Barefoot running is quite the de rigeur these days. But aside from the obvious threat of stepping on an errant syringe down a darkly lit path, there is also the threat of injury to contend with. So how should you start your barefoot running journey to ensure you stay healthy (and enjoy the experience).
Written by: Jason Robillard
How do you start barefoot running? The concept is deceptively simple, yet complex. Some people can learn to run barefoot by simply taking off their shoes. They have an innate ability to sense what they are doing incorrectly and fix it literally “on the run”. Others require more direction. In this article, I give you the basic elements of good barefoot running form.
Learning to run barefoot is an exhilarating, liberating experience. There is a strong temptation to run longer or faster than your abilities. It is critically important to resist this temptation. As a general rule, start at a slow pace. Keep distances short. Only run every other day. If you experience pain, stop. I generally recommend people begin at about a half mile, then add about a quarter mile per run. Some people can do more; some less.
The key to determining your abilities is listening to your body. Specifically, you are trying to find what feels “good” and “bad”. If something feels good, repeat it. If something feels bad, try something else. Through this process, it is possible to learn to run efficiently. You will learn to run in a way that is unique to your specific physiological makeup.
Minimalist shoes present an interesting problem when learning to use a natural running form. The shoes insulate the soles of your feet from the ground. This reduction in sensation makes it more difficult to react to subtle discomfort, which is the primary check on good versus bad form. In essence, shoes hide bad form. Because of this, I always recommend people begin running barefoot, then introduce minimalist shoes once they learn the basics of good barefoot form.
In some cases, shoes may be unavoidable. It is still possible to learn good form. I live in Michigan; our winters can be brutal. It would be impossible to learn to run barefoot outside. Using shoes requires greater patience and vigilance. With reduced feedback, it is easy to do too much too soon and increase the potential for injury.
Terrain selection is an important consideration. You want terrain that provides accurate feedback. If you are doing something wrong, you want to know immediately. I always recommend people begin on a smooth, hard surface devoid of debris. Asphalt parking lots or sidewalks are excellent choices, as are indoor tracks.
I advise people to avoid soft cushioned surfaces because they do not provide accurate feedback. Grass and sand may feel good, but the cushioning effect can hide bad form. If you run on these surfaces too much, you will develop bad habits that can be exceedingly difficult to correct later.
Relaxation is the first element of good form. Your arms and legs should be able to move freely, your knees should be slightly bent. There should be little or no tension, especially in the lower legs and feet. Your core muscles of the torso should remain relatively tense to maintain good posture.
Your posture should be upright and your back should be straight. If you reach upward towards the sky, your posture will automatically align. Your head should be level; your eyes should be looking forward. Once you begin, you will use your eyes to scan the path ahead for potential hazards. Accomplish this by lowering your eyes, not your head.
When you begin taking your first steps, your stride length will be very short and your cadence will be quick. Generally, your feet should be touching the ground at least 180 times per minute. These short, quick steps assure your feet will be landing under your center of gravity, or under your hips.
When your foot touches the ground, you should land on your midfoot, or the ball of your foot. Immediately after, your toes and heel should touch the ground. A common mistake is to keep the heel off the ground and “run on your toes”. This causes extreme stress on the Achilles tendons and muscles of the calves and should be avoided.
The final element of basic barefoot running is the foot lift. Many runners propel themselves forward by “pushing off” with each step. Good barefoot running form requires you to keep the foot parallel to the ground and lift it with each step. When running, it may be useful to consciously think about lifting your foot off the ground as quick as possible as if you were running over hot coals.
If you follow these tips, you should be able to quickly master the art of barefoot running. If you struggle, don’t worry! In the next article, I will give some simple problem solving tips that will help those that need a little more instruction. Until then, keep practicing the basics. Above all, have fun and savor the process!