Now that I’ve started my great barefoot running experiment, as mentioned Yesterday, I thought I’d assess the initial risk with running barefoot.  It’s an interesting dichotomy – running barefoot is seen as both a source of injury and a means of preventing it.  This depends on who you talk to, and there are certainly biases on either side of the issue.

Of course, in the past year or so, with the release of Born to Run, and the Harvard Study on barefoot running: barefoot running has developed into a fast-growing movement.  So we’ve had a large number of people quickly adopting it.  More recently, this has resulted in an uptick in barefoot running related injuries, according to Matt Fitzgerald’s article in Competitor Magazine.  As the article points out, it’s hard to say whether barefoot running causes more injuries or if it causes a proportionate number of injuries, but there’s just more people running barefoot now.

I do think starting to run barefoot poses some unique challenges that elevate injury risk.  Muscles, tendons, and bones that have been greatly underused for most of your life are inevitably weak and vulnerable to overuse.  Overprotected skin is soft and vulnerable to puncture.  Using a different running form can also cause adjustment problems elsewhere in the body.  The recent barefoot running movement, and the rash of injuries that have come with it, have afforded me the opportunity to step back and take a look at the challenges and injuries that others have incurred on their attempts to transition to barefoot running.  The Huraches/minimalist/barefoot running Google group has been an excellent resource.  Here’s a list of possible barefoot-running related injuries that I’m going to bear in mind as I make the transition:

  • Skin puncture – This is an obvious one, and something the scares most people away.  By shedding the huge layer of protection, the skin of my feet will be vulnerable to puncture by sharp objects.  To prevent this, I plan to start my running on grass in rather desolate areas where I’m less likely to encounter man-made sharp objects – glass from bottles, shards of metal, etc.  I’ll also be keeping a keen eye out for objects as I’m starting.  My skin will tough up over time, and be more puncture resistant.  Ultimately, I will be transitioning to minimalist shoes, which will make this a non-issue.
  • Ball of the foot (BOF) pain – running barefoot puts more direct pressure on the ball of the foot.  This may result in some initial discomfort in the region, in particular if I step on a small rock directly in the middle of the BOF.  This is definitely something to watch out for, as it’s rather difficult to run with good form if the BOF is hurting.
  • Calf/Achilles’s tendon pain, inflammation – barefoot running also utilizes these groups more.  I think this tends to be more of an over-use kind of issue, so taking it slowly and gradually should help me steer clear of this.
  • Plantar Fasciitis (PF) – Similar to calf and Achilles’s pain, I think this is more of an over-use issue for barefooters.  It’s interesting because barefoot running is typically recommended as treatment/rehab for PF because it will strengthen the tendons long term.
  • Top of the foot (TOF) pain – this seems to be a big one.  Obviously, you’re not directly contacting the ground with the top of the foot, so top of the foot pain is usually indicative of something more internal – perhaps a stress fracture.  If I feel this kind of pain, I’ll definitely hold back, maybe even take some time off.
  • Toe fracture – This is what I’m most afraid of for trail running.  You’re moving along pretty well on a rocky trail, and then you slam your bare foot into a rock, fracturing one or many of your toes.  I’m going to hold off on trail running for a while because of this one.  I’ve heard of some trail runners being able to run through mountains barefoot, but I’ve also heard of people really messing up their toes.  I might just stick to using shoes on the trail, though I’ll be looking for minimalist trail shoes that offer adequate protection (I find right now there are few choices).

I hope to mitigate these problems by taking a very gradual approach, and listening to my body.  I won’t increase distance, speed, or change surfaces until I’ve given it a couple of days rest to see how my body responds.  So far, after running barefoot for 20 minutes Yesterday, which was actually more than I intended to run, I’ve had some mild soreness Today in the expected regions – calf/Achilles’s, hips, feet muscles.  Seems like I have it just right, but will probably ease off a bit this week.  I’m hoping that I can get past the initial hurdles unscathed and reap the long-term benefits of injury prevention and efficiency.

After a month of struggling to train in the heat and humidity after the Frederick Marathon, I got sick the week leading up to the North Face Challenge trail marathon and had to pull out.  I had been training pretty hard since January, so some rest was long overdo.  I took last week off from running, essentially resting for two weeks when you count the period that I was tapering and ill.  But now I have a new commitment: my barefoot running experiment.  I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, writing about barefoot running here two years ago.  My desire to compete, and my reluctance to devote time/mileage/injury risk toward barefoot running made me continue to postpone it.  I felt if I wanted to try barefoot/minimalist running, I had to do it during a season with favorable weather, and no immediate racing obligations.  I’m more than well aware that you need to start from scratch with barefoot running, and now I essentially have that opportunity.

So I guess the big question is why?  Well, here are my reasons, and the goals I’m hoping barefoot running can help me achieve:

  • Strengthen my feet.  This one is pretty obvious.  While the rest of the benefits of barefoot running may be debatable, it’s hard to argue against it improving strength in my feet.  Barefoot advocates say that wearing shoes your whole life is much like wearing a cast, and by shedding your shoes you allow your feet to strengthen.  Without shoes, muscles and tendons are forced to bear weight in a manner that they wouldn’t otherwise.  I’m looking forward to stronger muscles and tendons in my feet, which I think can lead to more power and fewer injuries.
  • Strengthen my lower legs.  This is also hardly contentious either – running barefoot stresses the calf and Achilles tendons greatly, and over time that means strength.
  • Improve my running efficiency.  As I’ve mentioned before in my discussion of barefoot running, it allows you to use your natural “lower leg spring”, which comes with stronger lower legs and feet.  Tendons are amazingly efficient at storing and releasing kinetic energy, and by developing my plantar fascia, Achilles tendons, and other tendons in my lower leg, and the running form needed to utilize them, I can generate more forward movement without as much of an oxygen debt.
  • Decrease running injury risk.  Now, this is the most debatable position, and really, it depends on the individual a great deal.  I can only know if barefoot running will decrease my own injury risk if I do it myself.  I know that early on the risk is heightened a great deal, so I’ll need to be careful.  I’ll need to run slowly and keep my distance low.  More on that below.

So next is the how:

I’m going to start very easy.  This will be a challenge.  I’m still in reasonably good shape, so it’ll be hard to pull back when I’m feeling well.  It’s like putting a spare tire/donut on a sports car.  The engine is strong, but that if you go too fast, the tire won’t able able to handle it and the results would be disastrous.  I’m going to slowly build up to a half hour every other day.  I think running every other day is important because it takes about 48 hours for broken down muscle tissue to repair.  Needless to say, I’m going to keep the pace very easy.  I’m going to do my runs for time, and not measure distance, that way I won’t even know how slow I’m going.  I’ll run on grass just to start.  I’ll let my form come naturally to me, and not really try to force anything.

After a month of running easy on grass I’ll start to run on other surfaces – dirt, pavement, maybe some modest trails.  I’ll also start trying out some minimalist shoes, and figure out what works best for me.  I’ll start focusing on form more, going for a short, frequent stride, a slight lean forward, and a mid foot strike.  I’ll start to measure pace and distance.

By the fall, I hope to have figured out some good shoes to run in, that allow me to keep running with good form.  If I’m running well, and my training runs are where they need to be, I’ll sign up for some races.  Right now, I don’t want to commit to anything because I don’t want to push myself too early.

I’ll blog about the experiment here regularly, and will also be tweeting all my runs:  I already did a run early Today, 20 mins on grass.  It probably was already too much, will need to ease up on my runs the rest of the week.