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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…..as 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:

LIFT YOUR KNEES!!!
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.

Barefoot for beginners: The beauty of soft knees and “literate” feet.

August 15th, 2011 by Phil Brown

Today I took a barefoot road run. It was the furthest I have been on road barefoot and the difference since the previous session a week ago was marked. I felt like a different runner.  The springiness that more experienced barefooters talk about was something I actually began to experience rather than desire.

Running on tarmac and concrete has as much pleasure as running on grass. The firmness of the surface means that you can really “wind up” as your forefoot falls followed by the light touchdown of the heel. The feedback from the surface – particularly on a sunny day like today – is warm and smooth and allows your feet to spread evenly. I found this even easier than running on the field, since the ground was not unstable and I could concentrate on enjoying the run without the added challenge of uneven ground for my lower leg muscles and ankles (although that uneven ground is essential training not to be missed).

Road running barefoot would not have been anything like as fulfilling and certainly not as pain free if I had not been practicing what is a central technique in this lighter, less impact-heavy running style: running with bent knees.

With a heel to toe running gait, most runners land on their leading heel with the knee almost fully extended. The shock from that impact through the heel travels without much interruption straight through a relatively unstable, “open” knee and into the hips and lower back.

The running shoe – clad, heel-striking foot seems not to be able to “read” the impact of a strike as effectively as a soft, sometimes even gingerly-placed , bare footfall can (at least in my experience so far). In naked, the incredibly sensitive plantar surface of the feet feel everything on a road. The response from the body is to automatically look for ways to run in a lighter, pain free, easier way. Our natural response is to avoid pain: running barefoot seems to have a fantastic effect on the way we instinctively deal with movement and impact: we make it easy on ourselves: we bend our knees and when our feet plant, they do so at the end of soft, shock absorbing, bent knees. It. Feels. Good!!

Have you ever stood on something hard with sharp corners on it in bare feet? If you have children, you will know exactly what I mean: a midnight visit to the loo and suddenly the whole left side of your body is collapsing as if it has been shut down, as you stand on a die-cast car or the plug from some eletrical toy. It is amazing how the nerves in your feet can cause such a tidal wave of response all the way through the body. It may hurt like heck, but in actual fact, our feet are saving us from worse pain or damage. Telling our body to give way immediately lets us fall “around” the object rather than keep pressing down onto it without any give……barefoot running, once we adapt to it, is like that:  it is back to instinct, back to our interface with the ground we walk on, with nothing in between except our feet, which are learning how to read for us like they did when we ran barefoot as children.

How to learn to run with soft knees

Think about how you run up stairs. If you can, do it. What are your knees doing? Are they ever straight?

Now run up and down on the spot. Bring your knees up to your belt line as you do it. What are you doing? You are forefoot striking and landing with bent knees. You are doing this to make the process comfortable. Nobody has taught you this. You just do it.

Now, go outside and start running on the spot on hard ground. Do it gently and try to make every footfall as silent and as light as you can. Focus on LIFTING the knees AS SOON as your heel has touched the ground (the order should be ball of foot first, then toes and heel at the same time). Keep the cadence high and the footfalls light. (When you run or walk up stairs, the focus is on the lift of your knees).

Once you have tried this for a couple of minutes, break into a gentle run and keep the footfalls as soft as you were just doing. In order to do this you will have to keep your knees bent and keep lifting almost at the same time as each foot strike. Imagine being a ninja, moving so lightly that you aren’t leaving footprints! Keep the cadence light and moderately fast, but don’t try to run fast. Try to find a feeling of light,bouncy ease and just enjoy.

If things start to tighten up and you feel pain in the calf area or the knees, stop and try getting back your form by running on the spot as you started again: focusing on light bounces and lifting the knees and landing softly. I find the running on the spot technique great for getting back “in the groove” before carrying on again. Any pain apart from some direct contact sole soreness from the road means you are tightening up and that you need to adjust something. Watch your stride length too – keep it short and easy.

A word about pain: your calves and knees should not hurt when you run. If they do, it is most likely because you are trying to run too fast when you have not yet found your specific form (it takes practice and patience), or you have been running for too long when your body is not yet ready for it.  Go for short, gentle runs to begin with.  Learn the easy and light first, then the duration and speed will come naturally with time.

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!

 

Here’s a good barefoot running drill for beginners

August 8th, 2011 by Phil Brown

Chris Mcdougall is mentioned as talking to a crossfit group in this interesting snippet. What caught my eye was how he mentions wanting to do away with his intellectualising of the process of running; wishing he could simply go back and just learn to listen to the feedback from his body as he runs in barefeet; letting instinct take over.

This morning I worked on a running drill that felt, for the first time, like running can indeed be effortless, fluid and joyful. To say the drill is “designed” would be complete tosh: I just went out on a field of grass and ran barefoot, but on reflection, there are perhaps some useful things to share here for beginners:

On a field or beach/soft surface

Start out in a slow run with small, light steps. Your body should be upright but relaxed, your elbows mid-trunk by your sides and gently moving back and forth with the cadence. Imagine that you are trying to run as noiselessly and lightly as possible. Pay NO ATTENTION AT ALL to the voice that tells you you are running to slow or that it is not a taxing enough workout. This drill is all about loosening up and enjoying the movement.

Run for 5 minutes at this light pace, focusing on the bounce from your feet and the feedback from the ground. Practice adjusting your body as you go; trying to feel your way through to a light, bouncy, effortless rhythm. Your head at this pace will be over your body.

After you have found a that nice, easy groove (it may take more than 5 minutes, but who’s counting really….), up your cadence and speed up a little. Not with longer strides but with more frequent, lighter forefoot strikes. You may find as you speed up that your body leans a little more forward and your head begins to lead a little more. Go with this and you will find that you are a little more up on your forefeet as they “pat” down on the ground. Ease off as soon as things seem to lose their smoothness and ease: any time that happens, the rule is to slow up and find the easy cadence you started with.

Keep on with this: changing speed for a while and then easing back when you lose the rhythm and ease. Push a little faster and you will find your head and body lean even more forward and your foot striking is even lighter and quicker and more “up” on the forefoot. If you are more up towards your toes, your foot strikes should be quicker and briefer. As you ease down, your body will ease back and become more upright again; your foot striking will ease back and more of the mid foot will perhaps become involved. Play around with it, but ALWAYS stick with the rule that as soon as you lose ease and rhythm, come back down to a slow pace and find it again. As you gradually improve, you’ll find you can stay in that easy groove for longer at faster speeds.

Just remember, whatever pace you find your groove, ease and fluidity at, that is the perfect pace for you right now. Slowly play with opening that up, but above all ENJOY WHERE YOU ARE RIGHT NOW! For me, this is the whole spirit of running – almost resting in the pace that is right for you and finding that smile crack on your face….

Keep the drill up as long as you want, but listen to your legs and don’t keep going if things start to tighten up.

Thoughts on barefoot running #1

August 7th, 2011 by Phil Brown

I have been experimenting with forefoot running over the last few weeks. Having read Chris Mcdougall’s inspiring book Born to Run, I became curious as to the possibilities he suggests regarding developing a running style that is innately suited to our human nature. The idea of treating running like a joyous game rather than a chore really appealed to me. Mcdougall’s message, among other things, is to suggest that we have lost an innate ability to use our bodies in a freer, easier way. He suggests that we have become accustomed to pounding the pavements in gel-filled running shoes, that, far from helping us to run, actually hinder us from developing the kind of strengths needed to run without injury.

Reading Born to Run and chatting with an associate chiropractor, who runs using minimalist shoes Vibram Fivefingers got me interested enough to begin trying it out for myself. Below are my thoughts, based on what I have tried out thus far:

Walk around barefoot alot!

Get used to feeling your feet and toes again!  Walk around the garden or on the beach. Let your feet out of the confines of your shoes and let them “spread”. Many of us have rigid feet that have forgotten how to mould and give in response the ground we are in contact with. Our toes are designed to spread out and dissipate weight and force as we “toe off” in walking and running.  our shoes have alot to answer for – many shoes simply don’t allow our toes to fulfil the role they were designed for.

Try this – in barefeet, raise yourself up as high as you can on your toes. Try to keep your balance and as you do feel all the fine movements and tensions that areactivated in your toes as they work to support and balance your whole body! That’s how influential and important they are to us.

 

Ease into it. If you think you are taking it easy on your first month or two, then think again and GO EVEN EASIER.

My opinion? Most runners injure themselves because they are too consumed with running for time. Our whole being is conditioned to timetables and deadlines at work and play: personal bests, sub-four hour marathons, fitting in a training session during our lunch break, making that deadline or meeting, fitting in time with the family, etc, etc. This nervous conditioning feeds into our running training. Try as we might, that little panicky voice in our heads is constantly reminding us that we need to beat our last training run time otherwise we aren’t progressing…………we need to focus on our FORM more, particularly when attempting a new running style that asks muscles that have been dormant to start working in ways they never have.

A tip – if you have a race coming up in the next six months and you are thinking of making a good time AND changing your style to barefoot or forefoot running……DON’T!  Either run the race and don’t change up, or skip the race and take time to discover a new way of running.

Another tip – a good indicator of whether you are going easy enough to begin with is this: you should be running at a pace that allows you to breathe at times through your nose with no problems. Focusing on form to begin with is all about not getting out of breath.

Yet another tip – Think about slowly increasing the duration of your run rather than the distance. As your muscles adapt, distance and speed will slowly come as your form improves.

Practice running barefoot on the spot

Barefoot or forefoot running is similar in movement to running on the spot. When you run on the spot, you naturally bounce lightly up and down on the balls of your feet. There is no real effort. Practice this as a drill without any shoes before and after your runs.

 

Run with shorter strides

Learn to run with shorter strides and increase your cadence as you get more skilled at forefoot running. Padded running shoes allow us to take huge strides as we slam down on our heels; a half inch of padding between us and the pavement. When you run barefoot or in minimalist shoes, running in this way will cause pain.  The idea with barefoot, forefoot striking is to develop a faster, lighter rythym, where your feet “skip” across the surface of the ground, rather than thump down in the traditional heel – to – toe manner. Shorter, lighter strides will feel easier and less impactful on your body.

Try this – run along for a few metres in a heel striking style. Stick your fingers in your ears as you do so and listen to the sound the vibrations make in your head as you land. Then switch to a light, forefoot style and do the same thing. The difference in the quality of the sound is profound and informative!

Try to vary the surface you run on.

If you live out in the country or near the sea, then try to go out barefoot and run on the beach or on grass. Road running will probably involve shoes of some sort to protect your feet from bits of glass and sharp stones. If you have no soft ground nearby, then running on the spot on carpet will help your feet get acclimatised to forefoot striking and get you used to reading feedback and making adjustments in your foot strike.

For road running, there are loads of minimalist shoes available now. I have been using the Vibram Fivefingers shoes for my daily work as well as road running and find them superb.

Stretch and massage your feet and ankles

If you are new to barefoot running, then getting to know your feet intimately is a must. Self massage is a great way to find and free up the restrictions in the soles of your feet and your lower leg.  Getting a sports therapist or soft tissue therapist to work into the connective tissue and muscles of your feet and lower leg can be a wonderfully educational experience: you will be stunned at how rigid your feet have become over years of wearing shoes and trainers. Treatment to the sole of the feet can have profound effects all the way up the body.

If you have no access to a therapist, use a tennis ball, stand on it and roll it around the sole of your foot as deeply and slowly as you can without too much pain: after five minutes, your foot will be softer and freer than it has been in a while!

Have fun!

Play with the whole thing: I have been out running in short trips over the last 4 weeks. I have no aim other than to learn to run in a way that is pleasurable and pain free. Any other aims such as racing would have to come out of that and that alone. I have only been out running twice a week and only for around 30 minutes until the last couple of runs, which were around 45 minutes. Today I went out with my little boy. He rode his bike and I was able to chat to him the whole way, which pleased me no end as it meant I wasn’t pushing myself too hard and also getting quality time with my son!

I am thinking of posting more as I continue practising forefoot (and barefoot where possible) running, so get in touch if you have any thoughts and tips of your own!  You can find us at www.muscleandmovementhealth.com

 

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