Barefoot Running: The Dirty Secret

Last year, I treated a pro runner who would train barefoot in a park. She would come in with the most horrendously dirty feet you’ve ever seen. The dirt and grass stains were literally ground into her skin. She told me that no matter how much she scrubbed them she couldn’t get them clean. Awful. But that’s not the dirty little secret we’re here to discuss today (though it is true).

The dirty secret behind barefoot running is that a lot of people get hurt. The theory, made stylish by popular books like Born To Run, can be summarized like this: Our feet evolved to function without shoes. We have lots and lots of little muscles that should provide natural support for our feet. By wearing highly supportive and cushioned shoes, we are cheating our feet of the the work required to make them strong.

“Throw away your shoes and thrive!” seems to be the underlying message. It makes sense, and I’m a proponent. But must of us aren’t ready for it.

Running barefoot, or running in minimalist shoes as most of us prefer (Nike Free, Vibram 5-fingers, Terra Plano Evos, etc) requires a little remedial work. For some people, those small muscles in their feet aren’t ready for it. Ditto the calf muscles and Achilles Tendons. As a result, I’m seeing quite a bit of plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and shin splints in barefoot runners.

If you’re thinking about taking the Barefoot plunge, or maybe have already been dipping your minimally clad toes into the proverbial pool, your best bet is to ease into it. If you’re used to putting in 10 miles or more on a Sunday, don’t put on your brand new Nike Frees and run 10. Walk for a mile and then run slow mile. Repeat that for a week or two before slowly upping the miles.

But before you even get that far, do a few barefoot drills in the safety and comfort of your house. Of course, if you have underlying conditions that would be aggravated by these, don’t do them (herniated discs, pre-existing foot or ankle problems, etc).

1. Hops. Simply stand with your feet together and do some 2-legged hops. Just jump a few inches off of the ground. Land on the balls of your feet, and as soon as your heels touch, hop back up. This will start to get your Achilles Tendons ready for the recoil required when running barefoot.

2. Side to side hops. Hop from your left foot to your right foot, moving side-to-side. Again, land on the ball of each foot, and as soon as your heel touches, hop onto the other foot. This will strengthen your calves and ankles.

3. Foot switchers. Stand with one foot in front of the other. Hop up and switch positions. This gets the smaller muscles of your feet ready to push off.

left foot forward

right foot forward

If you want, you can progress to barefoot indoor skipping. When doing these exercises, start with a set or two that lasts for 10 seconds. Slowly work up to a minute, but be mindful of any soreness. Give your feet, ankles and calves a chance to get stronger before heading out to get the dirt and grass stains embedded in your own feet.

By the way, we treat plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, and calf injuries at Denver Chiropractic Center. Our approach combines and Active Release Technique with rehabilitative exercises. We can help you get rid of the pain.