Calves were the first body part to yell loudly. It happened at the end of a good 3 mile run, and I decided to turn on the jets for the last 300 yards. I stepped off a curb and it felt like knife was thrown into the belly of the soleus. Thus began a series of calf injuries that prevented me from running with any consistency for months.
Each series of injuries led me to try different attempts at recovery. I tried Chinese Salves (QiVantage products which gave me a nasty rash and smelled like Indian food), calf stretches, The Stick, walking barefoot on gravel (?!), Advil, cross training on the stationary bike, Chiropractic and Acupuncture. While none of these impeded recovery, I doubt any had substantially added to recovery either. By happenstance I had a long weekend of outdoor yardwork and spent the whole time in a classic work boot with a heel (think Timberline). I noticed that most of the calf pain had gone away, and reasoned that it was the conventional shoe combined with non-repetitious activity that allowed my calf to return to the operating range it had grown comfortable with for 40 years. That allowed it to relax and get flushed and nourished by blood flow from the constant movement. Getting my mind off of recovery by doing something else helped a lot too.
I have since tried this a few more times with similar success, and recommended it to others with reasonable success as well. I now prefer a conventional Merrell hiking shoe with a padded heel and conventional lift. (For you barefoot purists out there, this is therapeutic use – VFFs for hiking is the only way to fly.)
Deep stretching a severely injured calf muscle doesn’t work, so don’t bother. It will aggravate it and impede recovery. Instead, try to keep everything above the knee free and loose. I spend a lot of time doing hip stretches, glute stretches, hamstring stretches and keeping the IT band loose. When doing hamstring stretches you have to do it with a slightly bent knee to keep the calf from getting stretched in the process. Many calf and foot discomforts seem related to muscle and tendon issues further up the leg for some reason.
Top of Foot Pain (Metatarsal Pain)
It’s not uncommon to hear of Top of Foot Pain (TOFP) from VFF wearers. I had mild bouts of it when I first started wearing them, but nothing serious until I pulled a 12 miler. I swear I had a stress fracture, the pain was unbelievable. I limped on both feet for a week. This pretty much suspended my VFF running attempts until after my scheduled fall marathon event. Even with a minimal shoe, I still get TOFP flare-ups, mostly in the metatarsals.
The Podiatrist I saw for TOFP (who is also a Sports Injury Therapist) was incapable of making a recommendation short of an orthotic. I didn’t want to go that route, so I worked with my Chiropractor who is also a physiologist of a sort. He noticed that at the points of pain between my metatarsals there was a grainy, almost ball-like spot that he reasoned were adhesions that had to be broken up. By taking his knuckle and massaging it for 3-5 minutes (the pain of this is unbelievable – you cannot do it yourself) the adhesions would begin to break down, pain subside and thus allow the recovery process to start.
At night I would grab some massage oil and first work down between the metatarsals, from the cuboid to the great toe, massaging between the bones, and focusing on those grainy areas. Then I would grab both sides of the foot just behind the balls of the foot and rock the muscle/tissue areas between the metatarsals. I start with the great toe metatarsal while holding the other 4, I rock the foot length-wise. Then holding the great toe and the index toe in one hand and the other 3 metatarsals in the other hand, I would rock again. I would continue down until I’m holding just the 5th metatarsal in one hand while rocking the rest with my other hand. This is good therapy in general for a runner. In total I spend about 5 minutes per foot each night.
I still have metatarsal pain, but it doesn’t impede me from running in Nike Free Run+’s. It’s the shoes with a solid sole that aggravate it, whether running shoe or street shoe. The Nike Free’s have a segmented sole that give flexibility in all the places needed so there’s minimal stress on the metatarsals. The VFFs seem to aggravate it for some reason (Bikilas or Treks), but barefoot does not.
Adapting to minimal shoes or VFF’s can be challenging for some, and I’m sure a person’s age and the style of shoe worn for most of their life has a lot to do with the transition success/failure rate. For the most part I run in Nike Free Run+ shoes (for now) which some would scoff at as not a true minimalist shoe. However, it’s keeping me running which for now is what I need.
My sights are set on going naked foot after my fall marathon – I enjoy the VFF feeling but still struggle with TOFP they bring. Stay tuned.