I’ve been reluctant to post this because there’s a weird sort of stigma among barefoot and near-barefoot runners that injuries should be a thing of the past. For the most part, that’s been completely true for me, but something is going on with my feet and I felt it was important to write about.
The pain is focused on the Extensor Digitorum Longus and Extensor Hallucis Longus on top of my feet, mostly behind the smaller toes, but with some sensitivity over the joint between the first metatarsal and first cuneiform bones. These muscles and tendons are responsible for lifting the toes–which is why I’ve become suspicious of the Bikilas, but more on that in a bit. There is no discoloration or swelling. Pain is most noticeable during the toe-off phase of walking, running mostly feels fine. It is very difficult to raise up on the toes of one foot at a time.
As seems to be tradition with running injuries, I’ve been spending a lot of time theorizing about what could be the cause.
In November, following my post about bad running form, I ran about 65 miles completely barefoot (and LOVED it). I spent a good amount of that time on Barefoot Ken Bob’s advice about lifting the entire foot, especially my toes. But December has been too cold for bare feet with only a few days above freezing, so I’ve been running in the Bikilas which are warmer than my open-top VFF Sprints.
I ran three races in December. The first two were MUCH faster than I normally run. By the third race, my feet were still sore from the previous week and I just wanted to finish without limping. Despite my growing suspicions, all three races were run in Bikilas.
What’s wrong with the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila
One of my first reactions to the VFF Bikilas was that the toes felt stiff. In this video, I demonstrate the differences in toe-flexibility between VFF Sprints and VFF Bikilas.
Toe dorsiflexion is severely limited with the VFF Bikilas. I suspect that trying to lift my toes against the stiffness of the Bikilas either pulled or strained my extensor muscles or caused some tendonitis where they attach.
I’d also considered the possibility of simple overuse or the switch to heavier winter shoes, but I’ve become convinced that the toe-stiffness of the VFF Bikilas is the culprit here. I’m taking some time off to heal, but I’m not planning on running in the Bikilas again for a while. When I do, I’ll be paying very close attention to how my feel are feeling.
The New York Marathon is this weekend, and barefoot running is this year’s “story of interest.”
Neil sent me David Willey’s HuffPo article “Barefoot Running: The Exercise Craze That’s Hit the Streets.” Mr. Willey is treading a very fine line. As Editor-In-Chief of Runner’s World magazine, he is intimately tied to the athletic shoe industry. A tsunami of minimalist shoes will arrive in spring 2011, but however popular the idea of barefooting becomes, Runner’s World would be slitting their throats if they advised their readers to stop buying shoes.
I’m glad to see him exploring minimalist/barefoot running, but I think he misunderstood some key ideas. He claims barefooters insist “the human foot supplies all the cushioning and shock absorption any runner needs.” This isn’t really true. The human foot is a spectacular mechanism, one that we’ve neglected and failed to appreciate for too long. Bare feet force us to land more softly and soft landings don’t require cushioning. Also, the idea of “shock absorption” is counter to running efficiently. Ideally, the muscles and tendons of our feet and legs don’t absorb shock so much as redirect impact forces into the next stride, Ken Meierke calls this elastic recoil “free speed”. Flat heels increase the peripheral heart effect of the soleus muscle on the deep veins in our calves.
Chris McDougall’s NYTimes article “Born to Run the Marathon?” talks about how he “got over himself” and decided to run the Marathon this year.
One of Chris’s persistent themes is how running can bring out the best in people, something I’ve personally found to be true. Runners tend to be fantastically optimistic people. Maybe that grows from realizing accomplishments that first seemed impossible, or perhaps it’s a shared strength found when humans move together. Chris included the incredible story of Derartu Tulu and Paula Radcliffe in the 2009 NYC Marathon, as well as one of my favorite bits of Native American lore:
The Hopi believed running was a form of prayer; before setting off on a long run from Arizona to the Pacific, they’d offer their effort on behalf of loved ones in need of help. “I’m offering my strength to them,” the runner would murmur to their god, the Great Mystery, “and in return I ask for some of yours.”
The comments on these articles have become predictable, though with more defenders than before. Several people rehash the dogma that our feet are weak, or that people are not designed to run. Others makes comments about the ground being gross, dangerous or “harder than the soft earth humans were meant for.” Then there’s always a physical therapist or podiatrist telling about injured patients.
I went to physical therapy before switching to minimal shoes. My knees were a mess, my feet hurt, my hip hurt and my back hurt. After running in my prescribed motion-control shoes I’d stretch and ice my knees, then wait 2-3 days before trying to run again. I thought that was normal. Now, I can run near-barefoot or barefoot every day without pain. The sports medicine doctors and physical therapists never once asked to see me run.
So many people are convinced of human mediocrity despite everything we’ve done.
“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s just as nuanced as any other activity.” Eric [Orton] told me. “Ask most people and they’ll say, ‘People just run the way they run.’ That’s ridiculous. Does everyone just swim the way they swim?” For every other sport, lessons are fundamental; you don’t go out and start slashing away with a golf club or sliding down a mountain on skis until someone takes you through the steps and teaches you proper form. If not, inefficiency is guaranteed and injury is inevitable.
“Running is the same way.” Eric explained. “Learn it wrong, and you’ll never know how good it can feel.” (page 202-3)
Since reading Born To Run and following up with additional research, I’m running farther, faster and more comfortably than ever. Previously, my best month’s milage was 45 miles. Since March I’ve averaged over 85 miles per month with July topping 100 for the first time. Last year I ran 375 miles. Physically, I’m sure I could go farther, but nothing in the book helps find more hours in the day. I’ve also shaved about a minute off my average mile without really thinking about speed.
I don’t have a coach and haven’t looked at video myself running (yet), but I have become highly focused on improving my mechanics and efficiency. These are some of the ideas I try to keep in my head while running:
Faster leg turnover
soft, quiet landings
pull the feet up off the ground
pull legs back with the butt
feet should be moving backwards before they touch the ground
“If it feels like work, you’re working too hard”
Do I need to eat or drink?
midfoot strike (land on the outside front of the foot, roll towards the big toe)
“release the springs” (try to use the tendon’s natural, zero-cost springiness)
Relax your hands and arms (don’t waste energy)
Also, perhaps especially, Caballo Blanco’s mantra from page 111:
“Think Easy, Light, Smooth and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that for so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one — you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”
It’s still awkward, but I think I’ve felt it a couple times, usually somewhere past 4-6 miles into a run. My pace is faster than I’d have expected, but there it is; a grace and feeling of self-sustained movement and a sort of weightlessness and motion that feels like it could go on forever. Barefoot Ted described it well: “Like a fish slipping into water.”
A big part of adjusting my technique simply had to do with changing shoes. Despite having been previously diagnosed as a heavy over-pronator and clamped into motion-control shoes, it didn’t take long to become a minimal footwear convert. Less shoe gave me a better feel for the ground and increased flexibility across my feet. Read the whole story here: From Asics Kayanos to Nike Frees to Vibram FiveFingers and beyond
Getting past awkward
Ken Mierke is the exercise physiologist Chris trained with in chapter 27 and the creator of the efficiency-focused Evolution Running system.
“When I teach this technique and ask someone how it feels, if they say ‘Great!,’ I go ‘Damn!” That means they didn’t change a thing. The change should be awkward. You should go through a period where you’re no longer good at doing it wrong and not yet good at doing it right. You’re not only adapting your skills, but your tissues; you’re activating muscles that have been dormant most of your life. — Ken Mierke, page 206
The introduction to Ken’s instructional videos are online and are among the most helpful things I’ve found: Part 1 (5:29), Part 2 (4:59), Part 3 (5:02), Part 4 (4:38) and Part 5 (4:23)
The third video especially talks about the zero-cost elastic recoil of the springlike Achilles tendons in our lower legs and how to benefit from it.
On page 205, Ken makes the case for faster cadence to 62-year-old triathlete Alan Melvin:
“Kenyans have superquick foot turnover,” Ken said. “Quick, light leg contractions are more economical than big, forceful ones.”
“I don’t get it,” Alan said. “Don’t I want a longer stride, not a shorter one?”
“Let me ask you this,” Ken replied. “You ever see one of those barefoot guys in a 10k race?”
“Yeah. It’s like they’re running on hot coals.”
“You ever beat one of those barefoot guys?”
Alan reflected. “Good point.”
Upping my cadence might be the most challenging aspect of working on my form. Fast turnover, coupled with trying to pull my feet up off the ground and reducing ground-contact time has definitely affected how far I’m able to run. I’m going faster but my endurance hasn’t come close to catching up yet. When it works it feels great, but I tend to get winded quickly and am having a lot of trouble sustaining the faster cadence across any respectable distance.
Gordon Pirie is never mentioned in Born to Run, but his freely available book, “Running Fast and Injury Free” is worth reading, especially chapter 3, “Injuries, Technique and Shoes.” Gordon Pirie was outspoken with the confidence that he had lived and proven the ideas and techniques wrote about.
Pete Larson at RunBlogger (who also teaches Biology, Physiology and Biomechanics at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire) has posted dozens of excellent slow-motion videos showing various foot-strikes, both barefoot and in assorted footwear.
There are TONS of other running technique videos online, some of which are just patently awful. (“strike with your heel then roll off?! Gah!!) As an alternate or supplement to the ideas in the Evolution Running videos, I found Pose Running to have more of a direct approach to efficient mechanics which I prefer over the more holistic and metaphysical Chi Running.
It can seem at times while researching all of this, that everyone must know about it by now. Every running-focused blogger read the book months before I did and online community discussions about the book are all well established. But looking around the last race or anytime I run when other people are out, it’s clear that not enough people do know about this. So many people are bouncing along, pounding the ground in enormous shoes and grimacing in pain — the ideas behind more efficient, natural running and minimal footwear obviously have a ways to go.
Born to Run is a true story and as such, the characters in the book are real people. This post is a sort of a Google-ey “Where are they now?” for many of those who played a part in the book.
Chris has been happily bouncing around the country promoting Born to Run. He’s got an affable goofiness and seems genuinely filled with joy when he talks about his journey in writing the book.
As an aside, I loved how in the book Chris set Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted as the Yin and Yang of natural running.
Eric was one of Chris’s trainers from Chapter 27. He leads the online running community Running With Eric. The site has instructional videos and many well-informed discussions. Eric’s personal training and coaching business is at Train with Eric.
Dennis Bramble and David R. Carrier Dr. Bramble and David R Carrier are professors of Biology at the University of Utah. Dr. Carrier’s research is focused on the interrelationship of animal movement and evolution. Dr. Bramble has recently been focused on human evolution and our human capacity for physical endurance.
Dr. Lieberman is a Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University where he leads the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab. Together with co-author Dennis Bramble, he has published a number of scientific papers, the latest has been frequently cited as contributing to a scientific foundation for barefoot running. Since his 2010 paper was published, he’s become something of a “science rockstar,” including being dubbed The Barefoot Professor in a video by the Journal Nature.
Billy’s living in Hawaii, here’s his personal blog.
Norawas De Rarámuri (Friends of the Tarahumara)
This is a non-profit created to support the Rarámuri culture.
Several other people from the book are online, but I chose not to link them out of respect for their apparent desire to keep their private lives private. If someone mentioned in the book isn’t here, it’s because I guessed they wouldn’t have wanted to be here. (If that’s you and I’m wrong, let me know)
I also wanted to comment on an unintentionally poetic edit made to the book’s cover photo. In Louis Escobar’s original image, Billy “bonehead” Barnett is standing next to a seated Caballo Blanco. Somewhere along the book’s journey to print, Caballo was photoshopped out, vanishing, perhaps appropriately, into the sky above the Barrancas del Cobre. Barefoot Ted posted the original photo.