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How to Train the Brain to Avoid the Pain: Sensory Adaptation for the New Barefoot Runner

Posted by on Oct 30, 2011 | 2 Comments

Q: “Jason, how can I toughen my feet to begin barefoot running?”

A: “New barefoot runner, you don’t actually “toughen” your feet.  It’s more like adapting to the feeling of being barefoot.”

When you first kick off your shoes, your feet are very sensitive.  You feel everything, and the sensation usually registers as pain.  Honestly, it kinda sucks.  Understanding why your feet are so sensitive goes a long way toward overcoming the discomfort.

Your feet don’t actually “toughen up.”  Instead, your brain acclimates to the new sensations.  It’s like going from a completely dark room to a brightly lit room- it’s a bit painful until your eyes adapt to the new sensations.

The same thing happens with our feet.  The neurons in your feet send signals to your brain.  This is sensation.  Your brain interprets the signals.  This is perception.  Sensation doesn’t change; perception does.  What does this mean?  “Toughening” is mostly a matter of your brain interpreting the signals differently.

You can help facilitate this process by spending time barefoot.  Walk around a variety of conditions- around the house, the yard, on sidewalks- whatever.  Your brain will automatically adjust to the new sensations within a week or two.  If you slowly add in more rugged terrain, you’ll soon be able to handle the toughest of surfaces.

Going from the cushiony confines of your favorite sneakers to the outside world can result in a fairly sharp sensation and perception “learning curve.”  Of course, you still have to strengthen the tendons, ligaments, bones, and muscles of the foot, which requires a gradual building up of mileage.  Take your time and enjoy the journey!

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2 Comments

  1. Leo
    November 2, 2011

    First time barefoot is like going out of a dark cage (nice metaphor) in which you were trapped for 20 years without even knowing it.

    Most people never get out of the cage, many people who actually try it get right back in. Freedom sucks for the most.

    Reminds me of Platon’s Höhlengleichnis – Allegory of the Cave.

    First few days, I went on grass whenever I could. Asphalt hurt in the beginning. But it’s worth it. Nowadays, it’s no problem at all. Even climbing is way nicer barefoot.

  2. Rob
    November 2, 2011

    I’ve been a big believer in minimalist footwear for many years now. Migrated from clunky shoes with arch supports to the Inov-8 trail shoe line and gradually adapted to run w/o any arch support insoles. However after my recent injury where I essentially fractured my heel spur right at the base and am facing (have faced) a long recovery time, this has gotten me to question a few things.

    1. Are heel spurs preventable at all? Would some level of arch support or more cushioned shoe prevent heel spurs?

    2. From what I’ve read heel spurs result in years and years of microfractures at the insertion point of your plantar fasciaa to your calcaneous (heel bone) from the constant pulling (flexing) of your arch from running. These microfractures heal and fracture, heal and fracture and overtime this insertion point elongates forming a spur. Would an arch support reduce this deforming process?

    If heal spurs are the limiting factor in being able to run a long time, a lot of mileage, years etc… then perhaps totally minimal isn’t the way to go for high mileage runners.

    While I generally agree with you and most of the minimalist movement with respect to every day runners and hobbyists; I’m just not sure anymore if this is the best approach for higher mileage, ultra distance runners.

    I wish I’d had an x-ray of my foot before I started running w/o any support compared to now to see if my heel spur developed more after I made the transition. I’m suspecting it didn’t; just the price I pay for running for 20 years… No regrets.