Most of the information you will find on our website is going to tell you how barefoot running can improve your endurance, your speed, and reduce your risk of injury. There’s no doubt that we would love to see more people running without shoes; however, there are some people that should approach barefoot running with caution, and in some cases, shouldn’t try it at all.
To run barefoot effectively and safely, you need to become more aware of the sensations of your feet and the surfaces you are running on. This awareness is what causes you to adapt your stride and your technique, and what guides you where to place your feet safely and surely. If you aren’t aware of the messages from your feet, then not only will you not run barefoot effectively, you risk accidents and injuries.
There are two common conditions that lead to numbness in the feet, reducing that awareness and making barefoot running dangerous – diabetic neuropathy and chronic compartment syndrome.
The loss of sensation with the onset of diabetic neuropathy significantly increases the risk of injury when running barefoot. Additionally, diabetics, especially those with neuropathy, may find that their feet are unable to adapt and repair themselves effectively after running barefoot, and that excessive weight bearing activity may exacerbate the progression of diabetic neuropathy. Even careful, short gentle barefoot runs, on soft surfaces like grass, should be avoided by those with diabetic neuropathy. With any loss of sensation in the foot, there is a risk that small cuts or bruises could go unnoticed and lead to more severe infections.
If you have diabetes, and you want to try barefoot running, always check with your doctor first and follow their advice. Even if your doctor says you can give barefoot running a try, if your diabetes worsens, you notice increasing loss of sensation on your feet or other extremities, or you find that you have a high number of minor infections from damage to your feet, then you should stop running barefoot immediately and see your doctor again.
Chronic Compartment Syndrome
Chronic compartment syndrome is very different from the acute version, which normally occurs after an accident or severe trauma. The chronic condition affecting runners occurs when one or more of the muscles of the lower leg do not fit comfortably within their ‘compartment’, or ‘fascia’. When the muscle is flexed, or expands in response to exertion, it stretches and tears the fascia. Most runners with this condition can start out on a run quite comfortably, but after about fifteen minutes or so will start to feel pain in the area of the affected compartment – usually either along the shin, or occasionally the calf. If the runner perseveres and does not rest the muscle, the constriction can become so severe that it can cause numbness in the toes and the foot; continued constriction can lead to the toes and foot actually turning blue.
If you have been diagnosed with chronic compartment syndrome, you will probably already have experienced this numbness on a run before. If you haven’t been diagnosed, but you sometimes get shin pain and numb feet when running, it’s worth getting checked out by a doctor. Compartment syndrome is one of the most misdiagnosed runners’ conditions, with the burning shin pain of ‘anterior’ (front of leg) compartment syndrome being frequently confused with shin splints. Chronic compartment syndrome can be confirmed by your doctor either by symptoms, or by some unfortunately fairly invasive tests. The only surefire treatment is surgical, but it is fairly commonplace and permanently relieves both pain and numbness. Until you have a diagnosis, if you feel numbness in your feet during a run, avoid barefoot running until you have a correct diagnosis and successful treatment.
As with any exercise, you should always consult your doctor for advice before starting a new workout regime, don’t just trust what you read online. If at any time you have numbness or impaired sensations in your feet, don’t run barefoot. You won’t adapt and run correctly, so you won’t get the benefits of barefoot running, only exacerbating an existing condition or suffer an injury.
If you can’t feel your feet then don’t run barefoot!
Photo Credit: Pixel Addict on Flickr