Tag Archives: calf pain

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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