Barefoot running is definitely catching on. Though it might be tempting to call this movement a fad or the next big thing the truth is this style of motion has been popular for the better part of fifteen years now; at least as far as it applies to modern shoes and sports. I remember buying my first pair of Nike Free Run’s back in 2005 by which time they were already in their third version. I also remember reading an article in MensHealth magazine concerning the subject of barefoot running and ultra-marathoners that same year. Most runners and athletes today forget that the modern running shoe was only invented in the 1970’s before that most runners wore shoes that today we might consider flats or minimalist. It’s funny how things come back around again.
I’m not going to get involved in the specific physiology and history of barefoot running or its claim to health and fitness. I can tell you from personal experience that I have noticed improvements in my form, speed, and endurance after making the switch to this style of running. It is recommended that if you are planning on exploring this method that you slowly ease into it and take time to acclimate your feet and legs to the different sensation and feel of fore and mid-foot striking. Many runners make the mistake of trying to go too hard when they first change or do not work on their form and injury often follow. Though shoe manufacturers are cashing in on this growing market share and offer many fine minimalist shoes I would recommend that the novice barefoot athlete stick with his old sneakers at least until he has perfected the form and stride. Yes these new shoes have a way of forcing the runner into proper form by their lack of heel cushion and increased flexibility but if you have not taken the time to build up the under used muscles in your feet and legs I foresee a long series of rolled ankles, sprains, and leg pain in your future.
To begin I advise you to walk not run. If you have soft ground available or a treadmill take about twenty minutes a day of your cardio workout to just walk barefoot. Concentrate on the feel of your toes splaying out and gripping the surface beneath your soles. Additionally you could make an effort to do your strength workouts barefoot. These two actions will help strengthen and wake-up many of the weak and under developed muscles of your foot, arch, and lower legs. The simple truth is that modern shoes with all their support and padding tend to build weakness in the many tiny stabilizers of our lower legs, because we just don’t use them any longer like we would if we were barefoot.
As it was explained to me years ago, the form you want to aim for when running barefoot is similar to that of an Olympic sprinter. Their legs drive like pistons underneath them, centered below the hips with chest and torso bent slightly forward, taking short powerful planted strides. They do not strike with the heel but the forefoot because it decreases resistance and increases the push you receive from your calf muscles as you drive forewords. Native Americans and many native peoples across the globe run and walk in this way, landing on the fore and mid-foot then lowering the heel. We also see this form in nature. Most animals do not even touch the heel to the ground at all but walk or pad along on their toes. While I’m not suggesting you walk around on your tip-toes it is a great exercise to build up your balance, and strength in your lower legs and feet.
After you have spent four to six weeks doing the walking exercises I mentioned above it is probably safe to begin running. Once again though start out slow and with short distances. I would not run more than 10 minutes at a time for the first five sessions barefoot, or in minimalist shoes, before transitioning to my other or traditional sneakers. After that you can take it up to twenty minutes at a time for two or three weeks, then up to thirty and so on. The point is you need to be patient and smart with this. You are in effect; trying to unlearn a lifetime of bad running habits. You must allow your feet and legs sufficient time to strengthen and stretch the muscles, ligament, and tendons that have up until now been used very little or not at all. Some will have literally atrophied from disuse. Jumping right into punishing distances and speed without proper conditioning will lead to injury, and then you’ll be one of the naysayers criticizing the movement because you were impatient and stupid.
To the wrap this up there is one more thing to consider. Barefoot style running may not be for you. Though I do recommend that every runner try it, it could be that your particular physiology just doesn’t benefit enough from the change to do it. That’s okay. Likewise don’t rush out to buy the newest wonder shoe to be like your friends. You can convert to this style of running in any decent running shoe; notice I said running shoe, not cross training, or style. You do need a light breathable purpose made running shoe regardless of what style of striking you adopt. The benefit of adopting this new style while using traditional padded running shoes is that as you begin and your legs fatigue you will undoubtedly drop your heel and revert to heel striking until your conditioning grows. This way you can switch back and forth between the two without injury or changing shoes. Once you can run a fair distance with the new form then get some minimalist shoes and start working them into your running routine.
I hope this will help you make the switch wisely and without injury. I have enjoyed barefoot running for years now. The feel of control and contact with the ground is amazing. It’s also reduced my injury rate by making my feet and ankles much more flexible and supple. My feet conform and mold to the ground instead of tripping over it. My shoe size has also shrunk as my arch has pulled up from the increased strength of the tendons and muscles there. My knee pain has subsided along with the frequent back aches I would suffer after running. I think Barefoot running is worth investigating by any runner interested in going faster and longer in their journies.