Stress fractures from barefoot running

During the past few years of my barefoot running career, barefoot running has taken off in popularity.  I truly believe in the health benefits of barefoot running, and have experienced several benefits myself.  For one, I no longer get painful shin splints.  Secondly, my previous knee injury no longer causes me pain.  Moreover, my feet and calves are greatly strengthened, and I love the feel of the earth beneath my feet.  Nevertheless, many people have experienced negative effects from barefoot running, namely foot injuries.  A stress fracture to one of the metatarsal bones is the most common barefoot running injury.  Enough injuries have taken place that many podiatrists and orthopedists are discouraging barefoot running altogether.  Yet, take a look at the cause of stress fractures as described straight from the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeon’s website: “Stress fractures often are the result of increasing the amount or intensity of an activity too rapidly.”  In other words, barefoot running isn’t the cause of stress fractures, it’s jumping into something your body has never done too quickly!  Stress fractures are also more common in women than men, and it’s important to make sure you’re obtaining proper nutrition to support bone health, especially calcium and vitamin D.

Barefoot running is healthier for your feet, joints, and spine, but it’s a technique that must be learned and eased into.  Most people never walk or run barefoot except on the beach.  Our feet are weak, deformed, and shoe-dependent from wearing shoes all our lives.  Feet need to be strengthened slowly.  As your feet are strengthened by walking barefoot around the block a few times, then adding progressively longer runs, muscles will develop that support the metatarsals, and your bones will strengthen. Many people are excited about the idea of running barefoot, which is awesome; yet, few are willing to start out completely  barefoot.  The cool new “barefoot” or minimalist running shoes are oh so enticing and cultural norms of keeping feet shod are difficult to let go of, but starting out with minimalist shoes without learning to properly run in the barefoot style will result in a stress fracture! The importance of running COMPLETELY barefooted before wearing minimalist shoes cannot be overemphasized. Feet have one of the highest concentration of nerve endings in the body.  These nerve endings aren’t meant to be covered up and ignored; they’re meant to teach you how to run softly.  If you follow my advice, and ease into running barefoot, you’ll avoid a stress fracture and eventually reap the benefits of running the way your were designed to run!

Regarding barefoot sprinting, yes, it is possible to sprint barefooted.  In fact, sprinting techniques closely resemble running barefoot at moderate speeds.  Proper form involves keeping the body relaxed, slightly lifting the toes while in the air, and striking the ball of the foot first (this does not look like running on your toes.  In fact, if you watch sprinters it almost looks like they land flat-footed). Again, it’s important to work up to sprinting in general, let alone sprinting barefooted.  Your body is perfectly capable of sprinting without shoes, but you shouldn’t and can’t go from 0 to 20mph overnight!  As you progressively add mileage and speed to your barefoot running routine, slowly add short sprints and build from there.  Sprints are a more aggressive form of running and you will not land on your heel but primarily on the ball and midsection of the foot.  For more information about barefoot running, check out my previous blog.  

Originally posted 2011-08-23 18:41:00.