feared the disappointment if I were to fail that test.

Soon, this race anxiety was overpowered by annoyance with the anxiety, and fed up with my complacency, I took the plunge. My body may never be “perfectly” barefoot-race-ready, but my mind was itching to race. With more excitement than perhaps for any past race, I spontaneously registered for the San Diego Half Marathon, just a couple weeks out. I had been warned by a fellow barefoot runner of some rough spots, but refused to check out the course in advance. Ignorance can indeed be bliss. I was anxious enough, and preferred to bask in blind eagerness than further worry myself.

Taper despair

To my despair, a week from race day as I began to taper, I developed an odd forefoot issue: tight, burning metatarsal heads and painful, tingly first and second toes (I suspect this was related to clumsily wacking my foot on a curb weeks prior, but we’ll never know). The two days before the race, the ‘injury’ peaked and I was hobbling in pain. The mental battle raged, as I weighed the risks and benefits of showing up at the starting line – a painful, miserable, slow run, versus intense disappointment and regret.

Race morning, my foot still ached. But I had to try. The buzz at the starting line reaffirmed my decision, as the shared anticipation amongst the running community flooded me with excitement.

Mile 1: My big toe ached. “Already? Ugh. Why I am I here again?” By mile 2 the pain was gone.

Mile 3: A rough stretch of nasty road. What would have typically ripped up my feet now barely fazed me as I focused intently on light, relaxed form.

Mile 5: Drained and anxious. My foot had been acting up around mile 4-5 in my training runs, and I anticipated the end of my race was near. “This race was such an idiotic decision. I’m injured and tired … there’s just no way this will end well. I’ll most certainly end up more severely hurt, and for what? To prove that I can race barefoot?” But the energy of the runners and spectators propelled me forward, and the constant stream of “Barefoot … thats awesome!” and “Look, she’s barefoot!” reminded me that not only could I do it, I was doing it.

Mile 6.5: Half way already? The foot still felt fine.

Mile 9: After an ugly stretch of not-so-well maintained pavement crossing the 5 freeway, “the hill” appeared. As the 300-foot ascent began and runners around me began to walk, I savored the smooth concrete under my feet as I climbed steadily. But as I peaked to flat ground, I felt a painful ‘pebble’ under my big toe. After a couple of minutes I pulled aside to wipe it away, but there was no pebble. My already finicky flexor tendon had apparently been irritated by the hill, but with only 3 miles to go, I had to push through.

Mile 11: The course weaved through my neighborhood, and as I passed by the cheering onlookers at my typical weekend coffee spot, the pride hit me. I could have been one of those spectators myself, sipping my tea with regret. But not today.

To the finish: Perhaps the most frustrating stretch of the race was the downhill finish. I felt exceptionally strong, but had put on some slight breaks to avoid tearing up the quads, calves and of course, feet.

13.1: I crossed the finish line with deeper gratitude than at perhaps any other race. Compared to my shod days, I hadn’t run particularly fast, and the distance was nothing remarkable, but I had broken another type of PR. After years of being sidelined by injury, I was back in the game. That missing piece to my inner runner was finally found. I was no longer transitioning to barefoot running … I was there. I was a real runner once again … strong, healthy and basking in the post-race passion of the running community that I so missed.

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It finally happened

Ever since I went barefoot over three years ago, I’ve scoffed at the “Aren’t you afraid you’ll catch a disease or infection?” comments. Ridiculous, I thought. I don’t walk around with open foot wounds, and my feet aren’t a bacterial highway to my orifices. After this past week, however, I’m realizing that maybe a little fear would have served me well.

Here’s an abbreviated version of my real-life horror-story to scare a little caution into the barefooting community.

Saturday: Post-dinner stomach rumbles evolved into suspected food poisoning. I’ll spare you the details, but any food sent me an immediate angry message that kept me miserable and sleep-deprived for three days.

Tuesday morning: Stomach turned a corner for the better, so despite my fatigue and weakness, I attempted a run. Managed 8 miles but noticed a mild heel ache. Did I bruise it without noticing? Was it a hint of plantar fasciitis? I had sustained a minuscule cut on that heel a week ago, but that had healed. Not overly concerned, I did some gentle self-massage and slathered some DMSO – a controversial chemical thought to promote soft-tissue healing – over the heel and ankle. I then went about my day, walking barefoot and pleased that I was back up and running again.

Tuesday evening: Foot had gotten progressively worse and I’m feeling notably drained. Must have overdone it with the run. Right before bed, my groin region begins to hurt and I’m feeling chilled and achy. 101.5° fever. A little internet research educates me that swollen lymph nodes in the groin indicate injury to the foot or leg. The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together.

Infected foot. The doctor's outline shows the extent of the infection.

Infected foot. The doctor’s outline shows the extent of the infection.

Wednesday: I awaken to some rapidly spreading and intensifying foot pain, leading to a trip to the ER. It’s an infection, the doc confirms, and gently suggests I run in shoes. I respectfully tell him I’ll opt for this over chronic fractures and tendonitis. He accepts my decision, prescribes an antibiotic and tells me I’ll be feeling better by the morning.

Drip. Drip. Two hours of antibiotics directly into the bloodstream.

Drip. Drip. Two hours of antibiotics directly into the bloodstream.

Thursday: I awaken to a throbbing foot and the terrifying sight of deep red streaks climbing up my ankle. Back to the ER it is, hopping on one foot most of the way. They give me an IV of vancomycin (an antibiotic) and release me six hours later with prescriptions for two more antibiotics. So. Many. Drugs.

Fast forward two days later, and I can almost walk normally. The infection’s under control and the swelling has mostly subsided, though there’s an ugly patch of broken blood vessels and bruising that’s tight and tender to the touch. Thank god for modern medicine. The alternative of losing a limb (or worse) to a simple infection – a reality that our ancestors and many less fortunate populations around the world today still deal with – is humbling and sobering. That’s a topic for another day.

So what caused the infection? The docs didn’t really care to look into it, but assumed it was the old cut on my heel. I suspect otherwise, as the infection never actually extended to the cut itself. The other possibility, that admittedly creeps me out, is that the DMSO – a “universal solvent” – absorbed some nastiness from the outside world directly into my skin and bloodstream. The chemical is not approved for medical use on humans, apparently for good reason. I’ll never know the exact cause, but my DMSO is enjoying its new home in the trash.

“I told you so!” I can hear you all crying in anti-barefoot triumph. Not so fast. Incidentally, I sustained a similarly serious foot infection a decade ago from a blister caused by … poorly fitting shoes. Life happens, unpredictably and uncontrollably, shod or barefoot. As abandoning my shoes and rediscovering the power of my feet has introduced so much strength, health and joy into my running and everyday life, re-embracing shoes is nowhere on the horizon. Sure, barefoot running carries its unique set of risks. But I’ll take the occasional bruise and fluke infection over repeated broken bones and torn tendons any day.

Stay safe and run happy!

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DIY: Minimalist running socks

So you run barefoot. Your feet have toughened up, you’ve perfected your light, quick foot-strike and you pride yourself on having become so bad-ass. But c’mon, admit it … Every once in a while it’s just too cold, that gravel’s a bit too rough and you just might need to protect your feet. So what’s a barefooter to do? Dish out $100 for a pair of shmancy “barefoot” shoes that you’ll wear twice a year? Fret no more! There’s a much simpler, cheaper (and way more bad-ass, since really – that’s what matters) way to protect your feet while maintaining that barefoot feel. Make your own running socks!

What you’ll need:

  • Socks
  • Plasti Dip
  • Paintbrush
  • Paint tray

How to make your running socks:

1. Socks. Choose a good pair of socks. The ideal pair will be new, since you want them to last as many miles as possible. They should fit snugly, with sufficient elasticity so they don’t slip off or slide around while running. But make sure they’re not too small, since the Plasti Dip can make the fabric contract a bit. I use socks with separated toes in this example, as I prefer how they allow greater toe mobility compared to standard socks, but any good pair – toed or toeless – will do.

Plasti_Dip2. Plasti Dip. Get some Plasti Dip in your favorite color. Plasti Dip comes in a rainbow of colors (18 to be exact), so you can tailor your socks to be as flashy or inconspicuous as desired. It’s available in either the standard liquid or aerosol spray cans. Here we’ll use the standard pourable form, but I’ve heard the spray works as well.

pour3. Prepare. First, get comfy. Wear some old clothing and find a chair away from valuable furniture, as there will likely be some stray Plasti Dip spatter. You’ll probably want to protect the floor with some newspaper. Get a book or a friend to keep you entertained while the socks dry. Next, put your socks on and pour a generous amount of Plasti Dip into the paint tray.

paint4. Paint. Now you’re ready to start! Carefully paint the Plasti Dip onto the bottom of your foot with the paintbrush. Ensure that the layer is relatively even but thick enough to actually provide some durability. Avoid the sides and top of the socks, and make sure the ball, heel and toes are fully covered, as these areas will sustain the most wear and tear while running.

dry5. Dry. Prop your feet up and wait at least 30 minutes for the socks to dry (longer is always better). It’s critical that they are on your feet during this initial drying period, as the Plasti Dip will mold to the shape of your feet. Once you’re sufficiently bored, carefully remove the socks and let them finish drying, soles face up. They won’t completely dry for several hours, and I’d suggest waiting a full day before running in them just to be safe.

6. Try them out! Here’s the fun part. Take your socks for a spin. The first several steps might feel strange, but the sock should quickly adjust to your foot and feel almost as wonderful as fully bare. My first run in my Plasti Dip socks was 5 miles, in the frigid New England weather along a debris-strewn highway. The socks held up remarkably well while keeping my feet surprisingly warm and adequately protected against the elements.

Since these guidelines are based on my first experiment, I’d love to hear others’ tips and tricks for improving my future running socks. As always, please share your thoughts and experiences!

Update 4/20/13: I performed a touch-up using the spray can and it was considerably easier and less messy. I highly recommend it over the pourable Plasti Dip!

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Fracture recovery: Running to rebuild

Of the many running injuries I’ve endured, my metatarsal stress fracture has been the most mentally challenging from which to recover. The internet is repleat with advice on how to treat a fracture: rest, supplements, bone stimulators … everyone has their two cents to offer. Yet there’s a perplexingly disproportionate dearth of information about how to return to running once healing has begun. What’s a safe distance to start with? How quickly can you ramp back up? How do you know if you’re pushing too far? Over the past six weeks, my struggle to answer these questions and ensure a safe return to running has incidentally proven to be an exceptional opportunity to retrain myself to run with greater balance, awareness and pleasure. While this has been a rewarding journey in retrospect, I certainly wouldn’t wish this anxiety-inducing learning process on anyone else. In the hopes of sparing others the same nerve-wracking self-experimentation, let me share a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

When am I ready to run?

Running on a fracture before it’s sufficiently healed can delay recovery, or worse – result in a refracture. So how do you know when you’re in the clear to resume running? A good rule of thumb is to wait until you can hop on the fractured foot / leg without pain … and then wait another week. Everyone recovers at different rates, but for me, this would have been around six weeks post-fracture. However, I developed some uncomfortable nerve stimulation in my neighboring toes that delayed my first run to week seven.

How much is too much?

When returning to running from a muscle, tendon or ligament injury, the rule is simple: if it feels uncomfortable, stop – you’re pushing too hard. Not so with a stress fracture. That ache that first emerged at fracture onset will linger to haunt you throughout your recovery, whispering deceptive messages that you’re exacerbating the injury by running on it. But in fact, a certain amount of moderate physical stress is beneficial – and necessary – to stimulate ongoing bone growth and remodeling. The site will certainly ache, as the bone has not regained its full strength, and the surrounding soft-tissue may be aggravated, but this will gradually dissipate with regular, gentle weight-bearing stress. The key, however, is to be able to discriminate between that lingering harmless ache, and the emergence of a novel injury. While I hear claims that “you never refracture the same site”, there are also countless stories of runners who proceed to fracture neighboring bones or develop compensatory soft-tissue injuries. So while that familiar dull ache may be benign, you should probably take heed of new pain in neighboring metatarsals or that worsening tendon strain.

How should I train differently to prevent another fracture?

A bone becomes susceptible to fracture when the amount of stress to which it’s exposed exceeds its capacity to rebuild and recover. Such imbalances might occur for a variety of reasons, including an aggressive increase in training mileage or intensity, or poor biomechanics that incorrectly redistribute impact forces, for example from improper footwear or compenstation for weakness elsewhere. Whatever the cause, the critical step in preventing future fractures is identifying and correcting the original problem.

Leading up to my fracture, I had recently incorporated regular barefoot running into my already minimalist routine. Upon experiencing some mild achiness along the top of my foot, I made the mistake of giving up barefoot running entirely for a week while increasing my overall shod mileage. Granted, this certainly allowed me to continue running with relative comfort … temporarily. But unbeknownst to me, those shoes were not actually protecting my foot from injury, but rather, most likely permitting me to run with sloppy form while masking the sensory warning signs of an incipient fracture. Since my return to running, I’ve adopted the philospohy that if I can’t safely run barefoot, I shouldn’t be running at all. The beauty of running “naked” is two-fold: 1) You quickly learn to run with optimal form, or you pay for it with blisters, sore calves and strained achilles tendons. 2) Any functional imbalance will become immediately apparent as bare foot kisses bare earth, sending you an invaluable warning of the impending injury.

Barefoot running, Iron MountainI’ve kept my barefoot mileage at approximately a third of my total mileage, incrementally increasing both shod and barefoot mileage weekly (see training log below). Sure, this has kept me in check, restraining me from indulging in long shod runs for which my metatarsal is not yet strong enough. But the real perk is the fun of it. The muscle soreness, tension and anxiety I sometimes feel during my shod runs literally melts away once the shoes come off.

How quickly should I progress?

There are training plans available for every imaginable combination of race and runner, for novices and elites, from your first 5k to 100-milers and beyond. But how much and how hard should you run when recovering from a fracture? Although this is possibly the most critical consideration for a safe recovery, it’s also one of the least frequently addressed. To remedy this, I’ve shared below the ad-hoc routine I’ve followed, which has ensured a happy and (thus-far) healthy return to running.

But please take heed of a few cautions before launching into your first run. First, as every runner will recover at different rates, it’s impossible to set a one-size-fits-all recovery plan. For reference, before injury I would regularly log 60-70 miles per week. If your norm is well above or below this, you’ll obviously want to tailor your progression accordingly. Second, I’ve taken advantage of this fresh start to concurrently learn to run with heightened awareness and improved form. To this end, a significant amount of my mileage is fully barefoot, while the rest is run in minimalist shoes (3-6 ounces; 0-7 mm heel-toe drop). How this affects my progression I can only speculate; intuitively one would assume it would require more conservative training, yet in fact, I suspect the benefits of improved biomechanics might actually outweigh any risks. As a final caveat, note that these past six weeks haven’t been without considerable “growing pains”. Almost every run has been accompanied by some degree of achiness near the fracture site, along with mild aggravation in the surrounding muscles and nerves. These symptoms, if mild, are typical and should improve as the injury continues to heal.

Unlike with other injuries, when it might be optimal to couple longer distances with more rest days, I found consistency ciritical for fracture recovery, and therefore opted for higher frequency, but shorter runs. The table below shares these essential measures:

Run frequency: how many days run per week.

Longest run: distance of my longest single run each week, separately for shod and barefoot runs, and combined, since I often finish my shod runs with some barefoot miles.

Total mileage: weekly mileage separately for shod, barefoot and combined (shod + barefoot).

Fracture_recovery_log

And just because I love graphs …

Mileage_graph
These are just the thoughts of one runner … one still experimenting, still learning, and crossing her fingers that these words will be validated by a lasting triumphant return as a stronger, smarter, healthier runner. A runner still looking for all the help she can get, and curious about your own experiences recovering from fractures – your successes, frustrations, tips and concerns – so please share!

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Running the Minimalist Road: Worth the Risk?

Alcohol. Politics. Relatives. Ice cream. The common thread? All are best enjoyed in moderation (just kidding, family … I love you all dearly!). Running, on the other hand, is one activity we should feel free to indulge in to the extreme. Maybe not in terms of mileage, speed or intensity, but in terms of foot support – or more precisely – lack of support. Just a year or two ago I would have argued defiantly with the me of today, having been skeptical of both barefoot zealots and advocates of cushy, motion control shoes. It was from this conservative, middle-of-the-road stance that I launched my minimalist experiment, gradually transitioning to lighter, less supportive running shoes, ranging from huaraches to racing flats.

Readers and friends will attest to the fact that this past year has been undoubtedly the most challenging of my fifteen-year running history, strewn with an unwelcome and unprecedented chain of frequent, relentless running injuries. As recent as a month ago, I began to seriously reconsider the tradeoff between the risks and benefits of my attempted transition to minimalism. Sidelined once again, this time from intense calf strain, I picked up Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton‘s book Barefoot Running Step by Step for some inspiration. While I typically avoid promoting specific products or gear, this man is not only the father of barefoot running and a running guru, but also a witty, endearing writer. Reading this book at the nadir of my frustrating recovery generated the perfect storm. Running should be easy, fun and painless; if it is anything else, you’re doing it wrong. My recent runs, in contrast, were filled with with aches, tension and anxiety. While I noticed a definite improvement in my form, some lingering bad habits in conjunction with reduced protection from less shoe left my bones, tendons and muscles dangerously vulnerable. Clearly something had to change.

Desperate, but willing to experiment as always, I ditched the fear that my feet were still weak from injury, ditched my goals of rebuilding my pre-injury marathon-level mileage, and ditched my shoes … my flats, my vibrams, my sandals. Starting at just half a mile, my feet were laden with blisters and my spirit was humbled by my evidently horrible footstrike. Despite having transitioned fully to an otherwise barefoot lifestyle, the layer of foot protection I consistently relied on while running was blocking a source of sensory feedback essential to reap the full benefits of barefoot running.

Although I’ve run bare – or nearly bare – countless times before, these previous efforts had been lacking two critical ingredients: 1) Awareness of my form and 2) Mentality of a novice runner complete with a willingness to progress SLOWLY. With a touch of restraint and patience, lots of intentional relaxation and a boatload of mindfulness, over one month I’ve developed the ability to run four miles completely bare, blister-free and often with an obnoxious grin plastered across my ecstatic face. Once I abandoned the preconception that my feet still weren’t strong or tough enough, the transition was remarkably easy. The secret, I quickly discovered, is first and foremost to relax and run however feels fun and easy. This revelation was aided by several indespensible tips from Ken Bob’s “cheat sheet”, such as bending the knees, landing first on the forefoot followed by the heel and toes, a forward lean that propels you into a falling motion, and steps so light the feet barely kiss the ground. The greatest challenge hasn’t been mastering the technique or covering the mileage; rather, it’s been fighting the inevitable “barefoot running exuberance syndrome”. I’ve addressed this by adhering to the following super-conservative plan (of course, this isn’t ideal for everyone, but is working great for me!):

1. Run at most every other day.
2. Start at 0.5 miles, increasing by no more than 0.2 miles per run.
3. Stop at the first sign of pain, and don’t even think of increasing mileage if the last run wasn’t awesome.

Having followed steps one and two religiously, I have yet to worry about step three.

By venturing beyond the comfort zone of minimalist running, I’m finally seeing the logic behind many of the claims from other barefooters that I had previously dismissed as radical propaganda. Running barefoot doesn’t guarantee correct form or injury-free running, but it does make it a heck of a lot easier. The chronic hip and calf tightness I’ve felt for years literally melts away when my shoes are off.

The sidewalk greeted my feet with this message after my most recent barefoot run.

And best of all, the skills I’m learning bare are translating into easier, healthier, more fun shod running as well. This past month of supplementing my longer shod runs with short barefoot runs has facilitated a successful recovery from months of injury, as I’m learning to run in shoes with the same ease as without them.

So if you’re thinking of exploring minimalist running but are afraid to bare your soles, I urge you to consider … is moderation really worth the risk?

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Back to basics

In the long run, coping with life’s challenges and hardships can provide unforeseen benefits such as a more grounded perspective and sense of empowerment. Similar strengthening can also occur during a runner’s battle with injuries. For instance, I’ve emerged from prior injuries having learned critical lessons in patience and adaptability. Yet this growth has often also been accompanied by an awareness of concomitant physical losses, including reduced strength and stamina, missed races and training setbacks. My most recent injury, however, has demonstrated that when the injury is severe enough and the struggle to recover is sufficiently trying and lasting, even these physical losses can be converted into gains. How, you ask, could a five-month hiatus from running, ignited by a metatarsal stress reaction followed by a lateral foot injury and then severe calf pain, turn one into a stronger runner? By radically transforming their technique and definition of running.

Too often we address injuries with a patch; we treat the pain and inflammation with drugs, ice, orthotics, creams and bandages, until the symptoms disappear, without ever understanding how they originated in the first place. A frustratingly stubborn recovery, for which these quick fixes are ineffective, can force a deeper understanding of the biomechanical imbalances that frequently lay at the source. While each runner is unique and must listen closely to their own body to learn such lessons, let me share a few personal experiences that may strike a chord with some readers.

As the cause of my injuries was not immediately apparent, I initially tried to treat them while adhering to my ingrained, unhealthy running habits. Only when I finally realized this old routine would no longer cut it, I launched a new approach to my recovery with a clean slate. I abandoned my goal to rebuild mileage and became determined to simply learn to run again – correctly and painlessly – which I’ve approached by incorporating frequent short, easy and mindful barefoot runs. This simple tool not only teaches proper running biomechanics, but has also revealed subtle differences between my shod and barefoot running form that have likely been the culprit of injurious, inefficient running.

Metatarsal stress reaction

The ignition to my train of injuries, a stress reaction in my left metatarsals, was assumed to be a classic result of too many miles in too little shoe, before my feet were strong enough. Yet this explanation seemed at odds with my intentionally very gradual, cautious transition to a minimal shoe and foot strengthening efforts through barefoot walking. A recent barefoot run confirmed that the culprit may not have been the miles and weakness, but rather, poor running form transferring undue stress to the forefoot. During this particular run along a harsh urban route – my only unpleasant barefoot run to date – I adopted a rigid, tense and sloppy foot strike as I traversed uneven, rough terrain. The consequence was an aching, swollen top of foot, disturbingly remniscent of my old injury.

Lateral foot tightness

Just as my stress reaction was healing and I resumed gentle running, I became plagued with a nagging ache along the lateral foot (presumably the flexor digiti minimi brevis / abductor digiti minimi muscles), from the cuboid to the base of the fifth metatarsal. To no avail, I tried massage, ice, heat and running on every imaginable surface, from concrete, dirt and grass to an Anti-gravity treadmill. It wasn’t until replacing my already minimal shoes with an even lighter, less cushioned and less supportive shoe that I found relief. The subtle arch support of my prior pair had evidently been encouraging excessive supination, placing undue strain along my lateral lower leg and foot.

Calf strain

Finally recovered from my foot ailments after months of rest, I launched back into running cautiously but soon discovered my calves were not up to the task. A month of running with tight calves culminated in intense pain and swelling that spread throughout my calf, ankle and foot, forcing me into another two-week running hiatus. Despite common logic that weak, strained calves would benefit from cushion, support and soft surfaces, I discovered a peculiar phenomenon that the calf pain appeared instantly when running in shoes, but I could run painlessly barefoot … on concrete.

Could it be that each of these injuries did not in fact result from too many miles, aggressive training or insufficient support, but instead stemmed from running with unnecessary tension and improper biomechanics? 

Admittedly I’m eagerly awaiting the days when I can enjoy endless miles with full strength and endurance; but for now I’ve discovered a new source of joy from running. Rather than progressing in terms of mileage or speed, I’m gaining satification from my gradual improvements in form which allow me to run free of pain, tension and injury. These lessons have spawned a new era of growth in my evolution as a runner, one marked not just by improved biomechanics and strength, but also by a rekindled appreciation for the pure joy of running.

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Barefoot birthday

A year ago yesterday I took off my shoes, and *mostly* haven’t looked back. Envisioning this post months ago, I projected an enthusiastic account of how a barefoot lifestyle can radically improve foot health and transform your running. While the year-long journey has certainly been enlightening, it has more specifically revealed the detrimental impact of a lifetime of shoe-wearing, the dangers of demanding too much from the body, and the complexity of the “barefoot vs. shod” debate.

Before expounding upon my personal experiences, let me clarify what I mean by the term “barefoot”. I do not wear shoes unless absolutely necessary. That means bare sole to dirt, concrete, pavement or snow, walking around campus, at lab, through my neighborhood or hiking a mountain. I’ll slip on a pair of flip-plops in professional situations or at restaurants or stores that request shoes, since I may not understand others’ distaste for feet, but hey – I’ll respect our difference of opinion. The other main exception is when I run. Although my feet rapidly adapted to walking bare, the demands of running bare are considerably greater and require a more cautious transition. For this reason, depending on the distance, my running footwear ranges from a lightweight shoe to a sandal to fully bare.

As my original motivation for this experiment was to personally assess the effects of a barefoot lifestyle, the critical question is how has shoe-free living changed my life and health? As a scientist, you’d think I would have conducted a properly controlled experiment. But as an overzealous extremophile, I of course changed too much at once, and now have a mess of uninterpretable anecdotes. Over the past year I not only started walking barefoot, but concurrently started using a standing desk and running in minimalist shoes, making it essentially impossible to dissociate their impact on my well-being. With that caveat, let me share the benefits, frustrations and painful lessons of this adventure.

By far the most entertaining aspect of my barefoot experiment has been the often ludicrous, hilarious and sadly misinformed comments I receive from strangers. I’ve been repeatedly advised to put on shoes because my feet “need” the arch support, I’ll cut myself on all the glass and needles that are everywhere, I’ll contract diseases from all the spit on the ground, and my favorite (from a plumber) – “there’s shit everywhere”. Either these are unwarranted concerns or I’m blessed with super-human resistance, since I have yet to experience any of these complications. In fact, the greatest danger I’ve encountered has been one easily removable splinter. I’ve even proudly developed enough resilience to walk over glass without injury.

Feet at the start of my barefoot experiment (left) and one year later (right). Excuse the poor quality of the 2011 photos, taken from my iPhone!

Perhaps most astounding is that such a seemingly minor change as taking off your shoes leads to such a dramatic physical transformation. The visible changes have been surprisingly subtle, including slight thickening of the skin on the soles and a slight expansion of the metatarsals. Although I originally intended to document the physical changes with periodic photographs, the differences from day 1 to day 365 are just barely apparent. Rather, the predominant changes have been in terms of internal structure and strength. My feet have appropriately adapted to the demands of supporting themselves, instead of relying on the artificial support of a shoe, by gradually developing stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments. The difference has been dramatic enough that others, including my massage therapist and acupuncturist, have commented on my remarkably high arches and increased strength in my feet and lower legs.

In an ideal world, the story would end here. Hypothesis confirmed … returning my feet to their natural state led to improved foot health and function. But I am an athlete – a stubborn, sometimes irrational, too often fanatic – runner. As such, I of course sought the thrill of pushing my boundaries, expediting my progress towards minimalist running and only half-heartedly heeded the warnings of an overly aggressive transition. I ran contently in a safe transition zone for several months before making the error of incorporating marathon training into my bare and minimalist experiment. Predictably, at the peak of my training I over-ran myself into a metatarsal stress reaction which, due to a combination of a poor self-diagnosis and improper treatment, evolved into an excruciating 4 month hiatus from running. A slow bone recovery was followed by soft-tissue irritation as my foot is re-awakening to the demands of running.

That said, one could justifiably consider this a failed experiment in barefoot living. The anti-barefoot community can now happily add me to their stats of runners who sustain transitioning-to-barefoot-running injuries (although, some research suggests these stats may be inflated). Call me crazy, but instead of convincing me to protect my vulnerable feet with shoes, the journey has opened my eyes to the many joys of a barefoot lifestyle and minimalist running. Walking bare is an essentially risk-free way to improve foot health while inviting in a flood of wonderful, novel sensory experiences. My trials with minimalist running have foremost underscored the dangers of 1) weakening our feet through a lifetime of unnecessary, artificial support, and 2) over-stressing the thus-weakened bones and soft tissue of the foot by demanding too much, too soon. While dangerously high mileage in a minimal shoe pushed my feet beyond their present strength, this is by no means evidence that a lighter – or absent – shoe is inherently dangerous. Running bare with poor form or insufficient strength can lead to injury; conversely, there’s no risk of running in traditional shoes with correct form. While the runner, not the shoe, is the critical factor (for example, see Daoud et al, 2012), the benefit of less shoe comes from the natural tendency to run with improved form – including faster cadence, lighter steps and a midfoot / forefoot strike – with reduced interference from a bulky shoe.

Year one has been filled with surprises, frustrations, and continued physical and mental development. As is true for science in general, our findings may not always confirm our predictions, but we can trust that they’ll reveal the truth. I’m looking forward to a second year of growth and discovery, but can’t help wonder … do bare feet experience the terrible two’s?

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