Beginner’s Guide to Barefoot Running

by Danielle on April 25, 2010

When you were a kid, running barefoot came naturally, and it probably would never have occurred to you to follow a training program to become a proficient barefoot runner. The problem is that after years or even decades of wearing running shoes, you and your body have forgotten everything that kids instinctively know about running.

If you watch kids running barefoot, you will notice a few things: They use the front and middle portion of their feet much more than the balls of their feet. They take short, quick steps that are best defined as “springy.” And they have a lot of fun. While your first couple of outings sans shoes will most likely be less natural and require more effort and deliberation than when you were a kid, it won’t be long before you develop the natural running gait and rhythm that running barefoot promotes.

This program will help take you from running shod to running shoeless (or with minimalist shoes) with minimal interruptions to your regular running schedule.

Before getting started on a barefoot running program, there are some common sense things to keep in mind:

Start with healthy feet.

Obviously, any foot wounds or injuries that would prevent you from running with shoes should be healed before running barefoot, but you should also consider letting blisters and open wounds heal before starting a new program. Small superficial cuts and scrapes that can be covered with a bandage shouldn’t necessarily stop you from shedding shoes and socks. Once you have gotten your feet used to no shoes, you can consider looking into minimalist shoes, such as the Vibram Five Fingers, which provide some protection while still promoting a natural running gait. The KSO (Keep Stuff Out) model is great on trails, for example, especially those in which you encounter thorns, sticks, or even rocky terrain.

Choose an appropriate terrain.

While you can run barefoot just about anywhere you can run with shoes, initially you should select a terrain that allows you to focus on your form, such as a sidewalk or hard-packed running path that is kept clean of free of debris. Save running on grass or sand for those runs where you alternative terrains later in your transitional period. While those surfaces feel superb, save them for when you have become a little more accustomed to running barefoot. For more information about terrains suitable for barefoot running, take a gander at our article about barefoot running surfaces.

Wait until you can devote at least one month to barefoot running.

If you are midway into training for a race, you can probably slip in some barefoot running here and there, but don’t overdo it. You will want to start a barefoot running transitional program as a separate entity than your regular training plan, although the two can be merged once you have gotten more used to doing barefoot activities.

Five Step Training Plan

Lose the shoes!

For the following plan, take your time. No one plan can fit everyone’s running needs. However, be conservative. Write down your goals. Give yourself at least two to three months (or more) to become a proficient barefoot runner. Start slowly and allow one week to build upon the next. Illustrated here is how a transitional stage might work for you. For more information about designing your own plan, be sure to get a hold of a copy of the barefoot running book at your local store or at Amazon.com.

1.   Spend one or more weeks around your home—both inside and outside—walking barefoot. As much as possible, avoid wearing shoes and pay close attention to your feet. While you won’t toughen the soles of your feet much during this time, you will become more aware of how your feet move when freed from shoes. Begin walking around more without shoes, such as for five- or ten-minute increments as you walk the dog, for example.

2.  For your first weeks of barefoot running, the focus will be on getting your body accustomed to a new running stride and gait. Nurture your feet through the transition and always have one rest day between each barefoot session. Stretch the feet often, baby them by soaking them, and massageas often as needed. Plan to run about ¼ (or less) of your typical, daily running distance without shoes, preferably at the beginning of each run.

Stash your running shoes and socks at the starting point of your run (or carry them along with you in an ultralight backpack), then run barefoot at a pace that is much slower than your regular shod runs. You might find speeding up difficult; your feet will tell you a lot. Listen to what your feet are saying-they provide constant feedback to the rest of your body. A good rule to follow: Go as slow as needed. Then, go slower.

One of the things that happens when you take off your shoes is that your stride becomes naturally more efficient, which will possibly translate into faster runs later. Smaller and more frequent steps are good signs of natural running form. To keep from increasing your pace, think in terms of lowering the intensity or energy spent, not just speed. Focus on landing lightly on the balls and middle of your feet (forefoot and mid-foot landing, respectively). Avoid landing on the heels (heel striking). Keep your feet landing beneath your center of gravity, below the hips. Refrain from pushing off the ground with each step, rather, allow the feet to simply land and continue. Stay relaxed. Relaxation is the key.

After you have run your planned distance in bare feet, put on your socks and shoes. Then, continue running the remainder of your regular distance. Repeat two (and eventually) three times over the course of a week and begin increasing distance slowly. The barefoot running book, due out in early 2011 will provide a periodization plan to help you transition carefully, proficiently, all while helping you to reach your regular running goals.

You will probably notice that your feet, calves, and lower back are more sore than usual: This is normal and is due to the change in your running gait that will naturally occur when you run barefoot. The energy that your heels absorb when you run wearing shoes is now being distributed across the entire foot, and your body is responding by using different muscles while you run, as well as using muscles differently than when you run wearing shoes.

Be sure to note the difference between soreness and injury or real pain—mild to moderate soreness in unfamiliar places should not stop you from running; injuries and intense pain are another story. Taking a day off between runs will not only allow your body to heel itself, but will also give you time to self-assess whether you might need extra time off. Especially in the initial stages, time off between barefoot sessions is as important a step as any.

3.  For the next few weeks, focus on maintaining form while increasing the distance, but not the speed, that you run barefoot. Depending on your normal daily distance, you can increase your barefoot running segments accordingly. Limit yourself to two to three runs per week or half of your regular running days.

4.  After this aforementioned period, you can start to increase your cadence, allow gravity to do its part, and speed up your runs. You will continue to limit your barefoot miles, but do so at your regular intensity and effort, while maintaining your form. What you might notice is a slight increase in your pace over your former “shod” pace.

5. From here on out, slowly increase the number of miles you run barefoot until you reach your desired monthly volume. Each week, increase your barefoot runs by no more than 15%. Increase your distance in planned segments and eventually you will be devoting entire runs to those of the barefoot sort!

This plan is just a suggestion, as always, feel free to tweak or modify to meet your specific needs.

What were your experiences as a barefoot runner? You might have some helpful tidbits for our readers!

Photo Credit: Super Fantastic on Flickr

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Frank September 28, 2013 at 4:52 am

For me as an older non-runner, it took months of just barefoot walking. Then adding small segments of “very slow” barefoot running with super short strides before I could start actually running barefoot. Even with this slow method, I experienced sore calves and blisters on feet and had to lay off completely for weeks before trying again. There is too much information out there about how to transition in a matter of weeks when in reality, it is really months! Good luck and don’t give up!

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