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Friday, August 21, 2009

How to Run Barefoot: A guide to losing the shoes

The contributors to the Runner's World Barefoot Forum had a lengthy discussion about a guide to barefoot running designed for the new barefoot runner. Yesterday, while sitting in the doctor's office waiting room, I wrote a guide. It is posted on my website here. I am in the process of refining it based on input from my friends at Runner's World. Here is what amounts to the second draft:

How Do I Start Barefoot Running?

This guide will help you transition to barefoot running. This plan is universal; it is designed to be used by either novice runners or runners with years of experience. If you are a novice runner, simply begin the program as written. If you are currently training, you may continue your current mileage. Simply add the workouts in this program to your current running schedule. The idea is to replace some of your "shod' mileage with the barefoot mileage. Some people have done this by simply adding the barefoot mileage at the beginning or end of their already-scheduled runs. I would recommend doing this at the beginning of a run so you will not be as fatigued. Once you reach Stage 5, you may decide to continue replacing barefoot mileage with your shod mileage until your running is completely barefoot, or you may decide to continue both shod and barefoot running. Both options should help reduce injuries.


Form may vary greatly. There is no one "right" method. However, there are some general guidelines that seem to be fairly universal among barefoot runners. The most important is the way the foot impacts the ground. When wearing modern running shoes, most runners use a heel strike. The heel of their foot is the first thing that strikes the ground, and they continue to roll their feet forward and inward. With barefoot running, the ideal is to use a midfoot strike by softly landing on the outside half of the foot and rolling inward. The rest of your foot will then gently touch the ground (see video). This foot-ground contact should occur directly under your body, not in front as many heel strikers are prone to doing. After your foot touches the ground, you will lift it straight up primarily using your quads. It is analogous to riding a bike with your feet clipped to the pedal and using your leg muscles to pull up on the pedal. Sometimes it is beneficial to imagine lifting your knees or hamstrings instead of your feet. If done properly, there should be no pushing off, thus no friction. This relaxed, loose lifting motion tends to force the development of the other elements of good form.

Some other points- your knees should be slightly bent throughout your stride. You should have a very slight forward lean that originates from the ankles. Do not lean forward at the waist. Your posture should be upright without a forward hunch. You do not want to lean forward from the waist. Your head should be up with your eyes focused on the running surface in front of you. Your entire body should be very relaxed. The following is an excellent description of proper posture from PeaceKaren, a contributor to the Runner's World Barefoot Forum:

"What works for me is to not think about leaning at all. I either think about pushing myself forward from the hips using my gluteus muscles (like my hips are in a race with my feet and I want my hips to win) or imagine being pulled forward from the hips. I sometimes visualize a cord running parallel to the ground, attached at the center of my hips (just below the belly button) and at the other end connected to a winch on a tree or telephone pole or some object directly in front of me. Then I imagine that winch winding in the cord pulling me forward from that center hip position. This automatically pulls my hips under me, improving my posture and causing the lean to happen naturally."

The cadence (how many times your foot touches the ground) should be around 180-200 per minute. To achieve this, shorter strides are required. The strides will typically be shorter than the strides of a shod runner as you are not extending your stride ahead of your body. Some people have found an MP3 player with a metronome track to be especially helpful in learning good cadence. Download one here.

Video of Barefoot Running

Pain and Injury

One of the dangers of beginning barefoot running is doing too much too soon. Your feet have likely spent most of their active life confined in shoes. Shoes weaken the bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons of your feet. The skin on the soles of your feet will not be used to the sensory input of the ground. In order to prevent injuries, it is important to begin barefoot running cautiously. Barefoot running feels wonderful! The urge to do too much before your feet are ready is very powerful. As such, it is important to follow a conservative plan even if you feel great in the beginning. Going too fast may result in a myriad of injuries, including tendon and ligament damage, excessive blisters, stress fractures, and other over-use type injuries. If at any time you experience pain, STOP! Add a second day of rest, then try again. Continue until you are pain-free. Do not give in to the temptation to "run through the pain". The soft-tissue injuries that can occur during the foot-strengthening process can set your progress back by weeks or even months. Give this process time and the rewards will be great!

Barefoot or Minimalist Shoes?

"Should I begin transitioning to barefoot running by wearing a minimalist shoe (Vibram Fivefingers KSOs, Feelmax shoes, cross country racing flats, huararche sandals, etc.)? Many people will ask this seemingly logical question. It is my belief that it is better to learn the proper form of barefoot running first, then use minimalist shoes as needed. If you begin by wearing minimalist shoes, you may be insulating your best form of feedback- the soles of your feet.

The Plan

Stage 1 (2 weeks)

Walk around barefoot as many places as possible. Do not start running yet. This will begin to condition your feet and soles for more active barefoot running. This stage could also include barefoot activities such as hiking.

Stage 2 (2 weeks)

Begin running in place barefoot. The idea is to learn how it feels to lightly touch the ground and pull your feet straight up without pushing off. This will also begin the process of preparing the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments of your feet to barefoot running.

Stage 3 (4 weeks)

Find hard, smooth surface without debris. Examples include new asphalt, smooth sidewalks, or running tracks. Begin running 3 times per week with at least one rest day after each barefoot run. Limit distance to 1/8 to 1/4 mile depending on running experience. Increase distance by 1/8th mile each day. Pace should be VERY slow, the focus is on finding a form that works well for you. If you experience pain, take an extra day off. If you develop blisters, slow down or reevaluate form.

Stage 4 (4 weeks)

Begin adding different terrain, including softer surfaces and hills. This can include grass, dirt trail, sand, etc. A good strategy is to run a hard surface one day, then a soft surface the next. At this stage, you should be running approximately 1.5 miles barefoot. During this stage, continue adding 1/8th mile per run. Continue going slow, your focus is going to be perfecting your form. Again, if you experience blisters, slow down. If you feel pain, take a day off.

Stage 5 (No specific time frame)

By this point, you should be running about 3 miles per run. You may begin experimenting with slowly increasing your pace, increasing your distance, or adding technical trails or hills to your routine. Only add one element at a time. Do not increase distance by more than 10% per week or speed by more than 15 seconds per mile.

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing blog, Jason!

    I would suggest that strength training is another critical aspect to preparing your body for the demands of barefoot running. If the tissues do not have sufficient load-bearing capacity, then gradually "building your run training" won't ensure success.

    I've written a book entitled "RunSmart: A Comprehensive Approach To Injury-Free Running" that you may find interesting.

    All the best,

    Allan Besselink, PT, Dip.MDT