Don’t your Feet get Cut Open Frequently?
I’m often asked how often I injure my feet while running barefoot. Even more often, I am TOLD that I will injure my feet more often running barefoot! I haven’t found that to be the case – shoes actually did more frequent, and more severe damage to my feet!
What injuries caused by shoes?
Unlike my barefoot injuries, far too much damage from shoes to list here (it would be far easier to recall the times that shoes were comfortable! – not often). Besides relatively frequent and far more severe ankle sprains (compared to almost zero while barefoot), my feet were nearly constantly blistered all through grade school and high school. And the worst foot injury, or injuries, and actually both feet, all happened during my first marathon (and my only marathon with shoes) when my shoes left both my feet completely raw, except the soles. Also my toenails turned black and during the next week all fell off. I know, you’re going to tell me that is not unusual for marathoners, or that my shoes probably didn’t fit correctly.
Do any shoes fit “correctly”?
Why is any injury considered “normal”?
First of all, I’ve rarely seen shoes shaped like my feet (my toes don’t point toward the center, and my outer toes don’t curve inward either. Secondly, these injuries almost never happen to barefoot runners and are completely unnecessary! I’ve completed 79 marathons barefoot (through 2011 January 16), including 13 in 2004, and 14 in 2006, and 4 marathons in 3 consecutive weekends, and 2 marathons in two consecutive days twice! Below, I have listed every memorable foot injury that happened to me while running barefoot including, but not only, in the dozens of marathons I’ve completed, but also in the more than 400 races (from 1/4 miles to over 30 miles) I have completed barefoot, and the tens of thousands of miles I have run barefoot in preparation for those races and just for enjoyment.
The Fear Factor!
We are constantly being told (mostly by people who haven’t really tried or studied running barefoot), that we should only run barefoot on “natural” terrain, like manicured golf courses, and groomed beaches. That “humans aren’t designed to run on hard modern surfaces with broken glass everywhere”!
What I have noticed during my 50+ years of running barefoot and more than a decade of racing barefoot, is the stuff we are warned about (hard modern surfaces, broken glass, impact, blisters) are over-exaggerated.
- Yes, modern surfaces are hard – so we land more gently (our soles tell us immediately if we don’t).
- Yes, there is broken glass (not “everywhere”) and most of it just lays there (as long as we’re not scuffing our feet along the ground, or trying to push our soles into the glass – which our bare soles would let us know immediately to change such mistakes in running technique).
- Yes, we probably land with too much impact while wearing cushioned shoes to run with the same technique while barefoot – but if we were barefoot, we would really WANT to land with less impact. And studies show that simply by removing our shoes, we do cut impact up to 50% IMMEDIATELY. What’s even cooler? Experienced runners land with no measurable impact (jolting, jarring, pounding, etc.) at all – just a gentle loading of our weight on the foot – in my case, less than two times my body weight.
The natural terrains we are told might be okay for barefoot running (instead of “unnatural” roads that are nearly as hard as natural stone), are actually much more challenging for barefoot runners – which is the reason I recommend people beginning running barefoot, start out on hard rough terrain, like gravel trails, or rough asphalt. This not only discourages us from one of the most common errors – doing too much, too soon – it also encourages us to learn good gentle technique more quickly (so we can get on with running further, more frequently sooner – which may also help us become faster).
We are natural animals and as such, we should run on natural surfaces when practical. However, nature was never made up of only manicured golf courses and groomed beaches!
Many modern surfaces are almost too comfortable and too consistently smooth to run barefoot on for more than a few hundred miles at a time without some variation. And in most locations where we would want to run, there really isn’t broken glass “everywhere”. And in most cases broken glass is less annoying than running over granules of kitty litter-sized pebbles, which is not a serious problem for an experienced barefoot runner.
Natural beaches (ones that aren’t combed and groomed daily for tourists) are littered with broken clam shells (and yes, thanks to modern humans, broken beer bottles). The worse part is, it’s hiding just beneath the soft sand. Of course since the sand is soft, and experienced barefoot runners land gently, it rarely cuts our skin – but do watch out for the sting rays when you run in the water to cool off! However, the sharp litter below the surface on a sandy beach can be a serious hazard for newbies. So, if you’re just starting out running barefoot, start on hard, preferably rough, surface where you can see (and avoid) most of the more serious hazards.
Golf courses, and manicured lawns are not natural. The plains of Africa, North America, etc., are littered with broken rocks, the grass during the dry season is like running on toothpicks, and the ground is as hard as asphalt in many cases, and it’s very uneven and full of holes. But, I’m not complaining about natural terrain, just about the misconceptions people have about where the real hazards are. It’s actually the natural hazards that makes these terrains very challenging and stimulating places to run barefoot! You’ll learn more about running gently on a hard uneven surface than while running on golf courses. While it may not teach beginners much about running gently, smooth asphalt or concrete surfaces are among the most comfortable places to run barefoot , as long as we run gently.
Notable* Injuries from Running Barefoot
Here is a list of memorable injuries that I’ve “piled up” while Running Barefoot for 50+ years. As you see, even the most debilitating injuries only resulted in a day or two off from running, and that, often not necessarily because of the injury, but simply to rest after completing a very hilly trail marathon!
- 1992 West Palm Beach, Florida – cut bottom of little toe on something sharp hiding in grass on side of road. Ran another mile back to where I was staying. Washed my feet. Medical Treatment: put a band-aid on the toe. Didn’t run for a couple of days.
- 1995 ?? Stepped on a sting ray while running into the ocean. Stabbed me in the top of my little toe. Was able to run again 2 days later. Could have run sooner with the aid of a band-aid to keep the injury from breaking open again. No medical treatment
- 1998 April Napa Valley Trail Marathon – cut the side of one foot. Finished the marathon. The cut was so debilitating (or was it the 26.2 miles over mountainous trails?) that, I had to take a day off before running 20 miles 2 days later! Medical Treatment: occasional foot soak.
- 2001 September 30, Alive and Running 10K – kicked sand-hill on beach the day before. Torqued foot backwards. Heard “snap”. Possible fractured bone in foot, or strained tendon. No medical treatment. Following day raced 10K. Finished in 39:32. Good enough for 2nd in my age division, 12th overall. Foot only hurt when using poor running technique (pushing off). This injury left a bump on the top of my right foot, that stayed with me for more than 10 years. Finally in 2012 it began to break up, and shrink (possibly from flexing my foot more while climbing up and down a ladder while barefoot and doing some painting and remodeling inside my home). After a fun trail run on 2013 January 13, it looks like the bump may be almost completely gone … 2013 July 23 update: the bump has been coming and going during my recent road trip. Growing for a few days, then suddenly disappearing – especially after a day of extreme foot flexing (hiking rocky/rooty trail, or climbing ladder while painting home, etc.). Each time it does this, it seems a bit smaller.
- 2003 December 13, Venice Marina 10K run – tiny splinter of glass stuck in my foot. I stopped for a couple seconds to remove it, then passed everyone who had passed me while I was stopped. No medical treatment.
- 2003 May 24 Bayshore Marathon – Tiny blood blister on left little toe. Finished marathon (with a Boston qualifying time of 3:29:31) by adjusting my running technique to avoid further damage (gently lift the toes when landing). Medical treatment: foot soaks.
- 2004 September New Mexico Marathon – Tiny blood blister on one middle toe. Finished marathon by adjusting my running technique to avoid further damage (gently lift the toes when landing). Medical treatment: foot soaks.
- 2006 Lake Tahoe Marathon – superficial scratch on the sole of one foot in the arch, while showing that I wasn’t worried about stepping on pine cones (that last pine cone was exceptionally rigid!) Finished the marathon, rested, and ran another marathon the following day. No medical treatment.
2007 July 29 San Francisco Marathon, Stubbed toe around mile 10. San Francisco CA. Completed marathon. No medical treatment
- 2009 November 4 Stubbed toe while running with A Runner’s Experience Club, Long Beach CA
- 2011 January 16 Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, Phoenix, Az. – glass splinter during the final tenth of a mile. Finished the marathon, pulled the splinter out, and didn’t run for two days (not because of the splinter, just to rest after the marathon). Medical treatment: foot soaks.
- 2011 March 20 Los Angeles Marathon, Los Angeles, Ca. -2 (two) glass splinters during the marathon (this is some kind of record, that’s as many glass splinters as I’ve picked up in ALL of my previous races combined! Still, neither was any problem. I simply stopped, and worked them out with my fingernail… actually came out fairly easy because the skin on the soles of my feet was nice and moist from the rain. Finished the marathon. No medical treatment.
- 2011 March 27 Running Barefoot Play-Fun-Shops, Huntington Beach, Ca. – one of my worst injuries yet, but I’m not sure what it was. Possibly a bee sting. Oddly it felt best while running, and worse while standing or walking. So we ran some more, then I went home and rested with my foot elevated, alternating with some soaking, and a couple miles of running each of the next couple of days. By the third day I was nearly fine. Medical treatment: Foot soaks.
- 2011 September 21, dreaded Cheetos hazard – may cause feet to turn a nasty orange color – until washed with water (might even require soap). Brooklyn, NY, No medical treatment.
- 2011 September 27 Brooklyn NY, running to Coney Island, small splinter of glass stuck in my foot, I pulled it out, and finished running. No noticeable signs of damage after finishing 3-mile run, soaking in the ocean for a bit, and running 3 miles back to where I was staying. No medical treatment.
- 2013 February 24 Chino Hills Fun Trail Run. Stepped on a branch with a thorn. Luckily it was a good sized branch and as I lifted my foot, the weight of the branch pulled the thorn out of my foot, and since there was blood, almost a whole drop of blood, which is one of my more significant foot injuries from running barefoot, I figured I’d better report it here. No medical treatment.
* Sorry, these are only the “injuries” I can remember, though not all are really what I would consider “notable” except for the fact that they aren’t really notable… though I suppose, given the fact that I’ve noted them here, they must be “notable”.
I did not include injuries sustained from things like falling down, running into trees, being pushed through a garage door by a fire truck, bending one knee backwards, etc. because these kinds of injuries can happen at least as much to someone wearing shoes – in fact I was wearing shoes (or other footwear) during most of those types of injuries, even when the fire truck pushed me through the garage door (that story isn’t as interesting as it should be, especially since the truck only knocked the wind out of me). I accidentally tried to bend my knee backwards when I collided with a snowbank while being pulled by a horse on skis … how the horse got on skis, I’ll never know. I was wearing ski-boots at the time, which is why my knee tried to bend backwards, instead of my ankle bending naturally forward.
Most (actually, ALL) of the injuries I’ve “suffered” while running barefoot required no medical treatment at all, other than washing my feet, which I do even when they’re not “injured” or in “extreme” cases, soaking, either in the ocean, or Doc Wolfe’s Aching Feet Soup.