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!