Most runners are familiar with pain. Sooner or later, every runner will experience a blister or the ache of ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’ (DOMS). In the worst cases, some runners have chronic painful conditions, like shin splints, or acute injuries, like sprains of fractures. Running is fun and rewarding, but it can be tough, especially if you like to run hard.
A lot of the pain from running can be eased or prevented by incorporating barefoot running into your training, but sometimes even barefoot running can’t help – and it might even make things worse – so it is important to recognize the symptoms of different conditions or injuries and know when to use barefoot running and when not to, or even when not to run at all. Running injuries are a complex topic, so let’s start with just one area – the foot.
Let’s start with one simple question, where does it hurt?
The heel is a common source of pain for runners. Bruising can occur from heel striking, which barefoot running would likely eliminate, but it can also occur from landing on hazards. Either way, heel bruising will go away after a few days with rest. Barefoot miles may help because when you run barefoot with good form you will place much less weight on your heel, you’ll eliminate the ‘heel-strike’ movement, and reduce the contact between your heel and the ground.
Chronic heel pain may be plantar fasciitis or a heel spur. Both have the same root cause – the ‘plantar fascia’ pulling away from the heel and developing irritation and microscopic tears, which create small calciferous lumps when they heal, irritating the fascia even more. Any heel pain that doesn’t go away after a few days, or which recurs at the start of a run but eases off as you get going (bruises keep hurting with every step!), should be checked out for plantar fasciitis. A telltale symptom is pain in your heel or arch first thing in the morning or when you first stand up after sitting for a while.
Once treated by a doctor, plantar fasciitis is very commonly eased by barefoot running – the barefoot technique reduces the pressure on the heel and the amount of flexion in the ankle.
Arch pain – most common is runners with very high arches – is frequently a side effect of plantar fasciitis with the problem really being in the heel. Mild arch pain, or arch pain that doesn’t ease off as you run, can be the result of a general strain on the arches, again most common in runners with high arches. In either case, barefoot running may be a good solution, because it allows the heel and arch to move freely. In fact, many runners who have been plagued by plantar fasciitis have found that when they switched to shoeless running, the problem simply disappeared!
The top of the foot
‘Top of the foot pain’ (TOFP) is occasionally caused by poor fitting shows or over-tightened laces, in which case barefoot running is an ideal solution. However, be careful – TOFP is also often a result of stress fractures, so this needs to be checked out by your doctor. Anytime you experience TOFP that doesn’t go away after you take your shoes off, stop running and seek medical advice!
Pain in the sole of the foot (the skin under your foot) is usually a sign of infection or skin trauma. Check your sole for signs of blisters, redness or cracking, infection, or tiny embedded objects. Blisters are almost never an issue for barefoot runners because they are usually caused by shoes, but dry skin, cuts, and foreign objects may affect barefooters, especially novices. As you become more accustomed to barefoot running, you will naturally place you feet more carefully, and your feet will ‘toughen up’ and become more resistant to injury.
Athlete’s foot is a common culprit in sole pain, often because it causes blisters or cracks – again, barefooters rarely experience athletes’ foot, but if you suspect it, take it seriously and treat is promptly. In any case, after any run clean and carefully dry your feet. Wiping the soles of your feet with an alcohol swab can help to prevent infections and toughen your skin.
The ball of the foot or the toes
Pain in the ball of the foot is commonly caused by trauma, either landing awkwardly or stepping on a hazard, or by bruising from overuse or impact. If the pain is at the base of your big toe, sesamoiditis, which is inflammation of the sesamoid bone at the base of the toe, is a likely culprit. Pain in the ball of your foot at the base of one or more of the other toes is usually bruising from impact. Numbness at the base of your middle toes may be neuroma, or the pinching of a nerve. All of these are commonly caused by poor form or even by running shoes, which restrict the movement of the foot bones. Chances are swapping some shod running sessions for barefoot miles will help to ease this discomfort.
Whatever the cause, take pain seriously. Talk to your doctor, and discuss your diagnosis. Take sensible precautions as you recover, such as allowing yourself ample time for the injury to heal, and use ice and anti-inflammatories if your doctor thinks they can help. If you aren’t suffering from an acute or trauma injury, then give barefoot running a try – many of the painful conditions we’ve just discussed belong to shod runners, and ditching the shoes might just mean ditching the pain!
Photo Credit: viZZZual.com on Flickr