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How to start running barefoot

Over the past half year I've been running barefoot, or with very limited cushioning footwear (no sneakers). It has been quite a trip -- a wonderful, magical, eye opening trip. This journey has prompted my desire to record a set of steps that I believe others can follow to reproduce my early success.

How to get started

I'd suggest proceeding through the following steps, being sure not to move onto the next one until you're sure of yourself. Running barefoot is nothing like running with sneakers for the majority of us. There is no opportunity for heel striking, there is no tolerance for faults, your body must adapt. The good news is that your body evolved exactly for this purpose!

  1. Start walking around the house barefoot. Walk around your home, your apartment, your yard -- wherever your normal travels find you. Remember what it's like to feel the ground beneath you. There are an incredible number of nerves in your feet that are neglected when covered.
  2. Begin walking outside, as far as you can handle, without getting blisters. For most folks this will be as little as a quarter mile, or as much as a full mile. You will feel the plantar skin gradually become thicker as it adapts to the stresses of being barefoot. Perform these walks for at least 3-4 weeks on any surface you can tolerate. The more variety, the better off you are.
  3. Time to run! Begin running in small amount, being certain you're not going so far as to get blisters. For most folks this will be the same as your initial walking, anywhere from .25 miles to a full mile. Be sure to listen to your body and shut the running down before you feel overwhelmed. At this point your calves, feet, and ankles should strengthen and they may tighten up quickly (especially your calves) if you overdo it. Make sure you run easy -- easier than you think you have to. Listen to your body and most of all, relax! Plan on spending at minimum 3-4 weeks just learning how to run without those pesky sneakers. If you're already putting in a set number of miles per week in sneakers, this stage can get particularly difficult. I suggest completely dropping your weekly mileage back to the 0 mark and base building from there. For many of you this will seem ludicrous. Run barefoot for a few days and see if it's so silly then. You're learning to run all over again -- although there have been people who have reported success with gradually splitting miles between shoes and barefooting; I am not one of them. Making the switch all at once will help keep your focused on your new and improved stride. Besides, running is for life, remember?
  4. Mix it up. As you get stronger you can begin to add tempo runs, fartleks, and some track workouts. The only thing that I would save until last are interval workouts on the pavement. This seems to be the most abusive and hard to control style of barefoot running. Not until you have a solid and springy form can you perform them.

Alternative Footwear Options

There are a number of options available for supplementing barefooting. As you progress into running, I've found that I enjoy doing a partial barefoot run, coupled with a lightweight "shoe".

I use "shoe" very loosely in that it only need be a sole. Vibram Five Fingers have been my barefooting shoe of choice. They are light-weight, very versatile (you can wear them just about anywhere, and I do), and most of all, they protect the sole of your foot. You can easily get a thousand miles out of these, making them economical as well.

There are some things (broken glass, crushed gravel, etc) that just aren't worth running over. And there are times when I do not feel like running barefoot as I find it a bit more abusive on my soles, especially the concrete.

Other people have reported success with something as simple as aqua socks. There are a lot of choices out there and there are no wrong answers, so long as the enclosure around your foot is thin and not encumbering.

Finally, don't buy the Nike Free. Nike claims it mimics the sensation of running barefoot. How about just doing the real thing and not giving money to the company that started this whole mess to begin with?

Running Form

Describing the best form for barefoot running is difficult since everyone is built differently.

The general idea is the run with short, quick, and light strides. Your stride rate should remain at 180 steps per minute regardless of your pace.

Allow your feet to land directly under your center of gravity, beneath your hips. The front part of your foot should hit the ground first (good luck landing on your heel). Your overall posture should contain a slight forward learn. At no point should you feel like you're slapping the ground with your feet and there should be no shock reverberating in your bones.

Parting Thoughts

There's no scientific data that running shoes reduce injury. In fact, a case can be made that they actually increase injury rates. Don't let anyone tell you differently, regardless of their background. If someone insists you're wrong, you need arch support, you need orthopedics, you need an enema -- make them prove it. Just because something is common practice doesn't make it right.

Barefoot running isn't going to make you immune it injury. Many people overdo it right off the bat and get injured, thinking that just because they are running barefoot they are invincible. Be smart about it and you will be rewarded accordingly.

Resources for learning more

This has been only the briefest of introductions. If you're interested in learning more, I recommend the following websites & books.

On the web:

  • Running Barefoot - The original resource for barefoot runners. This covers just about every aspect you could be interested in.
  • Barefoot Ted - Fascinating blog of a barefooter who has been all over the world.
  • Barefoot Running Community on RunningAhead - Forum for learning about barefooting. Ask questions from experts to noobs.
  • Sports Science - Summary: Running barefoot is associated with a substantially lower prevalence of acute injuries of the ankle and chronic injuries of the lower leg in developing countries, but well-designed studies of the effects of barefoot and shod running on injury are lacking. Laboratory studies show that the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4% when the feet are not shod. In spite of these apparent benefits, barefoot running is rare in competition, and there are no published controlled trials of the effects of running barefoot on simulated or real competitive performance.

Books: