The Complete Beginner's Guide to Barefoot Running
Bare your feet, feel light & free.
‘And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.' ~Kahlil Gibran
When I first heard about barefoot running, several years ago, I was skeptical — don't we need cushion to protect us from injuries, and why would I want to run barefoot, anyway?
But several months ago, I read a few influential articles (stemming from the popularity of Christopher McDougall's book, Born to Run) and decided to give barefoot running a try. Why not?
Today, I'm happy to say I'm a barefoot runner, and I love it.
I've given away my Asics, and now I run exclusively with my Vibram Fivefinger KSOs or completely barefoot. I'm running as fast or faster than ever, lighter than ever, injury-free, and I feel connected to the ground I run on. My feet have become stronger, and I feel better. Running was always fun, but now it feels like play!
The Whys of Barefoot Running
For decades now, runners (including me) have been sold on the need for good running shoes — if you want to prevent injuries, invest in good shoes. Proper cushioning, and sometimes rigid motion control or stability features, were needed, and if you had injuries, you probably had the wrong shoes.
But recent studies have proven what traditional peoples have known all along — that running barefoot strengthens your feet and is a more natural way to run. Running in cushioned, motion-controlled shoes is like having your neck in a cast for a month — when you take the cast off, your neck muscles will be weak. You also pound your feet much harder with running shoes, causing problems not only with feet but knees and other joints. We're making our feet weak, and pounding them hard — it's no wonder we have all kinds of injuries.
When you first start running barefoot, your feet will be weak, so take it very slowly at first. It takes weeks and months to build up the strength necessary for faster or longer running, but after awhile, your feet get stronger than ever before.
There are numerous studies still being done on this, so don't draw any long-term conclusions yet. My thinking is to give it a try, and see how it works.
Even more important that the strength of your feet is your connection to the earth. Simply put, shoes shelter us from the surfaces we run on, but that's not always a good thing. Read The Barefoot Philosophy for more.
However, a big caveat: if you think barefoot running will make you faster, you're probably going to be disappointed. It's not about running faster — although it is possible. From what I can tell, I'm running faster than ever, though I'm also lighter than I've been since I was around 18 or 19. Running barefoot is about connecting with the ground, about feeling, about freedom and lightness, about fun. It's not about speed.
Read Barefoot Ted on this for more — he knows way more about the topic than I do, and is an amazing resource.
It might seem weird to talk about "barefoot running equipment", but it's not a bad idea to use "barefoot shoes". A contradiction? Of course — what would life be without contradictions and ironies?
I mentioned my Vibram Fivefinger KSOs … Vibrams are the most popular of minimalist shoes that simulate barefoot running. The KSOs, from my research, are probably the best Fivefinger model for running. While they might seem a little expensive, running shoes can often cost this much, and if you shop around, you can probably find a pair for under $100.
Why use Fivefingers? They remove the cushioning and motion control of running shoes, allowing your feet to strengthen and feel the ground more, but still give your feet the protection you'll probably want as you head out on roads of asphalt and glass, and trails strewn with pebbles and roots. It's actually a good idea to start with barefoot shoes, as they make a great transition into barefoot running.
It's worth noting that many traditional societies that run without cushioned shoes (such as the native Tarahumara tribes of Mexico, featured so prominently in Born to Run) often do use some kind of sandals or other protection against getting cut on the soles of your feet.
Do you need barefoot shoes like Fivefingers? No. You can go outside right now and get started, with no shoes. It would be smart to start on surfaces you know are safe from glass, metal, and rocks, though, as you don't want your barefoot experience to be a painful one.
Fivefingers allow you to learn the mechanics and form of barefoot running, build your strength, and transition into barefoot running, without the pain.
Putting the Fivefingers on: It takes some getting used to. It's like putting on gloves — you have to put your toes in the five "fingers" of the shoes — but you don't the control over your toes that you do with your fingers. So it was difficult putting the Fivefingers on at first, but I got used to it. Now I'm pretty quick: 1) slide feet partway in, until toes start entering the Vibram "fingers"; 2) take a couple seconds to line the toes up with the proper "fingers", slotting the spaces between the fingers with the spaces between your toes; 3) pull from the heel of the shoes so that your heel slips into the shoes and the toes slide into the fingers; 4) wiggle your toes until they feel right within the fingers, and strap on the Velcro strap. That sounds complicated but really it takes less than 20 seconds per shoe.
Choosing the right model: I've only tried the KSOs, but from the research I've done it seems to be the best model for runners. The Velcro strap helps keep stuff out (KSO), so it's good for trails, running or grass or dirt, or even sand. So far, I'm very happy with the KSOs, but I can't definitively say they're the best.
Keeping them smelling decent: Many people have complained that Fivefingers can start to smell bad after a few weeks. Interestingly, my Fivefingers didn't smell at all for almost two months, so I wondered where this notion came from (and I don't have odorless feet). But then they started to smell, so I just followed the Vibram recommendation: throw them in the washer with a little laundry soap, and let them air dry (not in the dryer). Works like a charm. I do this every two weeks or so. They dry quickly.
Cost: They're usually in the $125 range, but shop around. Replacing running shoes with $125 barefoot shoes isn't the minimalist way, perhaps –that would probably be to start completely barefoot, with smooth or soft surfaces and only going a little at a time until you build up the strength and tougher soles to go longer. And that's a completely valid way to go. I started with the Vibrams because I felt a little safer transitioning from shoes to barefoot — the Vibrams give you a little protection, and it takes some getting used to when you first transition to barefoot. I recommend this method, but it's not the only way. Btw, you can probably find Fivefingers for less than $100 if you look around, and it's also worth noting that most quality running shoes are in the same price range.
Doing other workouts with them: I regularly do weight workouts and bodyweight workouts with the Fivefingers. They're great, and unlike running shoes, they don't make you lean forward when you do squats.
How to Get Started
In a word: slowly.
Many people make the mistake of doing too much, too quickly, and that's a big mistake. It can lead to pain, injury, and discouragement. Remember, your feet, ankles and calves are weak from running or walking with shoes all the time. You will find a lot of soreness if you go too far or too fast. You need to build it up slowly, gently.
Here's what I recommend:
1. Try running barefoot or with barefoot shoes on a hard surface, just for a few minutes, slowly. Maybe at the end of a regular run, if you're running regularly. If you're not a regular runner, just do a short run for a few minutes, because your body won't be used to running for any longer amount anyway. Running on a hard surface is good for your first few times, because you will naturally run with better form — with shoes, you're used to pounding on your heels and overextending your legs, but when you're barefoot, you have no cushion, and running by extending and pounding your feet on your heels is going to hurt on a hard surface. Run lightly, landing quietly and softly on your forefeet or midfeet. See more about form below.
2. Slowly lengthen the time you run barefoot (or with barefoot shoes). Just a minute or two longer, a few times a week. Go slowly — don't try to sprint or run hard. Continue to run lightly, working on not pounding. Try different surfaces — asphalt, concrete, grass, dirt. Let your body slowly adapt to this new running style, and your muscles slowly get stronger.
3. Eventually, you can do shorter runs completely with barefoot shoes. Shorter runs might mean 15-30 minutes if you're an experienced runner, or perhaps 10 minutes for a less experienced runner. For longer or harder runs, you might still wear shoes for now, because you're not ready for long or hard runs barefoot. Let this phase take several weeks.
4. Eventually you can stop using your running shoes. Especially if you have barefoot shoes and are used to running in them for longer runs. Your feet and legs should be stronger at this point. It might take a couple months to get to this point. I let my Asics sit in the closet for a month before I got rid of them.
5. Gradually try running completely barefoot, on softer or smoother surfaces. A park with a smooth concrete surface, or grass or beaches, are good places to start running without the barefoot shoes. Your soles are probably soft and sensitive if you've been using shoes most of your life, so it takes some adjustment to all of a sudden feel varied and rough surfaces under your feet. Starting out on rougher asphalt or surfaces with lots of pebbles (or worse, glass or pieces of metal) is a bad idea. I know — I tried it the first few times and it hurt! Eventually you can do short to medium runs with bare feet.
Remember, at each stage, go slowly and take your time. There's no need to rush it, and even if you're feeling ambitious or you think you're better than the rest of us, hold back. It'll make the whole experience much, much more enjoyable.
The Barefoot Running Form
Some notes on form:
- Land on your forefeet or midfeet (balls of your feet) instead of your heels. Too much on your forefeet can make your calves sore. If you feel yourself landing on your heels, shorten your stride.
- Strides should be short — don't extend your legs as far as you do with shoes. It should feel almost like you're running in place.
- Keep upright and balanced. Keep your feet under your hips and shoulders.
- Stay light. You should feel like you're light on your feet, not pounding at all. Barefoot runners tend to be a little more springy in their step.
- Run quietly. If you are making a lot of noise with your steps (as shoe-wearing runners do), you're pounding too hard. Try to run softly, quietly, like an animal.
Some Frequently Asked Questions — if you have other questions, please ask them via Twitter and I'll add answers to this section.
Q: Have you experienced any pain or injuries yet?
A: No, but keep in mind I've only done it for a few months now. The jury is still out. Sometimes I'm a little sore after a longer run, but then I realize that I was pounding too much, and the next time out I am a little more conscious of my form and everything is fine.
Q: My calves get really sore! What's up?
A: This is probably normal. You're running with a different form, and anytime you do a new physical activity you'll probably get some soreness. Just be sure to start slowly, and just do a few minutes first, and increase slowly. You'll minimize the soreness this way. I still sometimes get pretty sore after doing barefoot sprint intervals, but I'm probably pounding too fast when I sprint.
Q: Do you have problems with glass or rocks?
A: Sometimes. I tend to watch the ground a little more than I used to, which is a good thing — it forces you to be more conscious of where you're running. I try to avoid places that are too rocky, and I go around glass. I haven't had too much trouble, even when completely barefoot, but it is something to be aware of.
Q: Will this make me faster?
A: Not necessarily. I've been running faster after a few months, but I'm not sure it's the barefoot training. I haven't been any slower. But running faster isn't the point, and there's no guarantee it'll happen.
Q: I'm the kind of runner who runs through pain. Is that OK with barefoot running?
A: It's not smart. The best way, again, is to do it slowly, and without pain. If you feel pain, stop or slow down. You don't want to injure yourself — that's counterproductive.
Q: Are there people who shouldn't run barefoot?
A: Sure. This article from Running Times says that diabetics and others who can't feel their feet well shouldn't do it — without the feedback of feeling in your feet, you'll probably pound too hard. Others who probably shouldn't run barefoot include those with bones that didn't heal properly from a break, and those with rheumatoid arthritis or otherwise abnormal feet. I'd add that anyone with ongoing feet or leg injuries should wait until the injuries are completely healed, and those who aren't likely to take it slow (overly competitive runners) might not be good candidates for barefoot running.
Q: Can you do HIIT sprints barefoot? Or is that too strenuous for barefoot running?
A: You can, but that's more of an advanced step — I wouldn't start with them. Give yourself a couple months of regular running first. I've done some pretty hard sprint intervals barefoot, and I had very sore calves for a couple days after (way more than when I sprint in running shoes).
Q: Would you recommend wearing toe socks with Vibram Five Fingers? Also, how tight should be the shoes be?
A: I've never worn toe socks with Vibrams, nor have I found the need for them. As for fit, they shouldn't be too loose or they'll move around as you run. I like the straps of the KSOs, as they'll keep the Vibrams tight. Shouldn't be so tight they're cutting off circulation or hurting, though.
Q: Does running barefoot result in thicker soles over time?
A: I haven't seen a noticeable difference yet, but others have reported tougher soles. Not necessarily thick calluses, but just a slightly thicker, more leathery, but soft and pliant, sole.
Again, if you have other questions, please ask them via Twitter and I'll add answers to this section.
This article is just to get you started. Here's more reading:
‘… live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.' ~Henry David Thoreau
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