The value of true barefoot training:a lesson from pain.

August 9th, 2011 by Phil Brown

A few days ago I read  a review and summary of the book Barefoot Running Step by Step by Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton and Roy M. Wallack. One of the things that they recommend, according to the summary I read, is not to use minimalist shoes at all at first. This is based on the reasoning that any barrier between your feet and the ground will encourage a lazy approach to form, that, however slight, will result in a non – optimal and possibly harmful running gait.

I bought the book. It arrived today and looks wonderful. Nicely designed and full of useful tips and anecdotes from 2 people who have years of experience in honing their form. I haven’t really opened it yet, but something happened this morning (see the post on the barefoot running drill posted yesterday) that seems to prove the point about minimalist shoes in an uncannily accurate manner!

This morning I got out of bed with a localised pain in the ball of my left foot. It felt like a bruise. As the day wore on it got worse, to the point of me caving in and putting on sandals. My Vibram Fivefingers felt really uncomfortable too. Ice helped a little and I was able to to find some relief from soft sandals. I began, typically, to worry if I was facing weeks of plantar fascia pain. So, during a break between clients, I thought I would get out there on the grass and try a gentle pat around to see what it felt like……… and actually, it felt ok. Barefoot running didn’t make the pain worse. If anything, after a couple of laps around the field, things felt a bit better!   Hmmmm… I began to think and eventually thought about that recommendation of not using minimalist shoes to begin with.

This is my theory as to why I developed ball of foot pain and why it felt better when I went back to barefooting in the grass:

1. Since starting to change my running style, I have done all my running in Vibram Fivefinger shoes. They have felt great and I have enjoyed wearing them at work and play all day.

2. Two days ago, I ran a gentle, hilly tarmac route with no problems at all.

3. One day ago, I ran for the FIRST TIME barefoot. ON GRASS. The day after I had my first real pain since becoming interested in the barefoot running culture.

4. On hard ground, I ran in shoes, which, however minimal, protected the balls of my feet as I planted them. As a result, I planted them harder than I would have in bare feet. Over 4 weeks, I developed a HABIT doing this.

5. On soft, fluffy grass, I ran for the first time in bare feet. I used the style I had developed on the road in shoes. The ground was uneven. This challenged my feet as all the muscles that control the fine movements and “grasping” in my feet were working much harder than on the flat, stable surface of the road. That extra challenge on my feet and ankles, plus the habit I had developed of planting my forefoot harder than necessary put enough strain and impact on the underside of my feet to cause strain and some bruising.

6. When I decided to try out running today on grass despite the pain, I instinctively started with smaller strides and a lighter forefoot plant. The result was hardly any, if any, pain. My body was instinctively using pain as a signal to change its interface with the ground.

7. Running in bare feet has taught me, through this experience, how our shoes give us a false sense of security and don’t allow us to learn how to use our bodies properly. I took my shoes off and tried to carry on as usual. Pain was the result. I tried again, with pain….I adjusted without really thinking about it.

From now on, I will include barefoot running periods every week – on grass, on sand and on hard road. It is fascinating to think how much I have yet to learn about stepping lightly and easily in contact with the earth. And how much my body has yet to teach me if I allow it!


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