Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blog<Running> Beginner's Guide To Barefoot Running

I've had several people ask me about barefoot running over the past few weeks, so I figured I'd compile everything I've learned into a handy guide. Please keep in mind that I've only been doing this for a few months and that I shouldn't be considered an expert.

Why Do You Run Barefoot?
I get asked this question a lot. It's kind of hard to dive into my personal reasons for ditching shoes without sharing a bit of my running history first. Luckily, I've chronicled most of it in a few posts which are way too long for humans to read. But, maybe you're a robot, or some kind of super-intelligent literate cephalopod (we're equal opportunity here at Blog). In that case you can find my first 2 posts about why I started running here and here. And then maybe read a few posts where I started to realize that losing the shoes could be more fun: here and here.

Everyone probably has a different reason for trying barefoot running. For me, I just wanted to learn how to run. Period. I tried running in traditional running shoes and I ended up injured. I tried jumping feet first into the minimalist movement with a cool pair of toe shoes and I ended up injured again.

I tried barefoot running as a last-ditch effort before throwing in the towel for good, and all my previous pain has gone away. For me, barefoot running started as a way to avoid injury, and it turned into something that I find rewarding, freeing, and fun.

Most of the advice I'll be giving later in this post applies to minimal running as well. Not everyone is as dense as I am when it comes to learning proper "natural" running technique, so the minimal shoes might work out better for you than they did for me. But if you get frustrated or injured in your new "barefoot" shoes, remember that you can always take them off. While the soles of your shoes might be thin, the feedback of your bare skin just has no comparison. It made a world of difference for me.

How Pain Teaches Proper Technique
Pain is bad. A repeated painful motion can lead to long-term injuries. Pain from running is caused by 2 things: improper technique, and over-training. The underlying principal of barefoot running aims to solve both of these problems.

Traditional running shoes try as hard as they can to mask pain. That's why they put an inch of padding, rubber, gel, air, etc... between your heel and the pavement. The problem is that they can't tell you when you are running incorrectly. You could be pounding the pavement for miles before you start feeling any pain, and at that point you don't know what specific movement caused it. I used to get shin splint pain anywhere from 1-24 hours after I stopped running. How are you supposed to know which part of your form is incorrect, when you don't get feedback until it's too late?

By taking off the shoes, you remove all that extra stuff that is meant to hide the pain. Now, if you take more than 3 steps with bad technique, you will feel it immediately. If you overstride or push off with your toes, you will feel friction and get blisters, or maybe shin splints. If you don't land with your knees bent, or run with a straight posture you will bruise your feet from the impact. If you don't engage the entire surface area of your foot, you will get pain from over-use. Barefoot running teaches you to avoid this type of pain, and the benefit is that it naturally teaches you proper running technique.

So one of the most important things to remember when starting out is that pain is bad. Do not try to run through pain. Either your technique needs improvement (change your form until it doesn't hurt anymore), or you are doing too much too soon (call it a day).

Okay, enough with the boring stuff, let's move on to the actual advice...

Take It Slow!
If you are a typical Westerner, your feet have been locked up in shoes for most of your life. They have become dependent on all the support, padding, motion control etc... In short, your feet have become incredibly weak. I'm not talking about just your muscles, but also bones, ligaments, tendons, and skin. As you use them more they will get stronger, but for now remember that it's going to be a slow journey.

Your first barefoot run should be no longer than half a mile, but in all likelihood your feet will tell you to stop sooner. Your first time, you will probably end up with blisters, or bruises, or pain in the top of your feet. When you feel this kind of pain, stop and take at least a day off before trying again. You don't want to make the pain worse, as it could lead to injury. While you're resting, read the section about pain avoidance to see what you need to change. Starting off by walking barefoot is another good piece of advice that I wish I would have taken when I started.

Run Gently!
You need to avoid heavy and sudden impact. Without any protection between you and the ground, you can't afford to stomp or plod your way down the road. Fortunately, humans are practically engineered for this type of quick and light movement. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you go out on your first few runs.
  • Land on the front or middle part of your foot. Heel-striking is only possible if you are wearing big clunky shoes with a bunch of padding in the heel. If you run this way barefoot, you will bruise your feet. Instead, focus on landing on the entire surface of your foot. You should land slightly on the front of your foot and then immediately touch down with and heel. The more surface area you use, the more you will benefit from your arch's natural shock absorbency, and the less pressure you will put on any specific area.
  • Run on pavement/cement/asphalt. A smooth hard surface is the best place to learn proper technique. Roads and sidewalks are relatively flat and frictionless, and are hard enough that you must run softly to avoid pain. Save the grass and sand for special occasions. I recommend that you do 90% of your initial learning phase on a hard surface.
  • Take short quick strides. The less time you spend in the air between each stride, the less impact you will feel when you land. You can recover from many small impacts much easier than from a few large impacts. Imagine the difference between a car crash at 40 miles per hour and a few fender-benders at 15 miles per hour. Which one does more damage to your car? To your body?
  • Land with your feet directly under your hips. Over-striding causes a braking motion throughout your legs. When your foot lands in front of you, you nave to expend more energy to push yourself up and over it. This extra energy puts stress on your feet, shins, and calf muscles. It can transfer the impact force all the way through your ankles, knees, hips and into your spine.
  • Bend your knees. Your leg needs to act as a kind of spring. This means bent hips, bent ankles, and bent knees. As you land all of these joints should flex, storing energy to be released when you take to the air again. If you feel your feet plodding or slapping the ground, you probably need to bend your knees more.
  • Straight posture. You do not want to slouch or lean back. Your back, neck, and head should form a straight line. Any lean should be slightly forward and from your hips or ankles, not your back or head. Having a strong core allows you to use your body's center of mass to maintain your momentum.
  • Relax! You are way more likely to run lightly and with minimal impact if you are not tensed up. Remember that it's about staying injury free and having fun. Try smiling. It will freak out all those grimacing joggers to see you having fun while they're repeatedly pounding their feet into the ground.
One good way to think about running is as a controlled falling motion. Lean forward enough and you will start to fall. You will naturally move your foot to land under you before you face-plant. The momentum of this falling motion is what propels your body forward, not any kind of push from your feet or legs. Your legs are just there to make sure you stay somewhat in control and to efficiently store and release the impact of landing. You can easily control the speed of your run by changing the angle of your lean (it doesn't take a big change in your lean to cause a drastic change in speed.)

So What Role Do Your Feet Play?
Your feet are extremely sensitive instruments. They can feel a pebble or a slight change in the grade of your running surface and react instantly. They are like the active traction control system in a luxury sedan. If the ground slants in some weird direction, your foot will land in a way that keeps your leg directly over your center of gravity. If you land on a pebble, your foot will naturally relax around it, allowing you to keep running with only a small discomfort. In short, they allow your body to land in a way that provides maximum stability, support, and traction.

What Role Don't They Play?
Your feet should not contribute to your forward movement. Doing so is the fastest way to an over-use injury. Imagine for a second that you are pushing something heavy with your hands. Do you spend a lot of energy extending your fingers and wrist? If you are like me you only use your hands for placement or grip, and then you use your arms, chest, core, and body mass to move the heavy object. The reason is that your hands do not have the strength because that's not what they are designed for.

Your feet and ankles are built in roughly the same way. So, don't "push off" with them. Instead, allow them to provide your foundation and connection with the ground and then use your legs, core, and center of gravity to actually move your body forward.

I Did What You Said, But I Still Got Hurt
Over the past few months, I've encountered a lot of pain. It's one thing to read about proper form, and it's another to convert that knowledge into the proper movements. If you experience any pain, I've probably felt it before and can give a few pointers.
  • Blisters. Blisters are caused by 3 things. Heat, moisture, and friction. Hot roads might mean you need to cut your run a little short. Moisture from rain or sweat just means you need to be extra careful about how your feet contact the ground. Landing in front of your body can cause your feet to slide. Which brings us to friction. Friction is caused by a few things. Most likely is that you are landing or pushing off on only one part of the foot (usually the ball of the foot). The problem is that it puts most of your body weight on a disproportionately small surface area. Your skin just isn't mean to handle that type of pressure for too long. The solution is to try to shorten your stride so that your foot lands directly under you. This also increases your stride-rate so that your foot physically spends less time on the ground. Try to land on as much of your foot as possible, and then try to lift it straight up without pushing off with your toes. Also, avoid any twisting motion. Once your foot is on the ground, it should stay motionless until it leaves again.
  • Shin Splints. Shin splints are caused by 2 things: over-striding and over-use. The first one can be solved by shortening and speeding up your stride (seeing a common theme?), and the second just means you need to take it a little slower. My shin splints went away naturally when I corrected my stride to avoid blisters.
  • Top of Foot Pain. Top of the foot pain is caused by "pushing off" with the ball of your foot. Your foot muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments are not meant to endure that much stress. You can easily correct this problem by focusing on lifting your foot instead of pushing off with it. Your entire foot should lift off the ground at the same time. It helps to try pulling your toes and ball of the foot up before the heel. You can also try running on gravel or a rough surface. You will immediately know if you are pushing off because it will hurt the ball of your foot.
  • Bruised Soles. Bruising is caused by not running softly. You need to make sure you bend your knees (probably more than you think). Land with relaxed feet and make sure that you land with the entire foot so that you are spreading the impact across more surface area. Again, you can try standing, walking, and eventually running on gravel as a way to make sure you are landing and lifting off with your entire foot. Put more pressure on any one area and it will be very painful.
  • Rocks, glass, dog poop, needles, etc... If you somehow manage to step on glass or dog poop without seeing it, then I recommend that you open your eyes. Seriously. It's easy to avoid 99% of everything on the road just by looking at it and going around. You will find it surprising how little glass and debris is actually on the road. I've never seen a needle in the street. You will on occasion step on a well-disguised rock or twig, and it will hurt for about 3 steps, but if you run gently your foot will naturally roll over it and avoid most of the pain. After a few steps you will have forgotten it was ever there. And if not, it just means you need to run more gently. :)

Well, that was long (big surprise if you have read this blog before), but hopefully it's a good primer on getting started. Just remember to keep it light, and keep it fun. You won't learn perfect technique in a day or a week (or even a month or more), but if you keep at it you will get better. Eventually you'll make it to a mile and then two, and before long you'll be doing a barefoot 5k or further. Maybe you'll eventually be able to do a half or full marathon, or even longer. Happy running!

Other Resources
  • This is basically the original site on running barefoot. A lot of the information in this post is the direct result of reading and trying the tips and advice from this website.
  • A forum at Runner's World, specifically for barefoot/minimal runners. The people there are generally knowledgeable and there's about a 40/60 split between barefoot and minimal running.
  • I haven't spent a lot of time here, but The Barefoot Runner's Society is a site with a lot of information about races/events/meetups. It also has some pretty good forums.
  • There are lots of other resources out there. Just do a search for "barefoot running" and you'll see that it's not such a tiny/crazy movement.


  1. Wow! Great information Kyle. I'm going to try today!

  2. Awesome! Just remember to take it slow and listen to your feet. Let me know how it goes.

  3. Very thorough! If I ever get into running again, I'll have to give barefoot running a try. Now that it's starting to cool off, have you thought about what to do in the winter? I guess it doesn't snow too much there, so maybe it won't be an issue.

  4. Okay Kyle, I ran barefoot tonight! I went about 3 blocks and the soles of my feet started feeling like they had gravel in them. I walked back home. The cool thing is, I stayed relaxed! I have NEVER felt relaxed running any distance, so this is a major feat for me : )

    I was feeling a little tug in my lower abs, I am guessing from keeping my form together, but no joint pain, anywhere. I will see how I feel tomorrow and give it another go on Wednesday.

    Coming back home I passed two ladies out power walking in their jogging suits and big clunky running shoes. They looked at me like I was nuts...ha! I think I may like this : )

  5. Mel, it gets pretty cold here. There's about a 1 month period where the temp is 40 or lower. At least that's what I remember from last year. I'm thinking I probably won't want to go barefoot if it's 45 or lower.

    I've still got my Vibrams which would offer some protection against the cold ground, and I have some socks that I can wear with them too. I'm just a little weary about putting stuff on my feet anymore. I tried running just .5 miles tonight in the Vibrams and immediately missed the feedback of my bare feet.

    I may just look for some cheap socks and replace them once a week or so, maybe put a little duct tape on the bottom so they don't wear out quite so fast.

    We've also got a (kinda crappy) treadmill, that I might try running on. Now that I've lost some weight, maybe it won't seem so rickety (last time I got on, I was 60 lbs heavier). My gym has a strict shoes-only policy, or I'd use their treadmills.

    For now I'm just enjoying the nice weather.

  6. Mom, that's awesome!

    Don't worry about the soles of your feet. They will get stronger. My skin has gotten thicker, without feeling rough or calloused.

    The tug in your abs is from trying to maintain good posture. It should feel like an almost constant tension. Very different from doing crunches or sit-ups, almost like doing the plank.

    Also, don't forget that your feet will strengthen from walking barefoot as well as running. That's something I wish I would have done more of in the beginning.