Barefoot runners are repeatedly told to avoid pain at all costs. PAIN IS BAD! It’s a signal we’re doing something wrong or we’re doing too much too soon.
Ultrarunners live with pain. Any seriously long run hurts. If we’re going really fast, really long, or traversing really gnarly terrain, it hurts even more. [Edit- Rob Youngren commented below and suggested this is more like "discomfort" than "pain." I like this distinction,]
What happens when these worlds collide?
This topic has always fascinated me, especially since quite a few barefoot runners strive to run ultras… or quite a few ultrarunners take up occasional barefoot running. The fundamental was each camp handles the ‘pain” issue leads to a lot of confusion and possible injuries.
First, let’s talk about the apparent facts. If you’re new to barefoot or minimalist shoe running, you have to go through a transition period to allow your body to adapt to the rigors your body is experiencing. During this phase, pain is almost always a bad sign and should be interpreted accordingly. Run through the pain in this phase and injuries are bound to happen.
Once your body adequately adapts, this pain will diminish and ultimately disappear (unless you dramatically increase speed or distance in a short time). The transition period has a finite length.
When running ultras, you will experience a variety of pains. At some point, pretty much everything will hurt. It’s a function of the stress being placed on your body. Most of the pains are temporary and fade shortly after the race.
When barefoot runners make the jump to ultra distances, we tend to freak out about the pain. After all, we have been taught to avoid pain like the plague. We have a difficult time increasing training volume because we’re taught that it shouldn’t hurt.
When ultrarunners start barefoot running we have the exact opposite problem. We become so adept at managing pain, we run through the “warning pains” that signal we’re doing too much too soon. We have a difficult time using pain as an injury signal unless it is extreme. Unfortunately, almost all of the “transition” injuries new barefoot and minimalist shoe runners experience don’t start with extreme pain.
Yup. That’s it. Awareness.
For the ultrarunner, simply knowing that new barefoot and minimalist shoe runners can injure themselves if we run through pain should be enough to take a step back and interpret pain as a warning signal.
For the new barefoot runner, simply knowing that running can and will hurt if you run long enough can help learn that discrimination process. The transition period doesn’t last forever. If we push our boundaries, we’re going to experience pain. Being able to accurately judge “injury pain” from “long run pain” is a critical skill we must develop.
I know quite a few of my barefoot friends have made the jump to ultras, and many of my ultra friends have experimented with barefoot and minimalist shoes. What are your experiences?
For those that are newer to ultras and are looking for a way to manage the discomfort, give this a try: http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2011/06/05/just-say-no-to-ibuprofen-and-some-pain-management-alternatives-including-an-adult-solution/