One of the common mantras of the running world is that you should avoid running too much too soon, or farther than your body is prepared to handle. This is especially important when transitioning to barefoot or minimalist style running.
The obvious reason is that the bones, tendons, and muscles in your feet are not conditioned to handle running many miles without padded shoes right away. All of that tissue is severely underdeveloped from a lifetime of wearing shoes.
Your leg and foot tissues are not sufficiently activated while you wear shoes.
There are 20 muscles within our foot and 12 muscles from our leg that attach to our foot. According to Dr. Michael Nirenberg and Dr. Benno Nigg, while walking in shoes, only the tibialis anterior (a shin muscle) and triceps surae (calf) muscles are needed. When you start a barefoot or minimalist training regimen, all of those parts of your feet which have stayed asleep inside of your shoes are now awakened and exercised quite rigorously. If you don’t proceed slowly you are more than likely going to encounter some pain.
I haven’t worn regular shoes since I busted up my knees while running in sneakers a while back. Since then I have been working at conditioning my legs and feet for running barefoot and in Vibram Five Fingers. Part of that work was in preparation for the 2010 Garage Games CrossFit competition which was held last weekend. In order to be ready for the various endurance segments of the event, I had to ramp up my trail running at a faster pace than was probably appropriate.
A commonly used training metric for increasing one’s running distance is to add no more than 10% of your maximum distance per week.
This is generally good advice, so long as you actually follow it. Unfortunately, since my running had been curtailed for a while as my knees healed, I had to up my training pace much more quickly to ensure I had the legs for the event’s trail run.
I ended up running well and was happy with my performance, my feet however were not. The second day of the event I had to decide whether or not to continue on with an aching foot. Knowing that I would probably regret it if I pulled out early, I stuck it out and finished my last workout. That night though my right foot was pretty swollen and tender. The x-rays I had done the following morning ruled out any fractures, but I was left with a diagnosis of tendinitis in the dorsal (top) tendons of my foot.
As it turns out, pain in the top of the foot is a common reported malady from people starting out with barefoot or minimalist running. It all comes down to doing too much too soon and not giving the foot sufficient time to build up strength.
Barefoot Ken Bob recommends that you avoid pushing off while running and spend some time strengthening the foot with special exercises.
One exercise which he does uses a small 3 to 5 pound weight. With the weight up on top of the toes and your heel resting on the ground, gently lift the weight a few times with the front of the foot. I plan on doing this regularly as soon as my tendons are back to normal, and recommend everybody else who is getting into the barefoot or minimalist trend to do so as well.
I was fortunate that I hadn’t suffered anything more serious like a stress fracture. I had a fracture in my foot about 6 years ago from Jujutsu, and it took several months to fully heal. Just thinking about not being able to run for another two months again has me determined to proceed more cautiously.