Getting Started Running Barefoot

Start Slow

The most important thing for anyone who wishes to take up running (with or without shoes) to consider is ‘dosage’. The human body is incredibly adaptive and unfortunately that means it adapts to a lack of usage. This means that everything from muscles to connective tissues, ligaments, bones and neuromuscular function can be diminished. For those of us who have had a life time of wearing shoes then this will be particularly prominent in the toes, feet, ankles and lower leg.

So it is common sense that you will not be able to jump out the door and run 5kms without having some adjustment issues. If you simply start running from a deconditioned base you are lining yourself up for a wide range of injuries, which can be debilitating enough to discourage you from running and thus perpetuate sedentary behaviours and beliefs.

Strengthen your feet

So if you want to start along the path to becoming a barefoot runner, let your feet get accustomed to being free. You can start to expose your feet by going barefoot around the house. Then it’s simply a matter of increasing your barefoot time by small increments. Try walking around the block or up to the local shops barefoot. This will have the benefit of toughening up the soles of your feet, strengthening your lower limb muscles and improving you neural feedback.

Variety

Make sure you experience walking on a variety of different surfaces. Naturally around the house carpet, rugs and smooth floor boards provide a nice starting point but if you don’t attempt other surfaces you are not going to be challenging your feet. So try walking short distances on concrete and trails and as your feet continue to toughen you look towards more challenging surfaces. This will require patience so please don’t give up if you find it’s taking time.

It is of course natural that most of us need to (or like to!) wear shoes to work or to social events. There are however minimalist shoe options available that allow your feet to work more naturally. I, for example, wear a simple pair of plain black volleys (with the insert taken out) when I’m working at the hospital. Basically any shoe that is flat (i.e. heel and front of shoe same height), thin and straight is great.

Your gait

You will need to take a similar approach when you are ready to start running. In addition to tough feet, barefoot running requires strong and flexible lower limb musculature. This applies particularly to your calf muscles (soleus and gastrocnemius) and achillies tendon. Running barefoot will automatically change your technique if you are a heel striker. The force will be too great for you to land on your heel and your foot will naturally start to strike the ground with the forefoot. This is a good thing, however it places a considerable different demand on your calves.

Shoes to help

This is where transitional shoes are useful. If you have been running in shoes with cushioned heels, gel soles and some sort of pronation control then this difference can simply be too much for many people to tolerate. Don’t freak out. This provides a lovely demonstration of how badly some modern running shoes have changed the way we run.

Fortunately there is now a wide range of ‘barefoot’ shoes on the market, which again highlights that the shoe industry is coming around running footwear. Shoes marketed as barefoot shoes are usually a good halfway point. They encourage strengthening of the arch and calf muscles whilst still providing some ‘protection’, however they are still significantly different from being truly barefoot. A shoe such as the Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot, Dunlop Volley or the Merrell barefoot shoes are good options. The ever popular Vibram 5 finger shoes may even be too advanced for some and may be used as the next progression towards barefoot running. Remember when using transitioning shoes you still want to be spending time barefoot to maintain a robust and healthy sole.

Progress and Recovery

Once you have mastered running with minimalist barefoot styled shoes and your feet have toughened up, you are in an excellent position to graduate to true barefoot running. Again I would preach caution once you have decided to kick your shoes. Continue to gradually increase your barefoot distances. Start at the 1km mark and progress as able.

Let your body guide you. If your muscles and legs are aching after a run it’s likely that your body is still readjusting. So give it time to recover and when your symptoms subside you can look at doing your next run. Again a transitional approach can be beneficial. By that I mean, do one run a week barefoot and two in your barefoot shoes. As your body adapts you can increase your barefoot running and decrease your shoe running.

Questions???

I hope this provides you with enough information to get out there and commence your journey towards barefooted freedom. If you have any questions, you are strongly encouraged to share them with everyone and I will do my best to answer them as accurately and promptly as I can!

By Sam

BM in Sport and Exercise and BA in International studies (German Major) completed at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Master of Physiotherapy at the University of Sydney.

Interests: I am an exercise enthusiast full stop! I play or have played football, tennis, basketball and dabbled in waterpolo and underwater rugby! Recent sporting interests are cycling and barefoot running! I also love watching all codes of football/rugby.

Physiotherapy: Due to my interests in sport and health I am fascinated in human movement and physiology. In addition to musculoskelatal physiotherapy I’m also interested in neurological (stroke, brain injury and spinal cord injury rehab), and cardiopulmonary (heart and lung function and rehabilitation) physiotherapy:

24 Comments

  1. Dave Robertson - May 3, 2011, 2:17 pm Reply

    Great article Sam. Controlling the urge to progress too fast is one of the main messages with transitioning to barefoot running. Being patient and building up slowly will provide great rewards long term.
    One of the best resources on the topic I have read is ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Barefoot Running’ http://www.barefoot-running.us/barefoot-running-book
    Co-written by Australian (Hunter Valley-based) GP,Researcher and Barefoot Enthusiast, Dr Craig Richards and American Triathlete & Running Coach, Thomas Hollowell.

    • Sam - May 3, 2011, 7:00 pm Reply

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comments. I am yet to read this book, although it is definitely on my radar. I am a fan of Craig Richards work.

      I am currently reading ‘The Barefoot Book: 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes’ by Daniel Howell. Daniel is an Associate Professor of Biology at Liberty University where he teaches Human Anatomy & Physiology. This is a perfect beginner level book if you want to learn a little about the anatomy of the foot and some simple walking/running mechanics. Very easy to understand and quite convincing!

  2. Lise - May 21, 2011, 6:31 pm Reply

    I am attempting to go from couch potato to someone who enjoys running. Well mostly until recently I haven’t. I am somewhat overweight, the typical plus 40s weight gain many of us women gain, so I would like to trim that down and have started using the C25K iphone app which I love but my legs are so so tired half way through doing this. Yes being unfit and not stretching probably don’t help but wearing runners I feel has much to do with it.

    Found barefoot running, which seems a no brainer and for me, who loves being barefoot most of the time, the idea of running barefoot even better!

    Thanks for this blog, I’m subbed to the RSS!

    Cheers
    L :^)

  3. Dave Robertson - June 13, 2011, 9:35 am Reply

    Lise, you might enjoy this program: http://naturallyengineered.com/blog/couch-to-barefoot/

    • Nic - December 16, 2011, 8:05 pm Reply

      Thanks for this! Just what I’ve been looking for 🙂

  4. MS - June 25, 2011, 11:12 am Reply

    Hi. I’m wondering if anyone can recommend a coach to get me started. Have been running for over 20 years for fitness (not competitively) but last year developed a series of injuries that I can’t seem to shake. Have been reading up and watching vids, but feel I’d like to get some help getting started on the journey. I live in inner-city melbourne.
    cheers
    M.S.

    • Sam - July 12, 2011, 6:08 pm Reply

      Hi MS,
      Unfortunately I’m not sure what coaching/workshops are available in Melbourne. Possibly one of our readers from Melbourne will be able to help you out?

  5. Steven Sashen - August 31, 2011, 2:51 am Reply

    Another option for being as close to barefoot as possible, while still having some protection, is Invisible Shoes “Barefoot… PLUS!” sandals. They’re a modern take on the Tarahumara huaraches (and way less expensive than the other minimalist options).

    Also, a great article (if I do say so myself) about “transitioning” to barefoot running is at http://naturalrunningcenter.com/2011/08/26/200-yard-rule-start-barefoot-running/

  6. Terral - November 2, 2011, 2:02 am Reply

    Great advice. It’s so easy to get caught in the trap of, “too much, too soon”.

  7. Louise - November 7, 2011, 1:46 am Reply

    Thanks for a great article and helpful links in the comments too.
    I’ve been practising the 100-Up Minor and Major techniques, but have a question about getting used to being barefoot generally.
    While running I think I can get the feel for landing forward on the foot, rather than the heel, but can’t seem to shake heel landing when simply walking. Which makes walking around barefoot uncomfortable.
    Any tips?

    • Sam - December 8, 2011, 6:02 pm Reply

      Hi Louise,

      Biomechanically speaking its normal to land on the heel of your foot whilst walking, hence the reason we have a fat pad under the heel bone. If you’re finding it too painful to walk, I would advise to try walking with a bit more of a bend in your knees to help adjust and absorb some of the impact going through your heel when you’re walking

  8. Jess - January 31, 2012, 10:09 am Reply

    Barefoot running makes a lot of sense, though it takes some getting used to the idea and moving away from what we have been taught to think about shoes and fitness. I’ve enjoyed reading the articles and learning about it.

    I’m wondering how it fits with feet problems. I have joint and back pain from another underlying condition. I know that bad posture and lack of shoe support in walking aggravates it.

    According to my podiatrist, apparently I have bow legs and too flexible arches that roll in when I walk, putting pressure on my back. Although these might be pretty common problems, I think I feel the pain more due to my condition.

    I’ve since had orthotics made that have helped a lot, as I am now getting enough support in my shoes. The idea of going barefoot with supposedly less or no support is a tad scary… can you tell me if barefoot running and the alternative shoe options address these sorts of problems?

  9. Glen - February 3, 2012, 3:22 pm Reply

    Jess, I too have had problems, though not the same as yours and I can tell you that normal shoes WERE THE PROBLEM.
    I developed chronic achilles tendonitis at the age of about 34 after years of rugby league, tennis, sprinting and jogging.A visit to a podiatrist landed me with a pair of orthotics which helped a great deal for a while but I found the problem gradually returned and I basically gave up all sports by the age of 43. My small farm, cycling and walking have since kept me reasonably fit (I’m now 46) but I discovered something by accident about 6 months ago. For the first time for years I took 6 weeks off work and spent nearly all of it looking after my farm. I was sick of orthotics, podiatrists, physios and special sandals etc etc and walked around my farm barefoot for 6 weeks. After a while (about 3 weeks), I noticed that the all too familiar tenderness and stiffness in both of my achilles vanished. I decided to jog a bit in very small amounts around the farm but also being sure to get my hamstrings stretched beforehand (in my opinion, calf stretches aren’t good). To my amazement, no tenderness in my achilles even as I built distance up to about 500m. Currently, I’m up to about 2km with no achilles issues. I wear a pair of Merrell Tough Gloves (“barefoot” running shoes) if terrain is too sharp and these double as office shoes as they are made of black leather.
    As you can probably understand, I’m very sceptical now about conventional shoes as spruiked by Nike etc and physio/podiatrist advice.
    Luckily, from the age of 0-18 I was almost always barefoot playing all sorts of sport and this may have helped me re-adjust.
    I’m no expert, but perhaps you might give some thought to walking around with no “conventional” shoes for couple of months and see if it makes any difference because there really is some non-evidence based baloney out there on training shoes.
    GOOD LUCK

  10. Carherine - February 17, 2012, 12:32 am Reply

    For twenty years I have had arthritis in my metatarsal/toe jOints and so I have never run. I used to practise Ballet. I was a regular at the podiatrist, wearing orthotics and ‘special’ shoes. Ten months ago I discovered Merrrel Barefoots. When I laced them on I felt like Mercury with winged feet and off I ran, my dog at my side. After a few months I discovered Chris McDougall’s Book Born to Run. I tried real barefoot running. I am practising technique that I’m learning from Barefoot Ken Bob’s book Barefoot Running Technique. My feet feel no worse than they used to before they started ‘coming into land’ with every stride on bent knee springs. I only run barefoot now.

  11. Tracey Voss - February 17, 2012, 11:00 am Reply

    I’m reading Born To Run at the moment. The book makes me feel like its only freakishly amazing people can do this sort of running. But your article brings the whole thing back down to earth and makes it sound possible for us mere humans. I’ve had foot trouble all my life and have spent countless dollars on orthotics ….I don’t think they’ve helped. Also not once has a podiatrist recommended exercises to strengthen the foot.

    So I have metataralgia at the moment (had a nerve removed for norton’s neuroma but it made no difference). Just wondering if barefoot would be a bad idea in my case?

  12. Carherine - February 18, 2012, 10:08 pm Reply

    Tracey, give it a go!!! If you follow the technique, barefoot experts say that all sorts of injuries seem to become manageable. I know my arthritis is no worse from running an average of 5km barefoot each time.

  13. Grace - April 1, 2012, 5:13 pm Reply

    I’ve recently stumbled across the idea of barefoot running and it could be the answer to some questions I’ve had for a long time.

    I danced ballet on and off while growing up but chose not to dance on point (ie. I never danced on my toes). Instead I danced in the thin leather warm-up shoes on demi point (tippy toe).

    While I danced frequently, I never had any foot, ankle, knee or hip problems. When I stopped dancing, after a while pain would come back. At 14 I went through a period where I could hardly walk from knee pain. I was told that it was growing pains but when it came back at 25 I was suspicious!

    It seemed to me that dancing kept the muscles in my feet stronger and that my problem comes from my feet and ankles not “holding themselves” up like they do when I danced a lot. I have very high arches and when my feet are weak my ankles roll in.

    My podiatrist doesn’t agree with my weak muscles theory. She thinks my feet are built wrong. Her expensive othotics helped the knee and hip pain but my arches hurt when I wear them.

    I used to dance in thin leather shoes, I never wear shoes in the house, and I used to run around all the time with out shoes on as a kid. If my feet were wrong wouldn’t they have hurt then?

    And finally when my knees aren’t hurting and I can run, I have always landed on the front, outside part of my foot and rolled down and have been told that this will cause me injuries – I will snap something or break my ankle but I’ve never had running injuries.

    Sorry about the long post – I’ve got a bit excited!

  14. Nick Thiwerspoon - May 2, 2012, 12:06 pm Reply

    I used to run 10, 15, 20 k’s 3 or 4 times a week, and also do ballet for a couple of hours a week. Then my knees started hurting. I thought this was just wear and tear. I went on running anyway. But the knees got worse and worse and in the end I had to give up both ballet and running. In my right knee the bones sometimes grind against each other, so bad is the damage.

    I bought more and more expensive cushioned running shoes but the problem continued to worsen. In the end I found it very painful to walk even a couple of hundred metres. Orthotics didn’t help. Physiotherapy didn’t help. I gave up and stopped running and dancing, which depressed me a lot — and made me get fat!

    Then I read about barefoot running. I ordered a couple of books, did some reading and research, and decided to try it. I walked 10, then 20, then 30 metres on the pavement outside my house. No knee pain. Feet a bit sore though. I expanded it to 100, 200, 500 metres. Still no knee pain. So i decided to run. Again, 10, 20, 30 metres. NO KNEE PAIN WHATEVER! But as soon as I put on my expensive running shoes, I was in great pain, just walking.

    I didn’t want to run completely barefoot — I often have to run in twilight before or after work, and I was afraid of glass, etc. So I bought some Vibram five-fingers.

    I hadn’t run for 16 years (I’m 60 now) and recently I reached 4.7 km. Still without knee pain. Oh, the rest was sore as! Calves, mild fasciitis in my right foot, aching balls of the feet. But my sore back went away, and my knees weren’t sore. I run on my toes, not my mid-foot, and it seems quite natural and easy to me.

    I still can’t wear ordinary running shoes to walk in, and I will never wear padded shoes again. I bought what we used to call plimsolls to walk in. They’re fine, and I get only mild knee pain with them.

    And when my arches and calves and tendons in the foot and on either side of the knee are strong enough I intend to start ballet again! I’ve found a group which is specifically for older dancers. And in ballet, coincidentally, you are taught to land on the ball of your foot, to use the calves and thighs as “springs” when you do movements which involve jumping (pirouettes, grands jetes, etc) and of course you use thin-soled flat shoes.

    One caution: your feet and calves do seem to take much longer to adjust to the new style of running than you’d hope. I’ve had to stop running for a week because of my sore calves and right foot arch. I think I might have overdone it!

  15. Marion - June 2, 2012, 10:31 am Reply

    I grew up in a rural area in NZ. None of the kids wore shoes until they hit high school – it was bare feet in summer and gumboots in winter.

    Quite some years of shoe-wearing later, here I am in Sydney a spot overweight and definitely under-fit!! My feet are quite wide, the arches are almost flat and my knees like to track inward. I’d like to learn to run and have tried the “couch 2 5km” thing, but ended up with sore knees that made it hard to walk let alone run!

    Do you guys and gals reckon barefoot running would help? I think strengthening my feet would help overall, but do wonder if my arches and the way my knees track make further attempts at running a spot foolish.

  16. scott - September 14, 2012, 10:29 am Reply

    I am officially obsessed! I have a bad back, stenosis amongst disc degeneration etc. Tried running a few years back and couldn’t get anywhere without considerable back pain. At 46 I never expected to be running.

    Started barefoot in Jan this year, I now regularly do 10/12km. My longest being just over 18. No back pain at all, in fact I reckon my back always feels better after a run.

    I made the mistake a few times of increasing the distance too much in one go. Nothing though a week off didn’t fix, then focus on form.

    I have Vibrams but I must say there is nothing like total barefoot, it really keeps you in touch with where your body is at.

    Keep an eye out for me if you run in Melbourne around Princes Park, haven’t seen any other people with nude feet! Looking forward to when I do 🙂

    • Andreas - September 18, 2012, 10:35 am Reply

      Scott, I hear you! I am too (officially obsessed) !!!
      I started almost a year ago, and now I can finally run 25km/week barefoot without any pain.

      I have been impatient too, and had some setbacks, but I think I am finally over it now

      Unfortunately you won’t see me, I am running around the eastern suburbs of Sydney

      My plan is to do City to Surf (barefoot) next year

      • Sam - September 18, 2012, 9:59 pm Reply

        I love the idea of doing the City to Surf barefoot or in minimalist shoes! I think we should try and get a group together that can fly the flag for proper running technique!

  17. scott - September 19, 2012, 8:24 am Reply

    I have mates in Sydney that go barefoot, maybe I’ll come join you next year for city to surf with them to boost the barefoot brigade!

    I’ll be ready for it by then for sure.

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