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Barefoot Running . . . Fantasy vs. Reality

July 21, 2015
barefoot running under oaks

Fact or fiction: I can run like this all day . . .

When I first began my barefoot wanderings, in January of 2010, my focus, goal, aim, hope, extremely wishful thinking . . . was that this latest experiment would be the key to solving the ongoing mystery of my lifelong running injuries (having tried all kinds of physical therapies, strengthening programs, rooster comb injections, acupuncture, massage, ART, ice, heat, icy-heat, and an assortment of support devices including bands, straps, sleeves, and $500 orthotics).

Not so much.

Every time I get to the point where I can run 60-90 minutes (on trails! up and down stuff!), my body busts out a new area of pain; lately, it’s been my right hip, so much so that for a few days last week even walking was unpleasant . . . and “nature hiking” has always been my activity of last resort to keep sane in busy Southern California.

Arrghh . . . that’s right . . . in spite of the cheery tone of this blog, running for the last couple of weeks/months has been an agonizingly futile attempt to string together a succession of a hundred yards of steps that are quicker than walking, but then. The. Pain.

The words of a physical therapist from many years ago come to mind, again and always: “What is your injury trying to tell you?”

When I first heard those words back in 2004, I was ticked. It seemed to me he was trying to politely say, “Just give up. The pain is not getting better, so quit running and live with it.”

So, of course, I found another PT, and kept trying to get back to running (always walking walking walking in the meantime).

Now, after some digging around on the internet (last month the doctor said it was my psoas, so I had to look that up), I’ve discovered ideas about pain and our bodies that have me completely re-thinking the question, “What is your injury trying to tell you?”

Of course I’ve been working on my running form all these years–running without shoes makes that critical–but now I’m going a bit deeper, and learning to listen to what my body might be trying to tell me about the places (present AND past) that hurt.

I’m deeply grateful to my “team” of wonder-working body workers, and am happy that a lifetime of fun running seems possible again . . . beginning with yesterday’s lovely, easy, hill-and-valley-ramble in Santiago Oaks Regional Park (85 degrees and humid at 6 pm . . . my favorite running weather!)

Will I ever accomplish my big dream of running all day? Maybe an off-road ultra-marathon?

I am learning all the time (working on my psoas ever day via “constructive rest”) but of course still have some work to do . . . especially now that I’ve discovered the field of “somatic archeology”; it looks like I have LOTS of listening ahead of me as I keep deciphering “what the pain is trying to tell me.”

In the meantime, happy trails, indeed!

At the end of yesterday's non-painful run: a happy splash through Santiago Creek . . .

At the end of yesterday’s non-painful run: a happy splash through Santiago Creek . . . no, I can’t run all day yet, but I continue to be grateful for the times I can run at all . . .

2 Comments leave one →
  1. scratchtype1 permalink
    July 26, 2015 6:58 pm

    You’re very right to know that the pain is trying to tell you about some sort of dysfunction. While barefoot running can help to teach us a lot about what we should feel when we run, I also think that many of us probably come into running barefoot with a history of compromised movement patterns from the years of shoe-wearing, and the amount of sitting we do in our modern lifestyles.

    Last year this time, about a year after I had begun running barefoot, my left hip flexors were an angry mess, complaining with more and more pain each time I ran. Eventually I was forced to reduce running to a once-weekly affair while evaluating how things felt. And wondering what had gone wrong. I eventually developed a hypothesis that while barefoot running was helping me stride better and more naturally, that wasn’t enough to overcome the basic fact that glute muscles were lazy, especially the left one. Because the left one didn’t really contract strongly and fully upon the landing of the left foot, the left hip flexor muscles compensated and tried to pull the leg up and through. Those muscles became overworked.

    So when I began running again regularly in late September, I did a couple of things. I put in once or twice-weekly sessions of hill sprints, short 8 to 12 second sprints. For me, those began teaching the left glute to work when running and I concentrated on feeling that sensation of the muscle contracting. I would follow those sessions up with repeats of 30-second sprints on level ground to teach the glute to work there as well. I also did skipping drills. As autumn moved along, I became aware that on my easy runs if I went through a self-examination, I could feel the glutes working, driving me along.

    Now all that may not be applicable to your situation, but it’s certainly worth looking at whether your glutes are doing the work they should when you run. Even now, I don’t think my glutes have yet fully learned exactly how they should be working, and that it’s going to be a gradual process to get them working completely.

    Best of luck.

    • July 27, 2015 7:53 am

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful response . . . it sounds like you’re on your way to even “free-er” barefoot running, and I think you’re on the right track with the glute issues . . . I remember that coming up in physical therapy previously (kind of sad how all my PT visits are blurring together after all these years). I love hills, and will try the focused sprinting . . . sounds fun. As you mentioned, a key to this whole thing is being aware of what’s going on while running (the “self-examination” aspect of working through these form-related issues), so that was a good reminder as well. Happy trails!

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