Barefoot running for beginners: Using then avoiding calf pain

August 19th, 2011 by Phil Brown

Barefoot running for beginners: avoiding calf pain.

This week I made two short barefoot runs out on the road. The second run was harder than the first as I was feeling somewhat tight in the backs of my lower legs. That said, the hardest part of the run was not the calf pain, but my feet getting used to the areas of uneven, broken superficial tarmac on the country road I was running on.

The calf pain I was feeling was a stiff, tight soreness that came on about quarter way through the second run on road this week. However, rather than debilitating me, this soreness became my instructor and helped me work on actually resting my calves during my run…..

To do this I began concentrating on lifting my knees more. When you do this in a forefoot striking gait, your hip flexion will lift or “peel” your foot from the floor. At this point, your foot will, if relaxed, softly plantarflex in mid air (the front of the foot will drop a little as the foot comes off the floor). Then, as the hip brings the leg forward with a soft, bent knee ready for landing, the momentum will encourage your foot to dorsiflex (the front of the foot will rise a little).
This subtle dropping and then rising of the front of the foot is an extension then flexion of the ankle. This movement in a weight bearing situation, would be loading right through the workhorse calf muscles. Here however, it all occurs in mid air! The calves should remain relaxed the whole time. It is here that they get rest from exertion.
As the knee lifts the foot from the ground, try to let the ankle soften while at the same time keeping some stillness in it. You should feel your foot “want” to drop forward without letting it go completely. Then, as you bring it forward for foot strike, let the forward momentum encourage the front to rise a little and your toes to perk up SOFTLY, ready for the next forefoot strike. The more yu concentrate on the action of lifting your knees, the more the movement in your ankle becomes natural.
Initiating foot raise using the knee and hip rather than pushing off from the toes is KEY here too: the calves are not stressed at all and are already relaxed going into the mid-air phase.

The extension and then flexion for landing in this “air” phase should not be much. Let momentum teach you the movement. To begin with, it may feel like a relaxed “flapping” of the feet.

The only time in the running cycle where there is much stress on the calves should be immediately after the ball of the foot is planted: the plantar arch contracts and stabilises the foot and the calves switch on to control a soft dorsiflexion to heel rest (an eccentric control action of the calves). However, this phase is momentary and light. You should already be thinking about raising the knee again as the ball of your foot lands… soon as you do, the calves are unloaded and enjoying their wonderful flight again. Barefoot running really should feel light, free and effortless.

A word about calf pain
Tightness and resulting pain in the calves from overuse is common in runners who are in the midst of adapting to their new barefoot gait. In the same way as muscle soreness from doing a new weight training routine can affect us, our calves will respond to this new way of being used.
You have a choice when this occurs. You can simply take a break and wait till your calves are rested, or you can, if careful, use the increased sensitivity to teach you how to run with less impact and less stress on the tired muscles. However, there is a limit. Learn to listen to your body. Overtired muscles are far more susceptible to injury and you are far more likely to run with bad form when they are tight and tired. If you are just beginning in your barefoot running, a break is easily the wisest option. Overuse injuries to the Achilles tendon are notorious lingerers.

For those of you further down the road in their barefoot training, here is a recap of points that calf soreness or tightness should remind you to do:

This is the most important point. Focus on knee lifting as soon as your foot plants. Cntact with the ground should be soft and momentary. Lifting your knees quickly and often will avoid you using your toes for push-off, which is a central reason for sore calves.

Increase cadence and shorten strides
If your calves are sore, shorten your stride even more. Focus on making your training during this time form training. Ease back and run smaller and softer. Decreasing your impact on foot plant will take stress from your calves too.
You can increase cadence rather than stride length to maintain any speed, but speed is not your issue if you have sore calves. Form practice is.

Stop for breaks and shake or walk
Again, listen to your body. The whole point of barefoot running is to enjoy it and develop a pain free way of running. There are no rules but the ones you make for yourself. Break up your run with walking and shaking off tension at various points. This will relax your muscles and stop you from tightening up and running with bad form.

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