Barefoot running is increasingly popular. However, it isn’t without its problems and many athletes experience pain and injuries in the early stages of barefoot running. In this article, Jason Robillard looks at how to relieve some of those problems.
Written by: Jason Robillard
Barefoot running is a relatively simple skill to learn, but somewhat difficult to master. In the last article, I discussed the basic elements of good barefoot form. In this article, I will discuss many of the -foot problems and pain new barefoot runners may experience. These various issues can be used as tools to hone your barefoot running -technique.
Blisters are among the most common problems experienced by new barefoot runners. The friction from poor form is the usual cause. Most see blisters as a nuisance, but I see them as a learning opportunity. Generally, blisters are caused by a combination of friction, heat, and moisture. The significant variable we’re interested in is friction. If your foot is not touching the ground correctly, the resulting friction will cause abrasions or blisters. Blisters can be an excellent problem-solving tool.
Problem: Blisters develop on the tips of the toes. Blisters on the tips of the toes is indicative of “pushing off”. Ideally, you should be lifting your foot off the ground, not pushing against the ground to propel you forward.
Solution: Focus on lifting the foot as you run. Many people find it useful to visualize a string attached to their knee being pulled up with each step.
Problem: Blisters form on the front or side of the ball of the foot. Blisters in either of these locations is caused by the foot contacting the ground with a shearing force. This is usually caused by overstriding, or your foot landing in front of your center of gravity.
Solution: To assure your feet are landing under your center of gravity, slow down and/or shorten your stride. As you develop good form, pace can increase.
Problem: Blisters form on the heel. Heel blisters are usually the result of heel-striking, or allowing your heel to touch the ground before your midfoot, or ball.
Solution: To correct heel blisters, focus on allowing the ball of your foot to touch the ground first. Again, slowing your pace and shortening your stride are helpful methods to solve this problem.
Blisters are not the only obstacle new barefoot runners may face. Other common problems include Achilles tendon pain and calf muscle tightness, pain on the top of the foot, and shin splints. Each problem can be used to diagnose errors in form.
Problem: The Achilles tendons and calf muscles develop tightness or soreness. This issue arises because of the switch from the raised heels of typical shoes to barefoot or the “zero-drop” flat soles of minimalist shoes. The raised heel chronically shortens the Achilles tendon. Also, the heel strike many runners utilize causes significant atrophy of the calf muscles.
Solution: Patience is needed to allow the tendon to stretch and the calf muscles to develop. Reduction in training volume and intensity or more frequent rest days will solve the problem. It may help to completely abandon raised-heel shoes. There are several excellent minimalist casual shoes on the market today from manufacturers like Merrell and Terra Plana. Stretching and strengthening exercises may also be beneficial for calf muscle pain.
Problem: Pain develops on the top of the foot. Within the barefoot running community, we refer to this as “top of foot pain”, or TOFP. Clever, I know. Pain will develop along the top of the foot and varies from a sharp, shooting pain to a dull ache. The cause is debated, but common explanations are metatarsalgia or tender tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Typical running shoes are designed to limit the natural movement of the foot, which act like a cast. The shoes cause atrophy of the foot anatomy. When running barefoot, these muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments need time to adapt.
Solution: Like calf muscle pain, TOFP requires patience. If you experience this pain, it is a signal that you are doing too much too soon. A reduction in training volume and intensity combined with more frequent rest days will solve the problem. Icing may also help.
Problem: Shin splints, or pain on the front of the lower legs develops. This problem is uncommon, but occasionally appears. The cause is almost always overstriding and/or heel striking. Most people that experience shin splints after barefoot running also experience blisters on the heels or front of the midfoot.
Solution: Reducing pace and stride length will solve this problem.
Not all new barefoot runners will experience these issues. If any of these problems do arise, they present an excellent learning opportunity. Each problem can be used to help refine your new barefoot running form.
It is important to remember the most important lesson: Exercise patience. If you start slow and take the time to learn proper form, all of these issues can be avoided. Runners are notorious for “running through the pain”, which is exactly what you want to avoid.
Jason Robillard is the owner of Barefoot Running University (http://barefootrunninguniversity.com), author of The Barefoot Running Book, and one of the founding members of the Barefoot Runners Society (http://barefootrunners.org).