Barefoot Running: Going off the Rail

A couple of hours after my last VFF (Vibram Five Fingers) run on Wednesday September 16th I noticed an ache in several of my toes (joint at base of toe). It wasn’t anything bad, but definitely uncomfortable. This pain faded to barely noticeable and was gone by Friday. I wrote it off as too much strain on the toes going uphill. My run had finished with a ¾ mile uphill section and I thought the pain was most likely due to the stress placed on the shoes while making the climb.
So on the morning of Monday September 21st I decided to give my VFF’s another try but this time at a slightly shorter distance. I was going to try an easy 3.4 miles on the pavement. I’d have a ¾ mile downhill to start and have to climb it again at the end just like in my last run. The run was pretty much uneventful until near the end when I was headed back up the hill. I started feeling the same soreness in my toes that I felt after the last run, but this time I was feeling it while still running. It started shortly after I started the uphill climb and got steadily worse. This, at least in my mind, confirmed my thoughts from my previous run that it was due to the stress of going up the hill. Not a good thing, but something I felt was easily fixed.
The toes continued to get steadily worse as the day progressed. Nothing unbearable but they were aching pretty bad by the end of the day. I finally gave in and iced them that night, which helped somewhat, but didn’t completely ease the soreness.
The next day they were still pretty sore but I was able to go for a run in my normal running shoes, which I was running in daily between my VFF runs. I did the same route and had no problems whatsoever. The toes ached a bit on the uphill again, but were no worse after the run. They actually felt slightly better than they had before the run.
The week continued on and my toes felt steadily better. I did a 3.2 mile run on Wednesday and a 6 mile run on Thursday in my regular running shoes. I had no further problems and was feeling great. I was itching to try and run again in my VFF’s. I knew I had to find an adjustment or build strength in my feet so that the uphills no longer bothered me, but I had to get back out there and give it another go.
So on Friday, September 25th, I set out on another run in my VFF’s. Confident that my problem lay solely in the uphills, I decided to go for a longer run. I was going to have the same downhill start and uphill finish as the last two runs, but I was going to have a longer stretch of flat in between.
The run started off great. The first 1.5 miles felt great and I was having absolutely no problems. Unfortunately, that’s when things went bad. I stepped on something with my right foot, directly below the toe that had been the sorest. I’m not sure if it was a rock, an acorn or something else, but I felt a searing pain shoot through my foot like I’d been stabbed with a red hot nail. I hobbled a few more yards before stopping to walk. The base of my third toe felt like it was red hot and burning bright. I walked a short ways hoping for the pain to subside, which it didn’t. I started running again anyway and made it about another 100 yards before stopping to walk again. I was positive that something had pierced the shoe and my foot so I sat down to take a look.
I took my VFF off and examined the base of the toe. The skin was fine, not cut, discoloration, inflammation, bruising or any other problem. I took a look at the bottom of my VFF and found no damage there. I put it back on, got up and started walking again. The pain was no better, but it was also no worse so I decided to try and finish my run. It still hurt like crazy but it was getting no worse so I continued on.
After about a mile the pain, though still pretty bad, had lessened somewhat and my pace had picked up. At this point I reached my planned turn around point and I headed for home. Almost immediately I started feeling some soreness in my other foot. It wasn’t bad and I figured that it was from over compensating for the injured foot. I kept running and slowly picking the pace back up to where I had been before I injured my foot. I wasn’t running pretty, but I was running at a steady pace. The climb back up the hill was torture, but it was short lived and the run was soon over.
After the run I iced both feet. They felt slightly better afterwards and I was able to walk with out a limp. Unfortunately, I had a very long day of work left, mostly on my feet, and 11 hours later, when I was finally done for the day, I could barely walk. I got home and both feet were very swollen and painful. It didn’t take a genius moment on my part to realize that I’d made a huge mistake by finishing my run. I was pretty confident that I hadn’t damaged the bones, but I really hurt myself. My attempt to bullheaded charge into being a barefoot/VFF runner been derailed. I’m still convinced that forefoot running is the correct way, but I needed to take time out, heal and find out what all I was doing wrong.

Helpful links to cause and fix for some barefoot/VFF running foot pain (courtesy of @oblinken):
(original post 11/09)

About Douglas Sawyer, MS, ATC

I am an athletic trainer who is also a very avid athlete. My first love is running, but I also love cycling and triathlons and many other activities. I'm not a swimmer though, I just don't drown for 2.4 miles... As a athletic trainer I work with sports injuries. I currently work at a school with athletes in 7th-12th grade in a wide variety of sports. I can be found on twitter at two different names: @IronmanLongRunr - where I tweet about run, bike, tri, & more @Longrunr - where I tweet about athletic training
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