Categorized | Barefoot, Injury

How Barefoot Running Finally Cured a Barefoot-Book Author

Posted on 11 July 2011

by Roy M. Wallack.

Ken Bob Saxton is a barefoot running machine.

When a publisher offered me the opportunity to write a book about barefoot running in the spring of 2010 (which was published in May as “Barefoot Running Step by Step,” co-written with barefoot pioneer Ken Bob Saxton) , a happy irony was that it helped me avoid a knee operation and saved  my running career.

I became a guinea pig for the principles Ken Bob and I outlined in the book because I had been unable to run without pain in shoes — cushioned and minimalist, even Vibram FiveFingers — ever since March 2009, when a fall off of a fence at the finish line of the Tour of California bike race resulted in a torn meniscus and a partially-torn ACL in my right knee.  My surgeon scoped the meniscus and shaved off the broken barbs from the ACL that May, advising me to see if I could live with an ACL now at 70% of its former strength.  Well, I could ride a bike  no problem, but anything that involved running and walking motion was painful. Switching exclusively to running in Vibrams did reduce the pain quite a bit, as the forefoot landing does what all the research indicated: reduce impact and put my foot in a biomechanically correct position. Still, long downhill stretches in my neighborhood, though relatively pain-free during the run itself,  would leave me wracked with pain for the next three or four days. I grew worried that I was doing structural damage to my knee. So while Ken Bob and I started researching and writing “Barefoot Running Step by Step” last summer, I had effectively given up running on land (I was still doing pool running.)

The problem was, like most people, I equated running in Vibrams with barefoot running. Well, as Ken Bob has been saying for a long time, it’s not.

Feeling like a fraud — writing a running book without actually running –I went out for a 20-minute barefoot run in July. And something strange happened:  Nothing.  No pain — not during the run itself or afterward.  Over the next weeks and months, as I pushed my barefooting to hour-long stretches, same thing:  No pain.  Ken would smile whenever I told him. “You have to put that in the book,” he said.

Here’s the explanation of why I can run barefoot but not in VFFs: Vibrams facilitate a forefoot landing that does a great job of reducing the impact forces of a heel strike in a cushioned trainer (as esteemed researchers from Timothy Noakes to Daniel Lieberman have discovered),   but still deprive you of the ground feel you need to get an exactly correct and balanced foot placement.  In 2002, British Columbia researchers mapped the sole and found it contained an overwhelming preponderance of mechanoreceptors that are focused mainly on balance. Block those sensors with even the most flimsy of shoes, and you are actually slightly off-balance.

That slight lack of balance was enough to cause pain to my ACL-impaired right knee .  It is that that lack of balance, coupled with the high impact of a heel strike, that Ken Bob and I  believe is the cause of the high injury rate among all runners. Because of my experience, I can say without any doubt that impact is only half of the story when it comes to injury-reduction.  Balance, which of course gets worse as the footwear gets thicker and more cushioned, may be an even bigger contributing factor.

I’m up to running 90 minutes now barefoot, pain-free.  I also strength train quite a bit, and hit my knees hard, thinking i can build protection that way. But I was still worried about the long-term prospects of my knee, and wondered if I should have the ACL totally replaced. So last month, I visited a sports-specific knee surgeon, who took x-rays and compared the “loose-ness” of both knees by grabbing each and torqueing sideways.

“You don’t need an operation,” he said, “because your right knee is as solid as your left knee, despite the weakened ACL.  It appears that whatever you are doing is working.”  When I told him I was strength training and running barefoot, he looked surprised; he hadn’t heard of barefoot running.

But when I explained it  (and showed him my book), he just said, “That makes sense. I can’t argue with results. And can I get this on Amazon.com?”

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4 Responses to “How Barefoot Running Finally Cured a Barefoot-Book Author”

  1. Dr. Mark says:

    Roy,

    Thanks for sharing this important insight. I LOVE yours and Ken Bob’s book. i too have a similar path to this discovery. I’ve been cutting shoes apart, speaking on minimalism, and teaching running form to folks for 5 years….but had never run barefoot. Started a bit last summer and this spring as soon as the ice melted committed to really learning it. There is a big difference in the teaching affects of true barefoot vs any shoe. I can now run barefoot for 2 hour runs on roads and usually feel better after the run. The barefoot resets everything and you self regulate so cannot go too hard. The day after the Boston Marathon this year i was a little stiff and sore. Did an hour barefoot on Comm Ave and felt like dancing afterward.

    All runners should try barefoot on pavement in small doses to understand it and learn something they never knew before about how their running body works. Trust me..I’m a doctor :)
    Mark

  2. D Patterson says:

    A suggestion for making that transition easier – look for a biofeedback insole like Barefoot Science that will come in contact with the central region of the foot’s plantar aspect. Proper development also comes from the proprioception and biofeedback that we can truly only realize with direct foot-ground contact – anything between the sole of the foot and the ground and the ground is a sensory insular and does not afford ideal biofeedback. Look for an insole that engages the foot’s center of mass. This is also the body’ line of action through the foot and also the location that ensures true tri-planar (3D) motion of the foot – coincidently is also a very nerve engorged region. Progressive stimulation about the key point can help make the transition faster and safer: Summary – glad to see someone moving towards a more ideal foot-shoe environment and glad to see someone taking the time to through some education to those who are simply jumping on the barefoot bandwagon.

  3. Anne Gallant says:

    So I have had plantar fasciitis for about 3 years and cannot get rid of it no matter what. I told my doctor that I was considering trying and he didn’t want me to because he heard that it could cause more problems. Do people with chronic PF actually get cured by running barefoot? I am so afraid to try though I have been walking about 5 minutes about 3 times in the last week after running (2 minutes running, 2 min. walking) x6. You see I haven’t really run since Boston in 2011. Please tell me that this will work. Whether I walk, shop, do yard work, clean the house, or supply teach I am in pain.

  4. Anne Gallant says:

    Sorry about the error above. I meant to say that I have been walking barefoot after my short runs. I’m running in minimalist shoes and it doesn’t hurt but it does hours later and the tops of my feet are sore .maybe because my feet are not stable.


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