I often get barefoot running questions which I send out to a fantastic group of coaches. As ever they have been generous with their time. Be sure to check out their websites.
This question on calluses cam from Natalie:
I’m in need of some advice. I’ve been running in minimalist shoes for a couple years now. I am currently running in Merrell Vapor Gloves. My cadence is right around 180, sometimes as low as 170. Forefoot strike, with heel kissing ground most of the time. I wear injinji socks. I did a half marathon on Mother’s Day and the last mile, the bottom of my forefoot felt so painful I almost had tears in my eyes. I iced, and took some recovery time off. I did a 4 miler and a 3 miler this week, and each time the last mile or so my foot is hurting in two points. Both are callused, one is under the big toe and the other (and most painful) is under my little toe. After the three miles yesterday, I was limping because they hurt so bad. Is your instinct saying that I’m pushing off and causing friction, or maybe shoes are ill fitting, or just go barefoot for gods sake?? Any help would be appreciated!
Oh, my… so many things to talk about, so little time 😉
First, the good news: you’ve recognized that blisters and callouses come from friction, and that friction isn’t inherent in proper barefoot form. One of the points I often find myself making is that accomplished barefoot runners don’t have calloused feet, much to the surprise of shod runners who assume that you NEED callouses to run barefoot.
Now for the less good news: while you’ve given a good amount of information (some people email me and just say, “I have a blister, what’s wrong?”), I don’t have quite enough info to give you an individualized diagnosis. For that I’d need to know more about your average mileage, see a video of you running and, gross as it may sound, a picture of the bottom of your feet so I can see exactly where the callouses are. Most barefoot coaches will concede that we’re ultimately more interested in form than footwear, but removing footwear is perhaps the fastest way to discover and modify aspects of form. I’ve tested world-class runners as they switch from barefoot to shoes of various kinds, and they have their form so well dialed in that it wouldn’t change if they were wearing bricks on their feet. Most of us, though, are not that skilled, or our form is such that changing footwear affects our gait.
And that brings me to: Take off your shoes. In my opinion, the combo of shoes and socks that you’re wearing is reducing the amount of feedback you’re getting to a point where it’s hard to tell what might be wrong until it’s too late. Further, the sock/shoe combination is a perfect setup for having your foot slide during a couple points in
the gait cycle, which is that unnecessary horizontal force you correctly suspect.
And, again pardon my presumptuousness, but it sounds like you have some ideas about minimalist/barefoot running that aren’t necessarily accurate and may be contributing to your issues.
First is the idea that you’re supposed to land on the ball of your foot and that your heel should barely touch the ground, if at all. When you look at accomplished barefooters, there’s quite a bit of individual difference in foot strike. Some land on the ball of the foot, some land midfoot, some land flat-footed, some actually touch the ground with the heel first but don’t load the foot until it’s flat on the ground. To a certain extent, the instruction, “Do not heelstrike” is actually a cue for, “Do not reach out with your foot and overstride, which will cause you to do this painful thing — that you do in shoes — namely, land on and load the heel first.” If you don’t overstride, and place your foot much closer to your center of mass, it’s really hard to heel-strike, so that instruction is sort of moot. In other words, you may want to explore different foot strike patterns and see which works best for you. I often see barefoot runners who, believing they should land on their forefoot, reach out with their foot to do so (and, again, most will assureyou that they don’t do this… until they see it on video). This can put extra stress on the ball of the foot and could cause the pain you describe. It often leads to another form issue: pulling/pushing rather than placing/lifting. One way to create extra friction is to pull your foot toward you once it touches down (especially after overstriding), or to push it behind you as you take off. Put these together in some combination and it’s like trying to wipe something off the bottom of your foot, or kick something behind you with your toes. Either way, this is friction-creating. Instead, the aim is placing the foot and then lifting it rather than thinking of your foot asthe thing that propels you forward.
The second idea that may be causing you some issues is related to cadence. The 170-180 steps/minute cadence is a kind of mythological number that may have no relationship to your particular gait. Someone, at some time, suggested that +/- 180 was a magical number that, if you run at that cadence, you’ll achieve superhuman powers, provide food for the hungry,and align the stars in a harmonic convergence. Unfortunately, the research doesn’t support that. Your ideal cadence may be 185, or 190, or 193.2734. The ultimate point about cadence is that there’s a speed at which you’re less likely to overstride and more likely to get your feet on and off the ground in a more efficient manner, and that speed is faster than your normal cadence, and probably faster than you imagine it would be. Only experimenting will reveal what your “magic number” is.
Finally, you may simply be doing too much. Perhaps your body and feet aren’t ready for the mileage you’re doing, or you’re getting tired later in your runs and having your form break down. I can’t tell if this is relevant since I don’t know about your training or your transition to minimalism, but this is another arena to explore.
Suffice it to say, the problems you’re having are “information.” Listen to that info and experiment with different gait patterns, and then see what info *that* gives you. One goal of barefoot/minimalist running is to learn to be your own coach. This “listen, experiment, repeat” method is how you do that.
Feel The World!
Steven Sashen, CEO
Xero Shoes • Original Barefootware
Calluses are caused by friction, so you’re rubbing somehow in those spots. Often the friction is caused by a little bit of turning or pivoting there, so pay attention in your running to see if you’re doing that. If you’ve been wearing the same shoes for awhile then the problem is probably not the fit of the shoe in any case.
On the first aid front you can take a pumice stone and start gradually working on smoothing down those calluses in the shower or bath. If they’re uncomfortable in walking as well as running than this is non-optional, you can’t have pain on the sole of your foot without it causing you to change everything about how you move and that could result in more serious injuries down the line.
Secondly, why did they hurt so much all of a sudden? Are there blisters beneath the calluses or perhaps neuromas (inflamed nerves in the forefoot)? Check and see if there’s something else going on.
Third, I’d bet your calf is tighter on that side. When the calf is too tight you walk or run a little like you have a ski boot on, with the weight coming onto the ball of the foot too soon, and it can also end up causing you to pivot a little bit. That tends to really stress the metatarsal heads and result in neuromas (or other kinds of pain). I suggest a thorough dynamic calf warmup before you run — do both calves so you don’t end up loosening the injured one more and over-correcting! You could do the one in this video from James Dunne: http://youtu.be/7Zs4hh4cp98
Fourth, this sort of thing usually happens on the foot you have worse balance on (if you stand on one leg to check your balance, you’re more likely have good balance on the other leg). However even if I’ve guessed wrong and your balance is actually better on the callous side, what I’m going to suggest now still applies. To really go to the root of why this sort of thing happens you need to reduce the difference between your two sides, and though that could be due to a million different causes it can help to do balance exercises. So before you run practice balancing on each leg, and work your way up to do one-legged squats and even some forward hopping on each leg. Go gradually, especially with that last bit, and there’s no point in doing it till your foot has stopped hurting. But it could help prevent a recurrence.
The reason I use the Feldenkrais Method to work with runners is because it’s a powerful tool for addressing #4 — identifying what really is the difference between the two sides and how it stresses your foot and then helping you learn to move so you don’t have the problem any more. So the very best thing would be to find a local Feldenkrais practitioner. I see clients in Edinburgh, London, and New York, so give me a holler if you’re near any of those places. If you can’t find anyone you could work with my recorded lessons, the Core Action Collection, available here: https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jaegruenkegcfp.
And yes, do some barefoot running! You don’t have to do it all the time, but nothing is so clarifying as uncovering your feet completely so you can really feel what you’re doing. And besides, it’s fun.
Jae Gruenke, GCFP
Founder & CEO of The Balanced Runner™ US and The Balanced Runner UK
Hi Natalie, thanks for your question!
I worked with a client recently who had a very similar problem. He was training for a marathon and kept getting terrible blisters on the balls of his feet. He was wearing his shoes fairly big- as is usually recommended for minimalist shoes/ forefoot strikers (and for marathon runners). When I analysed his running form he had a large overstride, which was effectively ‘breaking’ his forward momentum with every stride. He was also running with an overly exaggerated forefoot strike- something i typically see with runners who have tried to change their own running form, and have payed too much attention to their footstrike.
This running style is probably the biggest risk factor for the type of calluses you’re describing. Especially because your most painful point is towards the little-toe side of the ball of your foot. Once you’re weight is on your forefoot (after landing and then heel lift) the majority of force should be going through the base of your big toe. However, If you overstride onto a forefoot landing, the weight will typically be more towards the little-toe side at the initial contact. In a shoe that has room to move, the breaking action will result in friction between the shoe and your foot!
I recommend that you get somebody to video you running- or better still that you work with a running coach. True barefoot running could also be a great tool (once your feet have healed!) as this will make you more aware of how you’re landing and encourage you to shorten your stride. Don’t try consiously to forefoot strike, instead keep your ankles relaxed and your body tall so that you land directly underneath yourself. For people with blisters who need to keep running (like my marathon chap) zinc oxide tape applied over the sore area can be a great short-term solution to prevent further damage. Good luck and I hope the advice helps!
Lou Nicholettos is a Barefoot Running Coach and Chartered Physiotherapist based in Cornwall, UK. She provides technique coaching and 1:1 sessions for barefoot and minimalist runners with injuries. She also runs regular barefoot running workshops and weekend coaching holidays by the Cornish Coast. To find out more email email@example.com
It’s quite difficult to make an accurate assessment without seeing how you run, but my first suggestion would be to take a week or so off from running, just to give your poor foot a rest!
You also mentioned that you’re “currently” wearing Merrell Vapor Gloves – if they’re relatively new and don’t suit your feet (or you’ve done too much in them too soon) that may be a contributing factor.
There’s obviously a lot of pressure going through the area of your foot that has the pain and calluses. Ask someone to film you and see if you can spot how your foot comes in to land. It sounds as though you’re probably landing too far towards the front of your foot (and possibly overstriding) – allow your feet and ankles to relax and let the heel come down to the floor. You said that your heel “kisses” the floor “most of the time” – when it doesn’t, you’ll be putting extra strain on your calves, limiting your ‘spring’ and putting too much pressure into the front of your foot.
We often work with clients who don’t have enough ankle mobility which affects their ability to be able to bend their hips, knees and ankles appropriately. This will often cause mechanical dysfunction in the foot/ankle so make sure you practise knee bends, ankle rotations, point and flexing your feet and calf raises on a step – anything that encourages optimum mobility at the ankle joint. Of course, you need strength too – single leg balance work is good! (There are helpful drills and exercises in our book – see Chris’s ‘Barefoot Running Store’).
I do agree with you last suggestion – take off your shoes and do some pure barefoot running. Do some sessions completely barefoot and just run up and down, really feeling what your body is doing, rather than always going for an actual run.
Hope this helps!
All the best
I hope that helps, Natalie.
Once again many thanks to Steven Sachen, Jae Gruenke, Lou Nicholettos and Anna Toombs for being so generous with their time.
If you have any advice for Natalie or would like to join in the chat, our Barefoot Beginner facebook group now has 250 members and is growing all the time. We also have a facebook page for you to visit and like. We are are a friendly bunch, you will be made very welcome.