The good news… If the pain is a sharp pain on the outside of the ankle AND if you have been running mostly on consistently even terrain (roads, sidewalks, etc.), you probably can fix it up with a quarter mile or so of walking – in a certain way, preferably on soft uneven terrain.
Regardless of any other issues, let’s assume for a moment that you have been running too much on flat, consistent terrain, since it’s an easy fix in a few minutes. If this isn’t the case, you’ll know soon enough.
The problem with roads and sidewalks isn’t the hardness (as many “experts” who have never run barefoot on roads and sidewalks have been telling us for decades). The problem is the consistency, the lack of variation, especially if the terrain is also mostly flat (no hills). The ankle joints kind of work into a groove (and on flat terrain, a short groove). Think of the ankle as a joint that only flexes in one plane, front-to-back. It’s going to hurt whenever we try to flex that joint the least bit out of that plane.
Ironically and counter-intuitively, that’s exactly what is needed – to break out of the groove, to flex in various directions, under load – simply flexing the ankle when it isn’t supporting our weight doesn’t seem to help much.
Cool thing is, you’ll know very quickly if this is the case, as it should begin improving from the first few steps. If it doesn’t, then you may have a more serious problem, and should get it checked by your health care provider.
First of all, find some grass or soft sand (yes, I know I don’t recommend using these surfaces for learning, but we do need dessert occasionally). Preferably, not too even a surface. A manicured lawn, raked beach, golf course, or smoothly raked volleyball court, will not provide the necessary variation.
Be sure to bend your knees BEFORE landing, keep your torso vertical, face forward, etc., etc. (all the other basics How-To’s of Barefoot Running which you should be aware of BEFORE you begin running barefoot).
Instead of landing on the outer edge of your foot, focus on landing on the inner edge of your foot. But still your feet should be walking along a relatively straight line (while allowing for the uneven terrain), and maybe even exaggerating the movement, by swinging each foot across the line a bit… example, swing your right foot over the imaginary center line you’re following so that it lands to the left of the line, and swing the left foot across the line so it lands on the right side of the line. REMEMBER keep the knees bent, and stay relaxed. Excess tension rarely reduces pain.
Keep in mind, this is an exaggeration of some of the fundamental techniques designed to flex your ankles and solve an immediate issue. This is not the way you will ultimately be running.
Ultimately, to avoid this and other problems in the future, walk and run on a variety of terrains, be sure to practice the basics of good barefoot running technique, while also listening to your body and soles and responding appropriately to the stimulation and messages your own body is telling you, so that you can continue to improve your techniques, and also respond appropriately to variations in terrain.
Use the guidelines in the “Begin Here” and “How to Run” section of: BarefootRunning.com … though the website may be unavailable for a bit, as more people are probably trying to access it after the Runner’s World mention of my book, “Barefoot Running Step by Step” – which is a good reason to BUY MY BOOK!
Finally, if this hurts more or the same as before, and isn’t beginning to feel better within the first 10-20 yards, then you may have an actual injury, and need to investigate that further with someone who knows about injuries (that isn’t me)…
Otherwise walk about a quarter mile, more if it feels good, and keep trying, testing, and experimenting as you walk, so you get even more variation in the way your foot, ankle, and body moves – and perhaps you’ll also learn something along the way, about how to move your body more naturally, gently, and efficiently.
Running too far (with or without shoes) on uneven terrain can put more strain on your ankles than they are used to, especially if you are wearing shoes with a huge flange-like sole, and or tensing up to avoid letting the ankles flex naturally. Relax, and avoid doing too much too soon on any new terrain – just as you would if you were beginning any new activity that your body and mind are not conditioned or trained for.
Sprained or Twisted Ankles
The bad thing is that you’ll probably need to take some time off running, especially for a bad sprain. The good news is that you’re less likely to suffer a badly sprained ankle while barefoot. The added height of shoes, and the added width of the sole increases the leverage against the ankle, and the negligible feedback in shoes, reduces our ability to respond appropriately to uneven terrain, greatly increasing the risk of spraining an ankle when we do encounter uneven terrain.