Thursday, March 29, 2012

COMMENTARY>>Risk management and barefoot running

By Col. Steven Weld
314th Maintenance Group commander

I have run for much of my military career, considering it the most efficient way to meet physical fitness standards. Although I generally liked running, I was never very serious about it and often did it half-heartedly because of the many injuries I associated with running. Ankle and knee pain, tendonitis, shin splints, pulled muscles – I had experienced all of them at various times, and more as I grew older. Each injury either slowed me down or took me off the road for days or weeks. I occasionally considered working towards a marathon or other long distance run, but frequent and seemingly unavoidable injuries convinced me that such a thing would never be possible. About one year ago, I radically changed the way I run, and I have been convinced otherwise.

Several years ago, I heard about a trend of running barefoot or in minimalist footwear, and was intrigued by the assertion that these runners were experiencing “…a substantially lower prevalence of acute injuries of the ankle and chronic injuries of the lower leg.” Some studies noted improvements in “proprioceptive abilities” (that is, the body’s sense of the relative position of adjoining parts and effort being used for movement) leading to reduced injuries through an improved biomechanical running form. Barefoot running is a tremendously controversial topic among runners, with individuals on both sides of the issues often providing more noise than fact. After researching the issue, I reconsidered how I was managing my fitness injury risks, and decided to join the radical side of the revolution by running in “toe shoes.”

The results over the next several months astonished me. While I experienced some of the challenges reported by others transitioning to minimalist shoes, such as sore calves, the nagging pains I had in my ankles and knees virtually disappeared. As I lengthened the distance I ran each week, I continued seeing progress with significantly reduced joint pain, and realized that a marathon was within reach. After a particularly enjoyable 12 mile run one Saturday morning last autumn, I decided to register for the Little Rock Marathon.

Here are some of the lessons about managing risk that I learned, or which were reinforced to me, while I experienced my running revolution.

Prevention is good medicine. Severalmonths of training with virtually pain-free ankles and knees convinced me that many of my previous injuries were not inherent to the activity of running. While I had developed some limited skills through the years in effectively treating my various injuries, I much prefer having no injuries to treat. Furthermore, by preventing or reducing the immediate injury to a joint, I could prevent collateral injuries from ‘favoring’ that joint, as well as avoid a re-injury that came from trying to return to running before I had healed properly.

Good risk mitigation should reduce risk without introducing unacceptable or unmanaged risk. One of the criticisms opponents of barefoot running offer is a high incident rate of injuries among new adherents. While my toe shoes provided more physical protection than being barefoot when I started my new regimen, the soles of my feet were tender, my calves were very sore, and a slightly different set of muscles complained. As I adapted, I accepted and worked through the soreness and dull pains from training, exertion, and aging, while identifying and addressing the root causes of sharp pains that indicated damage and overtraining.

The risks managed by “conventional wisdom” may not be the risks you need to manage now. Sometimes the risk you face is different from the risk others face, and requires different analysis or deserves different controls. I have read about and experimented with a variety of techniques, many claiming to have “the answer” for all running problems while focusing on some particular set of issues. Many helped me think through how I could run smarter and safer, but I still have to know my personal hazards, recognize whether a technique can help manage those risks, and determine how compatible that technique is with the rest of my form, my goals, and my current training.

Successful management of one set of risks does not mitigate or eliminate all risks. The Little Rock Marathon happened at the beginning of this month, but I did not run it. In my enthusiasm to train for the marathon, I failed to respect my limits. All the benefits of running barefoot could not protect me when I violated a basic principle of training by adding too many training miles too quickly, and the resulting case of “runner’s knee” forced me to stand down.

I do not advocate that everyone should run barefoot or buy toe shoes, and would actually discourage many from doing so. The greatest value I have gained from my barefoot running odyssey is a reset of my thinking on fitness and managing risk, and I am back on track for preparing for a marathon.

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