How to Begin Running

 Barefoot

Photo Courtesy Muskegon Chronicle 


So how do you go about losing the shoes?

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Also, I now have a barefoot coaching site located at http://barefootrunninguniversity.com, and have written a barefoot running book that can be found here:

 

 

  The plan I used to begin running barefoot was very simple.  I began running one day barefoot on a forgiving surface (mostly grass, sometimes smooth dirt trails).  I would now advocate starting on a hard surface.  the hard surface provides better feedback to help determine if your technique is correct.  If it hurts, you are doing it wrong.  Anyway, The workout consisted of an EASY 1-2 mile run.  At the time, this run was at about a 12 minute/mile pace.  I rarely wear shoes around the house, so I was able to adapt to this relatively quickly. Initially, I had only intended on running one workout per week barefoot.  Once I began, however, I found I really enjoyed it. 

    Over the course of about 1 month, I increased from one workout to three, wile also extending the runs to around 3-4 miles at a 10-11 minute/mile pace.  I began adding other terrain, including asphalt.  I was still doing speed training and long runs in running shoes. 

   After about two months, I decided to abandon traditional running shoes entirely.  I did some research, and found the Nike Free 5.0s.  They were a specialized training shoe developed specifically to strengthen your feet by simulating barefoot running.  Perfect!  I bought a pair and began using them for speedwork and long runs.  Much to my delight, I did not have any injury problems after that transition.

    After about three months, I decided to try the long runs barefoot.  I encountered two problems: 1) my feet weren't adequately conditioned for running 10-20 miles on asphalt yet; 2) gravel hurt A LOT.  I needed another alternative.  I did some more research, and found several runners that used aqua socks (or beach shoes).  I bought a pair for five dollars at Wal-Mart.  I found they were a perfect solution.  They were a much better simulation of barefoot running than the Frees.  I continued to train the rest of that year using that pattern- barefoot for short to intermediate runs, aqua socks for long runs.  That fall, I ran the North Country Run 50 miler in the aqua socks.  I still had some toenail blackening issues from running downhill repeatedly, but overall less injuries than traditional running shoes.

    The next spring, I began running exclusively barefoot.  I still used the aqua socks occasionally for especially cold weather or for running on unpaved gravel roads at night.  This is also the year I began racing barefoot.  By this time, I had completely adapted to barefoot running.  I could run equally as far and as fast as I had while wearing running shoes.  That year, I completed 2 5ks, a 15k, a 25k, and a 50 miler barefoot.  My transition was complete!

 Here's a few clips of my running form as of 2009:


    Other barefoot running plans exist.  Barefoot Ken Bob Sexton has an EXCELLENT article outlining beginning barefoot running.  Also, Priscilla Hart and Darla Smith published an excellent article in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance about beginning barefoot running (here's the link and citation):

Hart, P.M., Smith, D.R. (2008). Preventing running injuries through barefoot activity: sometimes "dressing out" means not putting on your shoes. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. 79(4): 50-54.

    This is my brief review of the plan they developed.  As you can see, it is very similar to my own experiences (though a bit more organized), and also similar to Ken Bob's plan.

   The success of Hart and Smith's program is highly dependent on the degree of terrain variability, the personal tenacity of the participants, the amount of time spent in the program, and compliance with the program.  This isa key factor in any barefoot running program.

    Also, Hart and Smith note that it is important to SLOWLY reduce reliance on external means of support (shoes and orthotics).  It will take time for the foot structures to adapt to the lack of external support.  It may take several months for foot structures to adapt to barefoot running, otherwise injuries may occur.  To help adaptation, the total time spent barefoot per day can be divided into shorter sessions.  Eventually, one long session can be used as tolerance improves.

    The authors suggest if you have any injuries, wait until the injuries subside to begin the program.  If you are prone to injury, you may advance slower than the prescribed times, and take special care to break up barefoot times during each day.  I believe this is good advice for any running program.

The Surface

    Hart and Smith note the best surface to begin should be an even surface.  Furthermore, the surface should be relatively smooth and free of debris.  According to Hart and Smith, sidewalks and asphalt may be too rough to begin with, the soles of your feet will need time to thicken and toughen.  Indoor surfaces in your house are an ideal places to start.  As you progress, adding outdoor activities on grass or sand is a good second step.  As you advance and your body adapts to barefoot activities, sidewalks and asphalt can be added.  The last surfaces to add would include wood chips or hiking trails.  My advice would differ on this point.  I believe running on a smooth, hard surface is best for beginners.  The feedback from a hard surface is more accurate than a soft, forgiving surface.  As a runner advances in barefoot running, other terrains can be added.  From my own personal experience, hiking trails may contain a fair amount of rocks or tree roots.  Adequate foot/eye coordination is needed to successfully negotiate that environment.

Let's Begin!

    This is the time line Hart and Smith suggest as long as you are injury-free:

Level 1- beginner (1 to 2 weeks)

  • Spend 30 minutes per day doing barefoot activities, use multiple sessions as needed
  • Should be indoors, on grass, or on sand (according to Hart and Smith; my advice differs)
  • Record your progress in a journal, track the activities you do along with any injuries you may encounter

Level 2- Intermediate (2-16 weeks)

  • Spend 1 hour per day doing barefoot activities, use 1 session
  • Add sidewalks and asphalt to your terrain variations
  • Continue tracking activities and injuries in your journal

Level 3- Advanced (16+ weeks)

  • Spend more than 1 hour doing barefoot activities
  • Add wood chips and hiking trails to your terrain variations
  • Compare the frequency and severity of injuries before and after barefoot training program

Notes:

  • Hart and Smith note that it is important to maintain a regular schedule of barefoot activities.  If you cannot maintain a regular barefoot schedule, you may have to regress to an earlier stage to re adapt to barefoot running.
  • Also, cold environments may pose a special challenge, indoor barefoot activities would be recommended.  Also, thin-soled (minimalist) shoes may help maintain foot strength if barefoot activity is not possible.

Jason's Personal Notes:

  • Technique is important.  Most shod runners are heel-strikers (they land on their heels first, then roll their foot forward).  This is more or less impossible barefoot.  When I run barefoot, I land on the outside part of my foot immediately behind my fifth (pinky) toe and roll my foot down until most of the sole is in contact with the ground.  My heel VERY gently grazes the ground with each step.  The faster the pace, the less my heel touches.  For me, this is the ideal foot strike.  Practice to find what works for you.  Ken Bob Saxton has an EXCELLENT article explaining the mechanics of running barefoot that can be found HERE.  It is important for your foot strike to occur under your body, not in front.  If you stride too far forward, undue friction will be created between your sole and the ground.  This has been a problem for me at faster paces, it tends to develop blisters.
  • Two good running techniques that are ideal for barefoot running are the POSE method and Chi Running method.  They are pretty similar in practice, but differ in approach and details.  Each one teaches runners to relax and avoid the common heel-strike used by a lot of shod runners.  Smooth form and soft, shock-free strides are the ideal.  My form seems to be a hybrid of the two.