Lately, I have been taking it easy on running. I noticed some sharper pain creeping in on my left foot at first, which seemed to sort of wrap around the inside ankle and under my foot. Something similar popped up in my right foot as well. At first I assumed I must have stressed something by trying to run to trailheads, do some trail walking, and run back. I always prioritize avoiding injury and letting my body recover at its own pace, so for a while my maximum running range has been 3 km, and most of my runs have been less than half that.
This week I took it super easy. I was in Denver for my boyfriend’s birthday through Tuesday, and did not run there. On Wednesday I just jogged to a park for an upper body workout and walked back. Yesterday I did absolutely nothing. When I woke up this morning, I fully expected to take on my usual 5 km running loop around Eben G. Fine park with no problems.
I barely hit the creek path before I started feeling that same soreness in both my feet. “Aw man,” I thought, “am I going to have to cut this run short?” Then something miraculous happened: a painful little pebble got stuck on the bottom of my left foot. For a second this exasperated me, but then I checked myself. Thinking back to my earliest days running barefoot, I remembered that those painful pebbles are just there to teach me to run right. I might have gotten this idea from one of Steven Saschen’s YouTube videos, but I am not sure exactly. In any case, the idea is that our muscles are stronger when they resist extending motions than when they contract. When running, this means that your legs are stronger and more efficient when landing than when pushing off. The best way to run is not a series of little jumps from each foot, but a series of landings followed by rapidly picking up your foot. The motion of picking up your foot is very similar to what you instinctively do when you step on something painful; instead of jumping, which would increase pressure on the painful spot, you shift your weight and draw your foot up toward the hip.
I fought the urge to brush off the pebble with my hand, and I took the moment to focus on my pickup. When I did, the pebble dislodged and the soreness I had noticed went away. All through the run, whenever I felt that problematic tightness in my ankles, I focused on picking up my foot more quickly, and it went away. On the way back, I noticed that when I was doing it wrong, I left my foot on the ground too long and had to swing my foot to the side to bring it up again. My toes would have scraped, had I brought my foot straight forward like I was supposed to. That sideways motion was likely the source of the extra strain I was feeling. I added focusing on bringing my feet straight forward to my focus on picking up my feet quicker, and I finished my run feeling strong and keeping a steady pace.
This process is part of what I love about barefoot running. When you allow your body the sensory feedback it evolved to have and you listen closely to what it tells you, your own body teaches you how to run. It is very important to build strength slowly, though. Even though I found better form and finished my run today, I needed the willingness to stop and take a break if I felt my feet get stressed too far. I think that might be why so many serious runners try going barefoot and than get injured; because they are used to a certain range and level of workout, they push their feet past the breaking point too soon. I have definitely benefited from the fact that I am a complete amateur with no obligations or specific goals. I run at my own range and pace, and I make sure that I enjoy every minute of it.