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It hurts when I run

This past week on The Injury Corner — a Facebook group I created to offer guidance and support for people dealing with chronic pain and injury — there was a great discussion with some helpful nuggets I wanted to share.

We talked about whether barefoot running can help heal low back pain and instability to the sacroiliac (SI) joint, and the difficulty of being told the activity you love may be hurting you.

I find these two subjects to be especially valuable and important both professionally and personally. As a movement specialist, I see many people struggling with the issues of pain while performing the activities they’re passionate about. As an active former athlete, I’ve struggled with the exact same issues myself.

anatomy pics of pelvis and sacroiliac joint. It hurts when I run.
It hurts when I run. Does barefoot running help heal low back pain and potential instability to the sacroiliac (SI) joint?

I have lived a barefoot/minimalist lifestyle for over five years. However, I have been unable to run consistently for the past three. I have gait dysfunction connected to 5 knee surgeries, and a long list of other injuries associated with sports, stubbornness, and my reckless youth. The gait dysfunction shows in my body’s ability to absorb the impact energy of footfall as it transfers up the kinetic chain through my ankles, knees, hips, spine, and shoulders.

leaf springs of a large truck. It hurts when I runSpring mechanism of the arch of the foot. It hurts when I run

Some quick anatomical mechanics: As you can see in the pictures above, the arches of the foot create a spring leaf suspension system similar to that of a truck. This system absorbs the energy of each step, distributes this energy equally throughout your fascial system, and re-releases the energy through the propulsion phase of your gait.

With this dysfunction in my suspension system, the arch is unable to act like a nice shock absorbing spring, and my foot lands stiff and solid. Instead of spreading the energy load throughout my fascia, the impact goes directly into the harder tissues of bone and joint structures, which don’t have the ability to absorb impact as well.

Based on my personal and professional experience, both as a barefoot runner and through helping other runners transition into a barefoot lifestyle, I don’t believe that barefoot running will help heal your SI joint. If anything, there is a really good chance that in the short term it will make things worse. SI joint instability is a mechanical-structural issue, which means the relationship between how you move (mechanical) and how your structure is able to mobilize and stabilize through movement (structural) isn’t functioning in its most efficient state. The problem has little to nothing to do with what is on your feet, whether you are running barefoot or shod. It is a problem with the mechanical-structural relationship of your running gait.

It is not an issue of whether you should run barefoot or shod, but rather should you be running at all? In my professional opinion, you should not.

Now I want to take a moment after that last statement. If you’re a runner currently running through pain, did being told you should not be running kick up an emotional response? Tune in; do you feel anger, fear, judgement, dread? If you feel any kind of emotional process, please take a deep breath and let that move through you before continuing on.

Being told a certain movement isn’t best for your body is a hard pill to swallow.
Believe me, I know how hard a pill it is to swallow. Over the past three years, I’ve repeatedly attempted to get back into running. Each time, three or four weeks in I would get painful calf spasms and I’d be out for weeks again. It has taken me years to change my mindset around exercise. I had to let go of the ego drive to do what I wanted to do (run), and instead focus on the quality movements that my body needs and desires to allow it to heal.

The path to quality, pain-free movement begins by changing your mindset around your fitness, health, exercise, nutrition, and so much more. It begins with a simple understanding:

If I am in pain, then the way I have been moving is hurting me. If I want to feel better, I must change the way that I move. To do this, I must change.

Change is a scary thing. It is a hard pill to swallow indeed. It often brings with it some big fat emotional processes such as noted above. However, If you find the deep desire to change, you have made the first step toward fundamentally changing your life.

With a desire for change, the next step is to begin checking in with your body and asking yourself some important questions about exercise and movement. When you hear yourself saying “It hurts when I run!” Here are a few questions you can ask:

Is this movement safe?
Is this movement healthy?
What is my motivation to continue to perform a movement that hurts me?
What can I let go of from my old paradigm of movement?
What movement is safe, healthy, and loving to my body?

These are questions that must be asked every day and for each exercise based movement you feel a desire to engage in, whether it is yoga, running, resistance training, swimming, cycling, etc. One day a movement may be healthy for your body, and the next day it may be unsafe or unwise to do. Even exercises which you would consider “gentle” can be too much, and yes, this can change from day to day. By getting in the habit of asking these questions each day you will learn how your body communicates with you through pain, and you will develop a new relationship and understanding with your body. This is a beautiful thing that will then shift to other areas of your life.

Pain-free running and beyond
I hope to be able run regularly again. But only when running is a healthy movement choice supported by my body. Only then will I even consider the question of whether to go barefoot or shod. To help me achieve this long-term goal to run again, I am receiving regular assessment and treatment from one of the top movement specialists around.

As long as you are saying “It hurts when I run”, running is not a healthy movement choice. At least not until the inefficiency of movement in your running gait has been fully assessed and corrected. To do this I highly recommend finding a highly skilled movement professional who specializes in gait assessment. This would not be a shoe salesperson!

If you need help finding a movement professional in your area, please let me know. I will do my best to connect you to the best health care team available. If you are in Austin, Texas, contact The Art of Fitness for walking and running gait assessment so we can get you running pain free again.

Do you have a frustrating or inspiring injury related question or story? Please share in the comments below.

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