When it comes to barefoot running, one question often repeats itself: what to do about those things that aren’t so comfortable to step on? Well, Jason Robillard might just have the answer.
When running uphill, use the same basic form you would on flat ground. You should maintain a quick cadence, short strides, and focus on staying relaxed. Your body should remain vertical; there is no need to “lean into the hill”.
Running downhill can be slightly more difficult depending on the grade. If the hill is not very steep or especially long, you can use your normal stride. If the hill is steep, long, or both, you may need a different technique. When your foot touches the ground, it will cause a slight plantar flexion motion, which can strain your shins and knees. If this becomes a problem, slightly modifying your form can be an effective remedy.
My preferred downhill technique in this situation is modeled after mogul skiers. If you are facing downhill, turn your hips and feet 45° to the left while keeping your shoulders pointed straight towards the bottom of the hill. Take about six to ten steps, then rotate your hips 90° to the right. Take another six to ten steps, and repeat. This motion helps disburse the workload among various muscle groups.
After you begin to master good barefoot running form, you may wish to run a few races. There are two common issues that arise. First, how you attach the timing chip? Second, should you push your limits in regards to time or distance?
The timing chip question is easy. Most timing chips can be attached to an ankle bracelet of some sort. I use an elastic band designed to hold an MP3 player on the arm. Others use special bands designed for triathletes. Still others use rubber bands, twist-ties, string, or Road Ids.
Knowing how hard to push is more difficult. The key is being realistic about your abilities. For beginners, it is best to start at the back of the pack and simply enjoy the run. The adrenaline rush of racing can effectively hide most warning signs of injuries. Once you gain more experience, you can begin experimenting with increasing both speed and distance.
Once you learn the basics of good form, you may start to branch out to new terrain or run in a variety of weather conditions. Different terrain may present unique challenges, but can also be used to build skills. Start exploring new environments by walking first. This will allow you to adjust to the new sensations and begin developing new skills to master any new terrain.
I love trail running. If given the preference, I will always choose trails over roads. Barefoot trail running is even more pleasurable. The basic running technique is the same for roads and trails. However, the roots, rocks, sticks, and other debris found on trails requires greater concentration and balance. Use your eyes to continually scan your path to pick out the best spot to place each step. In the event you step on something pointy, your bare feet will provide immediate feedback and your body will shift to avoid injury.
Sand is another surface I enjoy. Not only is it fun, it also presents a great opportunity to learn. The technique for sand running is the same for solid ground; stay relaxed and use quick, short strides. The footprints left in sand can be used to gauge your form. Most people, when using a common running form, leave footprints with a deep divot under the toes. This is caused by “pushing off”. Ideally, you want to keep your foot parallel to the ground. This will leave an ideal flat foot print without the deep divot under the toes.
Grass seems like an ideal barefoot running surface. It is soft, forgiving, and cool to the touch. The softness can cause problems, however. Any time we add cushioning under our feet, we have a tendency to land with more force. The added impact may increase the risk of injury. Furthermore, the blades of grass can hide objects like glass, nails, or other unsavory debris.
These are a few potential environments you may encounter on your barefoot adventures. Any time you encounter something new, take it slow. Walk before you run. Once you familiarize yourself with the new conditions, almost any terrain can be conquered barefoot.