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As part of my quest to become a runner once again, I decided I needed to learn to run barefoot. The benefits to doing so are numerous. I began to read up on others’ experiences with beginning to run barefoot (see Resources at end of this post).
There are many tips out there on how to run barefoot, with more being offered up daily. The growing success of the book Born to Run is certainly fuelling this, as are folks’ positive experiences with running barefoot.
Some of these tips can be confusing or downright contradictory to one another, though, which can kill curiosity and interest in giving it a try. Or worse yet, people end up injuring themselves and giving up. The confusion can make putting a barefoot running program together for yourself rather difficult.
Why Create a Barefoot Running Guide?
After reading many of the tips and personal experiences out there and trying barefoot running myself, I realized nothing – at least what I saw – quite met my needs. I wanted a simple, easy-to-follow program; a system of guidelines based on the tips from the best barefoot runners and personal experiences alike.
Now, I’m no expert – not a doctor, a running coach, or even an experienced marathon runner. In fact, I’m a relative newbie when it comes to running (I’ve had several setbacks that has stopped me from running my first marathon). What I offer here, though, comes from reading hundreds of posts, articles, and research reports about running barefoot.
So, I decided to put together what I’ve learned into a barefoot running program of my own. I am sharing this program with you for two main reasons:
- 1. Since I had the need for such a program I figured others might as well. I want to help others enjoy the benefits of barefoot running while avoiding the pitfalls.
- 2. As is the case with any activity, if we share knowledge with one another around barefoot running, we all stand to benefit. I want to continue to learn tips and tricks from fellow runners so I can get better and pass them on at the same time.
In creating a barefoot running program for myself, I chose a common model for weaning ourselves off a bad habit: a 12-step program. As has been outlined in previous posts of mine and in several articles lately by the national media and in Born to Run, running shoes can be quite addictive, and harmful.
My goal with this post is to help you begin to enjoy the benefits that come from at least including some barefoot running in your training program. And who knows, in the process you might even be convinced that running barefoot is right for you like I’ve found. But that’s a decision you need to make for yourself.
A Note for Experienced Runners
Running barefoot can be particularly difficult for experienced runners. The usual feedback of fatigue – aerobic overload – won’t work. Your foot and calf muscles will likely fatigue before you’ve even broken a sweat. I’m sure this program will look incredibly slow to you.
However, I’ve seen many runners try and run barefoot too far too soon and suffer for it. Take it slowly and you’ll have the best experience over the long haul. Fortunately, you don’t have to stop your regular running to begin to practice some barefoot running.
12 Step Program to Run Barefoot
There is a printable one-page summary of the 12 Step Program at the end of this post for your convenience.
- Be patient and stay committed. Your body will thank you.
- Take a break for a day after every barefoot running experience. This will enable you to assess how you are doing and give your muscles a rest if you experience some soreness.
- Each step builds on the work done in the previous one. Skip any step and you will risk hurting yourself.
- The program is on the long side. This is to help you avoid sore muscles or worse, injuries from over-worked calves and foot muscles. If you do feel significant pain, go back a step until the pain subsides.
- The program is designed to help you transition to barefoot running from regular running without making you stop. You can add this program on top of your existing running plan until you reach your desired barefoot distance.
- The program is designed for runners at every level, though it should not take the place of a beginner running program.
- These steps are designed to help you transition from running in shoes to barefoot, but will also work to transition to minimal shoes, though it is recommended that you do some barefoot running to learn the right form.
I. Prepare Your Body
Running barefoot is perhaps one of the most natural things you can do. However, it’s not something you can start doing immediately (unless you’re a child or walk around barefoot at least a few hours a day).
You need to prepare your body. Running barefoot will require the use of several muscles in your feet and legs that have been dormant for years – ever since you began wearing shoes. You will need to prepare by exercising these muscles.
Please note that the following steps can be added to an existing training program – you do not need to stop running in shoes all together, though that wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Walk barefoot in the house.
Take your shoes off (well, that was obvious!). Walk barefoot in the house while you go about your normal activities.
2 hours every day for 1 week
Walk barefoot outside.
Walk outside on a soft surface like grass, soft dirt, or firm sand. This will start to get your foot used to different surfaces and work new muscles.
It’s not unusual for your feet to feel quite sensitive at this stage. There are thousands of nerve endings in your foot, and they’ve been covered up for a while. But you’d be surprised at how quickly your feet will once again become accustomed to a variety of surfaces.
30 minutes every day for 1 week
Perform feet, leg, and breathing exercises.
Ok, you don’t have to get quite as limber as the woman in the photograph, but you do need to stretch and work out your feet and leg muscles to prepare them for new use. Continue to walk around barefoot in the house and outside.
Add some specific exercises into your workouts. Choose exercises that target your calves and feet. Squats, heel raises, and jumping lightly on the balls of your feet are particularly good for this. Jumping rope hits all the right muscles, too.
As is the case with any sort of running, it is very important to run relaxed. If you are tense, you will experience pain and possible injury. Practice breathing with your abdominal muscles going out when you breathe in, and pulling in when you breathe out. Focus on relaxation while you breathe.
30 minutes each day for 1 week
II. Learn the Stride
You are now ready to try barefoot running. The key is to take it slowly. One of the biggest mistakes people make when giving barefoot running a try is to overdo it.
Another frequent mistake is thinking that it’s all about the lack of shoes (or at least wearing minimal shoes). In truth, the lack of shoes are only a small part of what running barefoot is all about. When running barefoot, the biggest change is often in form.
With most people, the whole body will need to move differently. To run successfully, you will need to learn the correct form.
Land on your forefoot, below your center of gravity, then quickly bounce your heel down on the ground and up off again. Your foot should kick back high behind you. Lean forward slightly and always keep both knees bent. Your stride will be shorter and your cadence higher. Keep your body relaxed at all time.
The good news is that your body already knows how to run properly – you just have to let it show the proper form to you. With a little practice and patience, you’ll get it.
Note: while you can still run in a barefoot manner with some minimal shoes on (like Vivo Barefoot, Vibram Five Fingers, or FeelMax), you should first run completely barefoot to learn the proper form. Even 3mm of covering under your foot and mere ounces of weight can block some necessary stimulatory feedback.
Run 100 feet on grass.
Some people will tell you to only run barefoot on a hard surface (Chris McDougall, the author of Born to Run, and Barefoot Ted, for example). They recommend this not because they want you to hurt your feet, but because grass still provides you with too much freedom to run incorrectly – heel first.
While this is true, I suggest that you start running on grass because you need to strengthen your foot muscles. The muscles in your arch, among others, have probably atrophied considerably over the years in their “shoe casts”. Barefoot is not just about proper form, it’s also about using all your muscles.
The problem with telling folks to immediately go to concrete or some other hard surface is that too often, people suffer from sore feet, then they give up. Spending some time running on the grass will help you strengthen these muscles first and enjoy some of the immediate benefits of running barefoot.
Note: You should run at a much slower pace than you are used to during this phase.
3 days for 1 week
Run 20 feet on a hard surface.
Your first run on a hard surface barefoot should be very brief – think feet, not miles. Seek out a hard to semi-hard surface, like packed dirt or clay, or even asphalt.
On grass, you might have gotten away with landing on your heel. Do this just once on a hard surface and you’ll quickly learn not to do it! There’s no room for error when you’re on a hard surface.
As Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, explains, “Running barefoot on a hard surface will make you run correctly.”
Focus on landing under your center of gravity, touching your heel down briefly. Your cadence will be higher and your heels will likely kick up higher behind you as well.
3 days for 1 week
Run 100 feet on a hard surface.
After you’ve included some barefoot running into your routine, you can up the distance to around 100 feet. I know, you are dying to go further. But your calves and feet will thank you for continued patience.
3 days for 1 week
III. Increase the Distance
Now that your body has learned the correct stride and can do it naturally on any surface, it’s time to slowly begin to introduce longer distances to your barefoot running plan. If you want to run in minimal footwear, now would be an ok time to try it.
Make sure you read about the different types of running shoes out there first. If at any point you experience pain, and it does not subside during your rest day, go back a step for a week.
Run 500 feet.
It’s now time to begin to increase your distance with every run. Start by running about 500 feet. If that goes well, continue to increase your distance each day by 500 feet or so.
3 days for 1 week
Run 1 mile.
You have now reached an important milestone, quite literally. Start by running a mile. Remember to take it slowly. Stay loose. Breathe. If 1 mile goes well, you can increase by a tenth to a quarter of a mile with every run.
3 days a week for 2 weeks
Run 2 miles.
Start out by running 2 miles, then increase your distance by a quarter of a mile with each run.
3 days a week for 2 weeks
IV. Maintain Yourself
Congratulations! You are running barefoot and no doubt reaping many benefits for it. These final three steps focus on helping you stay well and injury free while further building up your strength. If at any point you experience pain, and it does not subside during your rest day, go back a step for a week.
Run 5 miles.
Continue to increase your distance. Make sure that if you fatigue, your stride does not suffer. Keep focused on lifting your knees, treading gently, and landing beneath your center of gravity throughout your run.
3 days a week for 1 month
Run 8+ miles.
Continue to increase your distance. And it’s ok to smile while you run – that’s the way it’s meant to be!
3 days a week for 1 month
Teach someone else to run barefoot.
One of the best ways to learn something well is to teach it. Find someone who’s curious about and interested in trying out barefoot running. Pass on your learnings and create a plan with them.
Commit to being their coach and cheerleader for the next 12 weeks. You will not only find it enjoyable and rewarding, you will continue to better your own stride by watching and giving feedback to your new barefoot running buddy.
1 day a week forever!
Click here to download a cheat sheet to easily remember the proper form and 12 steps. Just click on the image below to open or download the PDF file, then cut along the dotted line to create two half-sheets.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Aragorn Quinn for providing excellent feedback and some of the ideas you see here. Aragorn is a marathon runner of over 10 years and a recent barefoot running convert.
Useful Barefoot Running Resources
Here are some of the blogs and websites that I have found helpful in putting together my program.
- Running Barefoot – Barefoot Ken Bob’s site is filled with great information, though it can be overwhelming. He’s also not open to the idea of wearing any shoe, even if minimal, so this can be off-putting for beginners.
- Barefoot Ted’s Adventures – Barefoot Ted, perhaps not as wacky as Chris McDougall portrays him to be in the book Born to Run, offers barefoot instruction classes starting at $65 per person. He talks a lot about barefoot running on his blog, but does not provide much in the way of instruction or guidance. I guess he keeps that for his paying customers.
- Runner’s World – I just discovered another good step-by-step plan to running barefoot on the barefoot runners forum of Runner’s World’s website. It was created by Jason Robillard, who is the author of the blog Barefoot Chronicles, and Barefoot Running University. I highly recommend you check his blog out, as there are some good videos, too. Update December 2017: Runner’s World moved their forums to Facebook groups in September. Updated the link to point to Runners World barefoot running articles.
- Physical Living – Damien put together an extensive series of posts and ultimately presentation titled, The Case for Minimal Footwear. In this sixth installment you will find some good advice.
- LA Times – Roy Wallack, author of Barefoot Running Step by Step, wrote one of the best articles of recent about barefoot running and Born to Run. An accomplished runner himself, he provides advice in his column Tips on barefoot running.
- Wired – The article To run barefoot, start by ditching your Nikes by Dylan Tweney provides advice based on personal experience learning to run with Vibram Five Fingers.
- Shodless – Rob’s Shodless.com blog post How to start running barefoot has some good tips and tricks.
- Barefoot Runners Society – This site is loaded with information pertaining to barefoot running, and regularly updated with the latest barefoot running news.
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