Does barefoot running cause calf pain?

Does barefoot running cause calf pain?Thanks to Frédérik Sisa, for asking me to answer a few questions about barefoot running on his site, The Front Page Online.

I want to highlight a point that I make in the interview, because I think it’s under-appreciated and under-discussed in the barefoot community.

For example:

If you haven’t been barefoot in a while – especially if you want to explore barefoot running – you probably are not used to using your muscles in the way that barefooting will demand.

Sometimes this means that the transition to barefoot may  require strengthening. More often it means simply paying attention to your body, finding the comfortable way to move that doesn’t require extra effort (that is, I would focus on moving with less effort before trying to get stronger).

The key point I want to emphasize is use less effort.

Most people think that calf or Achilles pain is simply part of the transition process from running in shoes to running barefoot, that the cause is previous underuse, and that the solution is to get stronger.

I disagree.

More often than not, calf or Achilles pain is from using those muscles/tendons more than necessary, not that they’ve been weakened by wearing shoes for some amount of time.

If, when you land, you reach out with your foot (overstriding), you use your calf and Achilles to decelerate. Sure, getting freakishly strong may make that easier to do, but the correct solution is to “stop putting on the brakes” when you land by stopping your overstriding and, instead, placing your foot more “underneath your body.”

Similarly, if you remove your foot from the ground by pushing off with your toes, you’re essentially doing bodyweight calf raises every time you take a stride… and even a short run would be more than your body can handle. Again, the solution isn’t to hit the weight room and improve your calf raise strength. It’s to LIFT your foot off the ground (instead of pushing) by flexing at the hip. If you imagine what happens if a bee would sting your foot… you wouldn’t try to push away from the ground, you would reflexively (faster and easier) pull your foot from the ground with a hip flex.

In order to use less effort, you’ll probably have to start with less running. That’s fine. By the time you figure out how to make things easier, you probably will have gained any extra strength that you may need, if any.

Remember my barefoot running mantra: “How can I make this lighter, easier, and MORE FUN?”

  • László Huszár

    Thank you! I allways try to run smoother, lighter, using the less power. But i am a trail runner, and it is not as easy. Yes, leaning forward, and using gravity also works in uphills, even the stepest ones, but there are also used the lower leg muscles much more than running on flat. Some advice?

    • It’s really the same advice: see how much you can relax… use your WHOLE leg (including your knees and hips), not just your ankles/calves.

      That said, climbing hills is definitely more about strength than running on a flat… in fact, I call our sprinting hill workouts “Poor Man’s Gym Runs”. 😉

  • Cossack-HD

    Pfffft, I can run 2 miles in my vibrams without my heels touching the ground even once, it’s something like a mix of plantigrade and digitigrade movement styles, knees always slightly bent and even toes are utilized to push my legs forward at the end of each step. Can’t say it didn’t require a lot of hard training, I could barely walk down the stairs the next day after each run, but it was worth it. My cardio usually limits me more than muscle strength when taking long strides and running faster, but it took half a year to get proficient in barefoot running..

    It’s good to know that there is more efficient adaptation method though, but I’m afraid, it’s too late reading this. Still, I’ll try to make a good use of this info. Thank you!