Barefoot Running: Learning to Run All Over Again

I can’t remember the first time I heard the term barefoot running, but I do remember what specifically prompted me to explore the idea.  It was two years ago and I had just completed the New York City marathon (more on that subject another day). I was so sore the three days after, I had to use two hands on the railings just to get down a flight of stairs (and unfortunately, I live in a town home with two flights)! Even though my training program had “recovery” training sessions planned for a few days after the race, it wasn’t until about two weeks later that I felt comfortable getting back out there.

my feet after a barefoot run

my feet after a barefoot run

So, when I finally took the plunge to start running again, I decided to go on a very easy, very slow 30 minute jog. I got about 10 minutes in and had to turn around. My knees felt like they were going to fall off! Prior to the run, I felt fine, back to normal even. But the minute I turned walking into jogging the pain came rushing back, similar to, but not quite as intense as they felt the last few miles on race day. Because I was new to long distance running and because it was my first marathon, I thought this was relatively normal and hadn’t spent any time or consideration on how my running form might have contributed.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and the pictures from the marathon were online ready for viewing. I was super excited! That was quickly shattered when I looked at one picture and was horrified to notice I had a prominent heel strike. You could completely see the bottom of my leading foot, like it had sprung up to say, “hello.” After some investigating, I learned that that’s what caused much of the knee pain I often felt. As I read on, checking out several different sites and reading lots of opinions, I discovered correcting my form would significantly reduce my knee pain as well as make me stronger, faster, and an overall better runner. Yay! And, that’s how I was introduced to barefoot running.

Okay, so first, let’s get down to the real basics.  What is barefoot running? Seems like an easy answer, right? Well, not necessarily. Wikipedia and barefoot advocates will tell you that barefoot running is simply running without shoes, of any kind. Retailers and marketers will tell you that barefoot running includes running with minimalist shoes (or shoes with almost no cushion or support). I consider myself to be a minimalist runner. Although I have and will continue to run completely barefoot on occasion, I prefer running with something on my feet.

As sacrilege as it will be, much of what I learned from minimalist running I think easily applies to anyone who’s looking to try either minimalist shoes or going completely bare. To me, it’s very similar. The principles can be applied to both, and just the fact that you’re out there giving it a try is so amazing that differentiating between the two is meaningless. If you really are looking to get into the nitty gritty of barefoot running and all its scientific research, benefits, etc, I highly recommend www.barefootrunning.com. Ken Bob is incredibly experienced and can help greatly.

Regardless of which technique you choose, here’s what I have learned:

1. shoes

The wonderful thing about running is that technically all you really need is a good pair of shoes (and if you run barefoot, you don’t even need that!!). It’s a relatively inexpensive sport. It’s not until you really become engrossed in the sport that you’ll start spending money on other things like clothes, hats, watches, etc. Shoes, however, are most important and should never be overlooked. If you start off with uncomfortable shoes, or with ones that do not fit your foot shape properly, you might as well just forget it because your experience will be ruined. Take the time to have your stride and foot analyzed at a running store. Try on the shoes in a couple different sizes, even if you’re certain you already know your size. And remember what works for me, may not work for you and vice versa.

I heart my Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS. They allow my toes to spread naturally, provide traction on slippery roads (it often rains here in the Caribbean), and give my feet minimal protection against rocks, glass and all the things you’d prefer not to step on. I’ve also run in Nike Free, other Vibram FiveFingers models, and conventional running shoes. As my feet and legs have gotten stronger, and I’ve gotten used to this new style of running, I’ve changed shoes and preferences, and you may find you end up doing the same.

2. study

For me, the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was moving away from a heel strike stride. Just like shoes, everyone’s stride will be slightly different based on your individual body type, but the mechanics are generally the same. So go study! Check out several different sites, techniques and try out a few of the tips and drills the experts have to offer. One of my favorite tools when I began was watching Dr. Mark Cucuzzella’s Principles of Natural Running. Don’t be intimidated at first, he’s fast! Use his techniques at your own pace!!! Another great video is Lee Saxby’s Learning the Skill of Barefoot Running.  For the overhead squats exercise that he demonstrates, a great drill is to squat using a wall, which will help keep you from moving too far forward or back. Start off with a little distance between you and the wall. Then slowly squat as low as possible without hitting your head on the wall. As you improve, you’ll be able to get closer and closer until you can actually kiss it! Don’t worry, it takes practice=)

3. slow down

Transitioning to barefoot/minimalist running changed my stride, worked new muscles, and was essentially learning to run all over again. It was like I started from scratch! So please, please take it slow. This was the greatest thing I learned. Even if you’re running comfortably at long distances, start off small. This is a learning period, and the great thing about starting off slow and at shorter distances is that I was able to use that time to practice my technique and the different mechanics. Because this style of running lets you feel how and where your foot is making contact with the ground, you’ll be able to tweak your landing easily. It took me a couple weeks to really get it down, because I had never really paid such close attention to my body and how it was interacting with the ground. Conventional running shoes allowed me to run blind, so to speak, basically without ever thinking about it. Once I became more in tune with my body, I was able to improve my technique, run faster, and with greater ease.

barefoot or minimalist running? why not love 'em both?

barefoot or minimalist running? why not love ’em both?

I still get knee pain every once in a while, but it’s not after every run like it used to be, and it just means I need to focus on my stride again (maybe I had a bad day). It actually gives me an excuse to run barefoot, which helps me focus even more on what I’m doing. If you’ve never done it before, I highly recommend it, even for 10 minutes.  It’s crazy fun!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with minimalist or barefoot running, and if you have any other tips to share that might be helpful.

Happy running and, if you’re about to give it a try, good luck running bare!


9 Comments

  1. 1

    I have to give you huge props–I don’t think I could run purely barefoot. I’d be afraid to step on something! One of the girls in our office is a huge barefoot fitness advocate. She says to tell you to Google “Sole Training” for great foot exercises. She tells everyone that. 🙂

    I actually came here to let you know that our readers have nominated you as a favorite healthy-lifestyle blogger. You can grab the badge here: http://us.hypervibe.com/blog/tag/feel-better-community/

    • 2

      Hi Stephanie, I was afraid too the first time I ran barefoot, but I was able to find a nice stretch of road that made it a little less intimidating. My feet were a little raw the first time, but by the second and third time around they’d toughened up a bit, which made it a little easier. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt. And, thank your coworker please; the foot exercises sound amazing. When I first started out, and as I was playing with my form, I used to get pain in my arches, so any sort of help to reduce or eliminate that sounds wonderful.

      We’re so grateful to have been nominated. What a great way to end the day! Thank you, thank you!!!!

      ~Bre

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  3. 8

    Hi!
    I started when my health went in the wrong direction after exessive driving, working behind the weel, getting heavy and also realizing my sports of choice and my identity in apnea swim training with long fins or monofin and rare occational windsurfing was’nt working anymore as my metabolism made me in need for a new take on training. I needed something easy acessible and I did not need another “material sport” (does that expression work in English?). I began to look for a real pair of running shoes and I wanted the best of the best. And I saw the Vibrams..I knew about it and I had seen a few pairs on runners an kinda laughed inside because I somehow found it silly like “why are you running in those when you have to suffer so much to be special..”. Little did I know. My first pair made me laugh.. for the reason I felt a bubbling happines within me as I fought the pain in the beginning. I became completely masochistic. I ran in the winter. I ran even though my restless leg from all the driving made two of my toes on my right foot go to sleep after 6 metric kilometers. I ran in ripped off stretch jeans because my legs otherwise would be to fat for running without getting completely sore on the inside of my upper legs. Now one and a half years later I cant say I look much differently but I dont get soar on the same places even remotely. I dont go out if I dont run about 20km. This is my weekly training since my last descision to put in another gear. I dont even warm up, I dont stretch. I have stopped drinking whey protein since I run for mental health/ stress reduction. I dont give a damn about all training fashions thats everywhere. When I run on a treadmill Im amazed how bad people run. Drinking whey ON the treadmill even when running the softest warmup sessions lasting 20 min or less. The biggest event for me was when I studied real marathon winners in slow motion. I began to lift my lower legs upwards behind me in the stride/form and It was like becoming a cannonball. I thought various superlatives and after the first try my lower legs hurt like hell. After like five times I got serious problems with constant pain in my lower legs. I got a warning from a kiropractor that theese hard inflamed spots along the inside of the lower legs had to go away and I had a month withnot even running for buses. I agree there is no turning back. I bought a pair of conventional but minimalist flirting “Nike trainer” shoes but on my standard run I had then I took them off halfway (ca 5km) and held them in my hand while barefoot running the last bit. It was just too heavy and awkward wearing all that rubber and foam. Like running in snowboard boots or having a nightmare where I want to get away but the feet is stuck. I guess you all had that one. The most fun part about Vibrams as noone is mentioning is all the muscles one can get in ones legs. They make my able to suddenly take three short steps or so whenever theres an obstacle and I can stop and start on the spot without getting affected like I did before. Before it was like if I stopped I was fucked.. Like you with that whole in your shoes because your feet collide mid air I had a thing with my right foot dropping a bit too much eventually making my toes fold under ripping up a hole on top of the toes. But that was before I learned to control how much I would drop my feet downwards in the forward motion which was one scary thing to learn. I can go on about theese shoes forever and I just want to mention one thing because Ive spent a lot of time in the water. They are greatvfor swimming too. My first pair of now three was the old version of the KSO. Last summer I both ran and swum in them on a vacation in Spain. I just went crawling and did no diving since I was alone and had no led necklace in my cabin bag ;). The sand took a toll on them as the sand got into the shoes and I want to say I shortened the life of them but they were superduper as beachwear. Not having to think abot getting burnt by the hot sand, stepping on sharp things and while crawling I didnt notice them (no pro swimming just doing some swimming. If I had rented a windsurfer that year I am sure they would have been great in the warm waters where cooling off isnt an issue. Did I mention I often wear them when not running? They are ofcourse great for every day use if one can stand looking freaky. As I have even changed my way of walking, pushing off a lot more behind me and using a forward lean and some hip twist,, I will never be the same. My restless leg is gone. Im stronger in my body all along my legs and around my hips and waist now. I can sprint faster like ever before too. Its fun to understand I did almost never run in my entire life before. I could recall running barefoot on a narrow path in a forest on an island where my family use to spend summer holiday. Those memories of real uncushioned running helped a lot when finding the form.

    • 9

      Thank you so much Ola for sharing! I wore them last summer while white water rafting and they were perfect. I’m so glad to hear how they changed your life, they’ve definitely changed mine as well!

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