Barefoot Running: An Exercise in Stupidity

The day after the 2009 Manchester City Marathon I woke up feeling pretty good. My legs were a bit stiff and sore, but I was able to walk normally and the legs felt progressively better as the morning progressed. My normal day after marathon routine was to go for a 2-3 mile easy run and stretch and I determined to stick with this routine. However, my feet were feeling really good and I was itching to give barefoot running another go. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of my smarter decisions.
I headed out on my run wearing my VFF’s (Vibram Five Fingers) and as expected, even though my legs were feeling pretty good walking, they were a bit sore and tight and made normal running far from easy and almost impossible. Add on to that I was barefoot running, which wasn’t normal for me and I was still trying to learn how to do it correctly, which was basically impossible with my legs as sore as they were. I got through the first mile feeling ok. Muscles were loosening up some, but were still giving me some difficulty. My feet were feeling pretty good at that point, but I started getting some mild top of foot pain shortly thereafter. For the most part the legs didn’t get any better and the feet stayed only a mild discomfort until the 3 mile mark. At this point the pain in my left foot suddenly became sharp. I was only .2 miles from finishing my intended run, but quickly came to a stop and walked the remaining distance.
By the time I got back I could barely walk. I downed some ibuprofen and put my feet in a cold whirlpool. After the whirlpool, my right foot felt great, but my left was only slightly better and I struggled to walk the rest of the day. The next day I awoke and my legs were feeling much better but my left foot only felt slightly better. I could walk, but it was painful. With the injuries that I had to my other foot I found that going for a run in my running shoes usually made them feel slightly better afterwards, so I decided to go for another run, but this time with my regular running shoes.
Somewhere about ½ mile into the run I started feeling confident that this was only going to be a minor problem that I’d quickly get over. Unfortunately, 1 ½ miles later I was in severe pain again and unable to run any further. I limped the remaining mile home and hit the ibuprofen and cold whirlpool again. A couple hours later my foot was significantly swollen and walking was pure torture.
For the next 5 days I avoided running and minimized my walking as much as possible. My foot continued to be very painful and swollen the whole time. I had to work a football game that Saturday and the three hours of lugging gear, walking sidelines and “running” out onto the field for injuries was pure hell. But I made it through the day and spent the rest of the weekend off of my feet.
By the following Monday I hadn’t made much progress and decided to give running one more try. I was only to hobble along at a very slow pace with a pretty good limp, but I made it through 3 miles and then did my post run ibuprofen and cold whirlpool again. After I got out of the whirlpool I noticed it was much easier to walk. I’m sure part of it was from my foot being numb from the cold, but as the day progressed my foot continued to feel better. Buoyed by the success of my run I decided to give it another try the following day and went out for 4 miles which I was able to do with less of a limp and at a faster pace. I followed it up again with ibuprofen and cold whirlpool and again I felt much better and walking was much easier the rest of the day.
Not really sure why running was helping with the recovery, but not caring too much I decided to try running again the following day. With my injuries to the other foot, I’d never tried running more than two days in a row and was a little concerned that doing so could be a bit too much. Stubbornness won out, and I went for the run anyway, but I did compromise and decided to back down the mileage some. I was only going to try 3.2 miles on this run.
I started out feeling good and running at a better pace then the previous two days. I made it through the 1 mile and thought I was going to have a great run because everything was feeling good. Unfortunately that feeling came crashing down within the next 200 yards. My foot suddenly felt like a white hot metal stake had been driven into it and I almost fell to the ground barely able to stand on it. This was by far the worst it had felt and I turned and slowly limped back.
By the time I got back the foot significantly more swelling than it had the previous week. I again took ibuprofen, this time doubling the dose, and stuck it in a cold whirlpool. I knew that I’d really screwed up this time and due to the type of pain and location, middle of second metatarsal, I was afraid that I’d developed a fracture. I struggled to walk and was seriously considering crutches and a visit to the doctor for x-rays.
As is typical for me I skipped doctor, x-rays and crutches. The next couple of days I struggled so bad to get around campus during the day that a severe limp would have been an improvement. I stayed off of my feet at night. The following week I was still limping around campus but foot was very slowly getting slightly less painful. I waited 7 days from my last run before trying again.
On the Wednesday of the following week I stumbled out onto the road again. Anyone that saw me must have thought I’d been bedridden for the last 40 years and was just trying to run for the first time. To say it was ugly would have raised about 100 rungs on the ladder above where it belonged. But I managed to hobble through 2 miles at about a 15 min/mile pace. I iced, downed my ibuprofen and hoped for the best.
The improvement was very minimal and may have even been my imagination, but I felt like I was walking ‘better’ the rest of the day. I took the following day off and tried again on Friday. It still wasn’t a pretty run but I felt that I’d moved up just short of Frankenstein taking his first steps. Well, his first steps across a bed of nails anyway, but an improvement. I repeated the same 2 miles from the last run and again iced and ibuprofened afterwards. The remainder of the day I walked like a zombie with broken feet, but I was getting better.
I refrained from running again until the following Monday when I repeated my last 2 runs. This time I was actually hobbling along at about a 10 min/mi pace and feeling almost human again. I ended up doing 2 more similar runs, one on Wednesday and another on Saturday, with a nice 30 mile bike ride in between. I was feeling pretty good on my final run of the week, but kept it to only 3 miles and a 9min pace. I was feeling ready to try running ‘normal’ again.
The following week my feet were feeling good and I slowly started a return to my regular running. I built the distance and pace gradually over next couple of weeks. I vowed to wait until January or later before giving barefoot running another try. I still fully believed that forefoot/barefoot running was the correct way to do it, but I was starting to have my doubts that I would ever be able to do it. I had years of running incorrectly which had caused atrophy of bone, muscle, tendon, ligaments, etc from lack of use that I wasn’t sure at my age if I could overcome it all, but I wasn’t done trying.

Adding this link well after publishing this post, but wish I’d have read this back in August when I started this whole adventure:
http://www.livingbarefoot.info/2010/03/the-dangers-of-barefooting-how-to-start-off-on-the-right-foot/

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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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