Tag Archives: feet

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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The shoulder-hip rotation equation

Stabiliity. Mobility. Activation. Relaxation. Each of these features has its place in a strong, efficient running stride. Yet, an excess or lack of one at the wrong place in the gait cycle can seriously throw off a runner’s biomechanics. Through some recent trials and experimentation of my own, I’ve learned how profoundly true this is for a proper kinematic balance throughout the core, extending from the pelvis up through the abs, back and shoulders.

Those who’ve been following my blog will be aware of my history of hamstring and foot injuries. I’ve struggled with disproportionate left hip/hamstring tension and tendinopathy for years, and have sustained beyond my fair share of right foot fractures and tendinoses. While these issues are more or less under control due to gradually improving biomechanics, more mindful training and frequent self-care (massage, ART and physical therapy), they continue to linger as minor annoyances on most runs. A couple weeks ago, my physical therapist performed a gait analysis to get to the source of these longstanding imbalances.

She noted three main issues:

1) Excessive left shoulder rotation. I tend to pull my left shoulder back too much right before left foot-strike. The arms should swing in the sagittal plane, but there should be minimal rotation at the shoulders.

Left shoulder rotates excessively

Left shoulder rotates excessively

2) Insufficient right leg drive. Compared to my left leg, my right leg does not come up as high during the swing phase. I can feel this while running, as if the leg is dragging behind me instead of driving back powerfully. In fact, I have a tendency to occasionally stub my right big toe due to my inability to lift.

Right leg lifts lower than left

Right leg lifts lower than left

3) Externally rotated right foot. When the foot strikes, it tends to land with the toes pointed outward. I am also keenly aware of this error, as it feels like the entire right leg is uncontrollably turned out.

Right foot rotates outward

Right foot rotates outward

Mental trick FAIL

For the past week, I’ve attempted to consciously correct each of these biomechanical errors in turn … without success. Efforts to stabilize my shoulders left me with excess tension from the neck down, through the shoulder and back. Empowering my right leg drive felt unnatural and exhausting, and turning my right foot inward was even more awkward and resulted in lateral ankle pain. Form correction FAIL.

My physical therapist prescribed some drills to ingrain proper shoulder and foot motor-memory; yet these changes will take time and I wanted a quick fix. I knew something major was off with my gait, so I launched my own investigation. I came across an article discussing the balance between shoulder and pelvic rotation (which I can no longer track down) that struck a chord. Excessive amounts of shoulder rotation, they explained, may signal insufficient hip rotation. If the hips are too rigid, the upper body compensates. Prior to my long run this week, I practiced this simple exercise to reinforce what proper pelvic rotation should feel like … and to no surprise, this was a novel sensation for my typically rigid running hips.

Mental trick SUCCESS!

Throughout my long run, I repeatedly checked in with my form, this time drawing on some new tools in my belt. Rather than forcefully immobilizing my upper body, I focused on relaxing the shoulders, keeping the neck extended, and leading with the chest. I increased my forward full-body lean and was cautious not to overstride. Most critically, I experimented – for the first time – with exaggerating my pelvic rotation. As my left leg began to swing back, I let the hip pull back with it … this was a remarkably new sensation, but felt fluid and right. I was suddenly able to attain much greater leg extension that usual, without force or effort. Further exploring the movement, I discovered that emphasizing rotation on the left compared to the right seemed to balance and better align my hips. The pattern of tension that typically evolves over my long runs – extending from my lower back down through the left glutes and hamstring – was oddly absent. Not only was my left leg moving with new-found fluidity, but my right leg had inadvertently gained strength and alignment as well. By increasing my left pelvic rotation, my right leg and foot were now freed to glide naturally through their stride. Without effort, the right foot was now striking straight and both legs were driving back with equal strength.

So how does a runner know how to balance stability with mobility? When during the gait cycle to relax and when to engage? It’s truly a delicate balance, and one that doesn’t always come naturally. Injuries that cause compensatory movement, or years of running with even slight dysfunction can further exacerbate and ingrain poor motor patterns. Critically, as each runner is unique in terms of structure and function, there is no one-size-fits-all biomechanical prescription. Even running experts agree there’s no “perfect” form, and it can be risky to change your form unnecessarily. My advice to you, runner, is to experiment with your gait if there’s a preexisting problem. Then, play with various adjustments and assess your body’s response until you hone in on changes that benefit you.

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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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Blisters, bruises and other bumps along the barefoot road

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.

Terrain

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.

First Aid

photo credit @reasra

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.

Bruises

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.

Cuts

“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?

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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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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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Fracture fears: A nightmare comes true!

Irrational fears. We all have them: snakes, heights, public speaking … stress fractures. Runners tend to be a fearless breed, that is until it comes to debilitating injuries we just cannot run through. For me, the dreaded stress fracture has always been at the top of my list of deep, gut-wrenching fears. And considering how my thin, caucasian, female frame and my thousands of miles logged each year put me at an elevated risk, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well I’ve avoided this terrifying injury. That is, until six weeks ago. Having survived and mostly emerged from the obligatory stages of post-injury traumatic stress, I now feel relatively well equipped to share my experiences with this runner’s nightmare come true.

CAUSES

So what was the straw that ultimately broke the camel’s, uh … metatarsal? Two-months into a transition back from a perplexing injury in my left foot, I had been slowly increasing mileage and experimenting with a variety of footwear, terrain and barefoot running. Was it the barefoot running? Unlikely. Ironically, given some mild strain along my first metatarsal, I had decided to “play it safe” and take a hiatus from barefoot running the week leading up to the fracture. Ignoring my own advice, I instead switched to running full-time in racing flats.

Was it too much too soon? Possibly, although I had been mindfully transitioning very gradually and cautiously. Despite roughly following the 10% rule (no weekly mileage increase greater than 10%), I had unintentionally completed a particularly taxing week of training. On my first back-to-back run since returning to running I got lost, extending my planned “easy” six-mile trail run into an hour and a half adventure through a canyon. With only subtle warning signs, the fracture appeared just a few days later during an otherwise normal run.

As the term implies, a stress fracture is the result of too much stress to a bone, from any of a variety of causes. In my case I suspect a number of factors were at play. I’m an odd case of an oversupinator and underpronator, failing to complete the normal lateral to medial rolling of the foot during the stance period. Coupled with an unusually tight flexor hallucis longus tendon, my second metatarsal was undoubtedly under excess stress that would otherwise be supported by the stronger first metatarsal. My stressed bones were all the more vulnerable in a minimalist shoe that provided less protection than a standard shoe, yet less sensory feedback than bare feet to warn me of the impending fracture.

SYMPTOMS

X-ray 12 days post-injury showing fracture at the head of the 2nd metatarsal.

I’ve always expected the onset of a fracture to be signaled by a definite aha moment – a sudden, stabbing unmistakable pain. Not so. Rather, the presumed onset of my fracture was accompanied by a gradually increasing numbness in the second toe and a subtle tightness along the top of the second metatarsal, neither of which qualified as painful. A tender, pea-sized lump soon appeared over the metatarsal, which I dismissed as an irritated extensor tendon. The next day, a gentle “recovery hike” sent me to the ER with electricity-like pain and an inflamed, swollen foot. Unable to walk without searing pain, I still vehemently denied the possibility of a fracture, instead self-diagnosing a case of capsulitis. Two-weeks post-injury, an X-ray confirmed the dreaded presence of a full, but non-displaced fracture across the head of the second metatarsal.

TREATMENT

Considering the abundance of confusing and often conflicting medical and anecdotal advice, what is the best treatment approach for a rapid, healthy return to running? After researching and experimenting with numerous alternatives, the following proved most effective for my personal recovery.

Avoid:

1. NSAIDs and ice. You should control the unbearable pain and swelling with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and ice, right? Wrong. While they may provide temporary relief, they will likely impair the body’s beneficial inflammatory response critical to healing the damaged tissue. There is now abundant evidence that NSAIDs actually delay fracture healing (Burd et al., 2003Butcher & March, 1996; Giannoudis et al., 2000) and can often exaccerbate inflammation.

2. The boot. I wore the boot a total of just a few hours, and saw little benefit. While it did alleviate a bit of foot pain while walking, it also misaligned my legs hips and back, making it quite uncomfortable and exhausting to walk at length.

Do:

Exogen bone stimulator

1. Bone stimulation. If I were to attribute my rapid healing to any single factor, it would be low-intensity ultrasound bone stimulation. FDA-approved for treating fractures, bone stimulation is supported by research demonstrating singificantly faster bone healing. I’ve been using an Exogen bone stimulator since week two, for 20 minutes twice daily. They’re not cheap, and if you purchase one from eBay, be sure to follow these guidelines to prevent getting ripped off.

2. Supplement. Bone production requires adequate calcium, vitamin D and magnesium. Even if you think you’re getting enough from your diet, it’s a good idea to supplement for added security. Silica is also important for bone development, with the added perks of promoting hair and nail growth. Anecdotally, since I’ve started taking silica I’ve had to cut my nails twice as often as usual! To reduce inflammation naturally, without the potentially detrimental effects of NSAIDs, try turmeric, ginger or omega-3 fatty acids.

3. Rest and activity. Both are critical for the healing process and it can be challenging to determine the optimal balance. In the early stages when the bone is most fragile, immobilization is critical to prevent displacing the bone or otherwise exaccerbating the fracture. But once the critical stage has passed and the site is less vulnerable to reinjury, gentle movement and mild stress are essential to rebuild strength. An overly conservative rest period may actually delay healing and leave the bone and soft tissue weaker than pre-fracture. Non- or light-weightbearing activities will encourage circulation, increase flexibility and maintain strength while minimizing dangerous impact forces. I’ve maintained some degree of sanity with water jogging, the elliptical and running on an anti-gravity treadmill. Of course, these may not be safe for all fractures; beneficial and detrimental activity may be hard to discriminate and only you can determine your safety threshold. For those with a high pain tolerance like myself (which probably includes most injured runners … isn’t that how we got here in the first place?), a good guideline is to stop any activity that increases your level of discomfort. Note the use of the term discomfort rather than pain. Discomfort indicates you are aggravating the injury, whereas pain is a good sign that some damage has already been done.

RECOVERY

As with any injury, the first question we runners ask is When I can run again? Although having just passed week six I’m still not running, my progress has been steady and encouraging, with several landmark transition stages.

0-2 weeks: During the acute post-injury phase I was essentially unable to walk without intense, diffuse pain throughout the foot, extending across the top and ball of the foot and through my first, second and third toes. The foot was hideously swollen and I could easily induce pain by pressing on the fracture site, bending the toe, or under vibration testing. This is by far the most difficult stage, during which you will most certainly want to crawl into a hole and hibernate until it passes. But take comfort – it will pass.

2-4 weeks: The swelling reduced somewhat and I was able to walk for short distances (< 10 minutes). Light exercise like the elliptical and anti-gravity treadmill became feasible. This stage likely corresponded with the formation of a soft callus around the fracture.

X-ray at 5 weeks shows a hazy “ghost” indicative of a hard callus.

4-6 weeks: My most significant recovery occurred at approximately four weeks. I suddenly found myself able to walk for longer periods (up to an hour), and perform forefoot-loading exercises like downward facing dog without pain. I suspect this breakthrough was coincident with the development of the hard callus. A follow-up X-ray at five weeks confirmed the presence of this hard callous, visible in the image as a hazy “ghost” around the fracture location and palpable as a firm lump. But take heed; this sudden improvement can provide a false sense of strength. This callus is in essence a bone-like patch that will be gradually remodeled over several months into permanent, stronger bone, so running on a young hard callus still carries high risk of reinjury. For me, the presence of the callus has been sufficient to preclude running, as the physical deformation from the enlargement has introduced additional strain and even bizarre nerve stimulation in the neighboring metatarsals and toes. While the fracture feels ready to run, the surrounding region is sending a cautious message that all is not yet back to normal.

Irrational by definition, ungrounded fears like sustaining a stress fracture may best be overcome by tackling them head on. Having dealt with frustratingly stubborn soft tissue injuries (achilles and peroneal tendonitis, trochanter bursitis, piriformis syndrome … the list goes on), I’ve found odd comfort in the predictable timecourse of bone healing and the straightforward, logical treatment. With every day of healing, my fracture fear slowly dissolves. The (maybe not so scary after all?) nightmare is gradually morphing into a waiting game, as I count down the final days to my official return to running – free and fearless.

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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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To wear or to bare?

A runner’s choice of footwear can be confusing and downright overwhelming. We’re fed mixed messages from shoe manufacturers that their latest motion-control, cushioned stability shoe with custom orthotics on the one hand – or maybe their lightweight minimalist shoe on the other – will guarantee our feet a smooth, fast ride. For years I believed that finding the right running shoe was like finding one’s life partner … we all have a perfect match out there somewhere, but it might take years of dating around to discover our sole-mate (sorry – couldn’t resist). Over the past several months I began to both test and question this idea in a recent personal experiment. But before sharing my discoveries, let me offer a bit of context …

I had been blessed with 14 years of essentially injury-free running. That is, until a fateful day in February 2010 when, while training for the Boston marathon, I returned home from my evening run with a torn achilles tendon. Needless to say, I did not make it to the starting line that April. The ensuing year was filled with a flurry of peroneal tendonitis, femoral-patella syndrome and trochanter bursitis (ie ankle, knee and hip injuries). Was my body just not designed to run this many miles (as my doctor informed me!) or was I doing something wrong?

Given many runners’ reports that going barefoot helped resolve their injuries, I began to look into the possibility that my shoes might be contributing to my own problems. Although initially skeptical of these seemingly radical claims, the more I researched, the more I found them intuitively appealing and scientifically sound. The logic was simple: the human body evolved to walk, run and jump perfectly fine without the need of external crutches like arch support or heel cushioning. It’s doubtful that our hunter ancestors had to slip on their Nikes before pursuing their next meal. Modern man has changed little from our predecessors, with one notable exception: for most of us a lifetime of shoe-wearing has fostered an epidemic of shoe-dependence. Held captive in footwear, our feet become weak, inflexible and ridden with bunions, fallen arches or crooked toes. We in turn attempt to correct these imbalances with more cushioned, structured and protective footwear, only perpetuating the cycle. The truth is, our feet are quite well suited to sustain the physical impact of these activities with their elegant support system of 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Introducing an artificial support system like footwear transfers the impact burden from foot to shoe, which over time can 1) weaken our feet and lower legs, 2) alter our natural walking or running gait and 3) redistribute impact forces to place excessive stress on areas like knees and hips. While there is nothing inherently dangerous about shoes themselves (with maybe a few exceptions), the associated consequences of long-term foot support such as weakness and unhealthy gait are concerning. I’ll limit my explanation to this, in the hope of being minimally redundant with the countless articles already written on the topic. But I will refer the interested reader to a stellar investigation into the effects of shoes on foot-strike patterns and their associated impact forces, published last year by Daniel Lieberman and colleagues.

Thus, curious and excited yet still skeptical, five months ago I began to experiment with the natural potential of my own feet. This has not been a quest to become a barefoot runner per se, and I do not intend to provide a “how-to guide” for such a goal. Rather, it has been an exploration of my body’s response to removing my feet from artificial sources of support and protection. Heeding cautions that my feet would be weaker than expected, I began slowly … exceedingly slowly since I was concurrently training for another marathon and of course, stubbornly refused to compromise my mileage. My experiment involved the following core elements:

Walk barefoot. Babies aren’t born with the capacity to run without first developing the strength to crawl, then walk and finally run. Similarly, why would I expect to be able to run bare if I couldn’t first walk bare? On day one of my barefoot journey I lasted only a few blocks before my sensitive skin and tired feet screamed for shoes. But within just a few weeks I built up the strength and resilience to walk essentially everywhere and anywhere.

Run minimally. Various features of your typical running shoe can influence gait including cushioning, arch support and heel-to-toe drop, all of which were characteristic of my own standard running shoe. I therefore experimented with various shoes that minimize these factors to different degrees. Practically, this involved running most of my mileage in my standard shoe, while gradually increasing the percentage of miles run in a more minimal shoe. For instance, I began by running about 20% of my weekly mileage in a light-weight racing shoe and ramped up this mileage by approximately 10% each week. I also supplement my daily longer runs with one or two weekly short runs (1-3 miles) in minimal protection (huaraches or vibram five-fingers).

Listen and adapt. This has been critical for both the success and evaluation of my experiment. I’ve become increasingly aware of my body’s response to each new change and continue to adapt as necessary. When feeling strong I allow myself to increase my “minimal shoe” mileage. If I feel weakness or strain in my feet or calves, I introduce extra support until the issue resolves. For instance, I recently completed a marathon in a lightweight shoe but ran exclusively in a higher-support shoe for the entire post-race week to allow my strained feet and ankles to recover.

So what has come of the early stages of my experiment? I now exclusively walk barefoot, as I’ve grown to love the sensation of my foot contacting the earth as well as a heightened awareness of my environment. In fact, I find it rather awkward to walk in shoes and can’t imagine going back. While I won’t go so far as to claim that discarding my shoes has been a panacea, I’ve discovered that footwear significantly affects my lower leg strength, running form and overall running experience. Perhaps most remarkable has been the transformation in my gait. Trained as both a dancer and sprinter before taking up distance running, I developed an unusual tendency to excessively forefoot strike and supinate. But in zero-drop footwear I find myself engaging my entire foot – from ball to heel – and striking with better lateral balance. As my form corrected, the demands on my upper leg shifted lower, resulting in remarkably stronger feet, calves and shins as well as reduced tightness in my hips, quads and IT band. Generally, the less support and cushion under my feet, the lighter, smoother and more balanced I find my gait. That said, I appreciate some form of protection from rough terrain, as this frees my mind from worrying about rocks, sticks, or other potential dangers so I can simply enjoy the ride. Yet I still find value in a traditional shoe, particularly in providing extra support to keep me running through periods of soft-tissue weakness or strain. As conservatively as I tried to pace myself, my progression was just aggressive enough to ensure my share of achy feet, stressed tendons and tight calves. These past months have debunked the myth that any one shoe – or lack of shoe – is ideal. In fact, I currently alternate among 5 different models of footwear, depending on my support needs …

My embarrassingly large array of running shoes, from handmade huaraches (so fun!) at left to classic supportive sneakers at right.*

My barefoot / minimal journey is still in its infancy and I’m excited to witness its continued evolution over the coming years. These preliminary “data” indicate that for me, less is indeed more. Less shoe equals increased strength, a more balanced foot-strike and an overall more liberating running experience. However, the heterogeneous reports from others suggest that this is not a universal experience and that the runner, rather than the shoe, is the critical ingredient. So whatever you choose to – or not to – wear, if you’re healthy and happy then you’re probably doing something right.

* Although I try not to promote any particular product, I will gladly share my opinions if you contact me directly.
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