Written By Barefoot Dawsy
Any barefoot runner that tells you that they’ve never been injured is either really lucky, forgetful, or lying. Small injuries are a part of learning how to run barefoot if you’ve worn shoes your whole life. The thing to keep in mind is that barefooting gives you the advantage of being able to feel these injuries coming on, learn from them and prevent them from getting serious. Contrast this to running shod, where the shoes can mask long-term damage, and you can see the advantage of going shoeless, even if it hurts a bit.
They key to managing the injuries that you will receive when running barefoot is to recognise them early on, and make changes to fix the problem. What follows is a list of injuries common to new barefoot runners, how to fix them, and what they are trying to teach you.
Please note that I’m not a doctor or injury specialist. The information contained in this post is based solely on my own experiences and reading. With any change to your personal exercise regime, it is important to consult with your doctor.
There are a host of small injuries that can occur to barefoot runners. Fortunately, the bulk of them are quick to manifest, quick to heal, and manageable with rest and adjusting your running form.
One of the most educational injuries you can receive while running barefoot is the blister. Blisters form when friction occurs agains the skin, which is why they are so common in runners, shod or otherwise. In barefooting, they are a warning sign that your form is slipping, which can be caused by pushing too hard, too long, or through unfamiliarity with correct form.
A barefoot stride should consist of a gentle landing, cushioned by the arch, the Achilles tendon and the knees. Your feet should meet the ground at the same speed that you are running, and as such, the amount of friction will be negligible, meaning no blisters. A lot of new barefooters will try to push off the ground with their feet, an action that causes slipping and will in turn damage the skin.
The best way to fix blisters is to first avoid them. If you start feeling hot spots on your feet, remember your form, bend your knees and concentrate on lifting your feet. Often this will prevent the blister from forming altogether, though you may end up with a patch of pink skin where the blister was trying to form.
Once you’ve got a blister, you really should stop running and take some time off running until it’s healed. If it’s a large blister, then pop it with a sterilised needle and put a band-aid on it. If its small, just leave it or put a band-aid on it, and it should heal quickly. Never peel the skin entirely off the blister as this can lead to discomfort and increase the chance of infection.
Hop onto any barefoot running, or especially minimalist running, forum and you’ll see dozens of posts about sore calves. This is really the trademark of new minimal runners, and is often a direct result of trying to do too much too soon. The reason that calves take such a hammering is that when switching to a forefoot stride, new muscles are being used which were likely under-developed before.
To avoid calf pain, start running slowly, and for short distances. Follow the outline in the 6 Weeks To Barefoot Running program if you need a guide.
Like sore calves, sore Achilles tendons are often the result of doing too much too soon. When unused, these tendons tend to shrink a bit, and become tighter. This is especially true for people who wear high heels. Luckily I’ve got a whole post on how to get around this, so have a look.
Potentially Serious Injuries
Sometimes bad form and doing too much too soon, combined with a life lived wearing shoes can cause serious damage to your body. It’s these serious injuries that are the main reason why nearly every experienced barefoot runner will preach caution to newbies. The following injuries can be very serious and you need to pay attention to be certain to avoid them.
Typically, Morton’s Neuromas are caused by ill-fitting shoes, so most barefoot runners can avoid them, however minimilast runners should pay special attention to this one. Morton’s Neuromas are often first felt by a tingling or pain in the toes (typically the second and/or third toe), and/or pain in the forefoot. It’s caused by the bones in your feet rubbing against one another and the nerves surroounding them. This can create a great deal of inflammation that can often be felt as a lump under the foot. Left unchecked, these can require surgery to fix.
To avoid Morton’s Neuroma, run barefoot, or, if you insist on running in minimal shoes, make sure that they are not too tight across the forefoot. This can be tricky as your feet can expand as you run, so be sure to pay attention to any discomfort you feel and adjust your lacing accordingly.
Arguably the king of all running injuries, Plantar Fasciitis has been the end to many a runner’s career. Generally thought to be caused by a combination of weak arches and repetitive stress on the heel, it can feel like a knife in your foot. There are no known cures for Plantar Fasciits, however barefoot running has had some success anecdotally. The caveat here is that you pay attention to your form, and be sure to land on the forefoot, not the heel. It has been repeatedly shown that even minimal/barefoot runners are prone to land on their heels when tired, so be vigilant to avoid this.
Landing on your forefoot will engage your arch, which will strengthen it, which should help to strengthen the plantar fascia, which a cluster of tissue at the heel end of your arch.
Once Plantar Fasciitis has set in, it can be exceedingly difficult to get rid of, so once again, pay close attention to your form, and if you feel any heel pain, stop and revise your form.
Your metatarsals are basically the bones in your feet and your toes. They are durable, yet poor form can sometimes cause them to fracture under the strain. Your feet and legs are designed as incredible shock absorbers, able to take 3 times your bodyweight on each step and channel the energy around to minimise the shock. However, bad form can cause certain parts of the feet to take too much strain and break.
A typical example of this is when people think that barefoot/minimal running means running on your toes. This is a fallacy, and is to be avoided at all costs. Your toes are fragile and are not meant to be used to land on.
If you start feeling sharp pains in your toes, or on the top of your foot, then you are likely putting too much strain on them. Remember, land gently on your forefoot. If anything, your toes should be curled up slightly so that they contact the ground immediately after your forefoot.
Getting injured when running can be scary, but if you pay close attention to what your body is trying to tell you, especially in the early phases, you should be able to avoid any severe damage and enjoy a long life of injury-free running.