New to Barefoot Running? Start Slowly
How to transition to barefoot running
When making the transition from running/walking with traditional sneakers to running/walking with minimalist footwear like Vibram FiveFingers or bare feet, do it SLOWLY. If you do not pace yourself with barefoot running, you are going to be riddled with stress fractures, inflammation and all kinds of not-so-pleasant injuries.
When you lace minimalist shoes for the first time, you are going to feel light and great. You may even feel as if you can run for miles and miles without stopping. I know I did when I started my barefoot running training over five years ago – I remember that feeling very clearly. It felt SO good to get those damn “foot coffins” (sneakers) off my feet! Running felt effortless and euphoric. Going barefoot had a positive outcome for me, but for many who do not properly train during the switch, things can go downhill really fast.
Be like the tortoise, not the hare
When starting a barefoot running program, it is ESSENTIAL that you go into it with patience. You need to gradually build strength and endurance. Stop and think about things for a minute – your feet have been crammed into shoes and sneakers ever since you took your first steps as a kid. That’s a 20, 30, 40, 50, 60… maybe even 70 year period when footwear with cushioning and elevated heels supported your arches and dictated the positions of your toes, heels and ankles!
During all those decades, the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints of your ankles, feet and toes got to do a lot of resting. Muscle recruitment of the foot and lower leg was severely reduced because the footwear you wore acted like braces. The truth is, these important muscles haven’t had to efficiently fire and work for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if your leg and foot muscles are now shortened, tight, weak, and maybe even damaged in one way or another.
It would be naive to assume that someone new to barefoot running can throw a pair of minimalist shoes on and run for miles, right out of the gates, and not experience some kind of injury.
If you are about to get started with a barefoot running training regimen, this article is for you. I am about to provide you with some tips on how to get started with barefoot running so that you do not get hurt during the process.
Here are 13 guidelines to follow during your barefoot running transition
- Address any existing postural or muscular distortion, dysfunction and/or injury.
- Add corrective, mobility and flexibility exercises to your daily routine.
- Before switching from traditional sneakers to 100% barefoot, progress first to a minimalist-style sneaker like the New Balance Minimus and then to an even more minimalist shoe like Vibram FiveFingers.
- Learn the proper mechanics of barefoot/minimalist running/walking.
- Learn how to strike/land on your mid-or forefoot, not your heel – but don’t tiptoe around. Performing a billion mini calf-raises during a training session is unnecessary and can lead to injury!
- Start slowly. Use the 10% rule – do not increase more than 10% a week in both distance and foot-strike change. If you push yourself too much, you will be forcing your body to adapt too quickly. When this happens, you will become injured and frustrated.
- Be alert. Look at your surroundings and pay attention to where you are landing your feet. Stepping onto sharp glass or a steaming pile of dog-poo would suck!
- LISTEN to your body. STOP whenever you feel pain or discomfort.
- Schedule rest. Rest is just as important as everything else. Run a little, rest a little, if you feel OK, run a little more.
- Be consistent.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- If need be, consult a professional.
- Remain patient. The full transition won’t happen overnight.
Prepare your body for movement
Spend a LOT of time prepping your body for this new style of running. When I say a lot of time, I mean A. LOT. OF. TIME. Start simple and use common sense.
8 barefoot running preparation tips
- Throw off your kicks and get naked… well, naked-ize your feet. (If you prefer to be totally naked and that is your kind of thing – then power to you… don’t worry, I won’t judge).
- It’s touchy-feely mindfulness and awareness time. You want to open the neuromuscular (brain/muscle) connection. Now that your feet are bare, get used to feeling the ground underneath you. Listen to the feedback the skin and nerves of your feet give you about the ground. Does the floor feel firm, soft, bumpy? Is the ground underneath you made of wood, carpet, pavement, grass, granite? Does it feel cold, hot? How does it feel when you stretch out and wiggle your toes? Rotate your ankles? Lightly bounce up and down? This feedback will be important when you start making strides – it will come in handy when you are fine-tuning your gait and running form.
- If you haven’t done much walking around barefoot, now is the time. Remind your body what it feels like to walk around with bare feet. Start by walking around your house, then venture outside. When you are comfortable with that, throw some light jogging and shuffling into the mix. Use this time to regain proprioception and to toughen up the the soles of your virgin feet.
- Remember, if you feel pain during this process, stop and rest. Don’t rush things.
- Do all of this with minimalist shoes on. Notice how wearing a minimalist shoe differs from a traditional running shoe. Observe how it feels in comparison to bare feet.
- Daily stretch and mobilize the muscles of your feet, legs, hips and glutes. Here are some hip and glute stretches:
- Incorporate core exercises into your training regimen. Here are some recommended exercises:
- Enjoy “setting your piggies free.” Look, Sesame Street is in sync with me! In this video from 2009, Ziggy Marley sends the message to “set your piggies free” by kicking off your shoes and socks so that you can explore what nature has to offer. Ha – pretty funny!
Tender loving care is necessary
Before you can log several miles in a minimalist fashion, your body will need a lot of TLC – yup… some self-love is in order. (Get your mind out of the gutter!) You NEED to give all of your muscles and joints gentle attention so that they can become strong enough to handle the new demands they are about to experience.
Stretch and mobilize
Add tons of mobility and flexibility training to your routine and commit to doing soft-tissue work. Perform myofascial release and trigger-point therapy with foam rollers, The Stick, lacrosse balls and use other massage and therapy tools as often as possible. Don’t just focus on your feet. Look up the chain and target your calves, shins, hips, glutes, and back. Make the decision that taking care of your body is a priority. Put these exercises into your daily and weekly routines. Be consistent. Consistency is the key to succeeding here.
If you are looking for guidance on mobility and flexibility exercises, here are three great book resources you can check out:
1. Becoming A Supple Leopard, 2nd Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance – Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza
3. The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body – Jill Miller
Equipment and tools
To make the process easier for you, I compiled some of my favorite tools for prepping the body for barefoot running and walking. The following products are great items to have around the house even if you are not a runner. They all work toward improving flexibility, mobility, and circulation of muscles and joints.
To make these your own:
- Find a few tools that are within your budget.
- Click on the products’ photos to be directed to an online retailer.
- Read more about the product(s).
- Purchase the product(s).
- 23 Fitness Gifts That Improve Flexibility, Mobility and Performance: Here are 23 fitness gifts that improve flexibility, mobility and performance.
Pain is your body’s way of telling you to slow down and/or stop
While running/walking with minimalist footwear, STOP if you feel pain, twinges, strains, or discomfort anywhere (feet, arches, toes, ankles, achilles, shins, calves, knees, hips, back, etc.). This is not the time to put your tough guy/girl pants on. Pain is a symptom and warning sign that cannot and should not be ignored. If you experience pain, you need to slow down and stop – this is true for ALL scenarios – including those times when you are leisurely walking on the sidewalk, jogging in the hood, or competing in a run/race.
If you are unsure of the severity of the pain, it doesn’t matter. You still need to stop your activity – even if the pain seems small and trivial. Don’t push. It is not worth the risk of injury. When it comes to barefoot training, being cautious is smarter than continuing with something that may potentially lead to a bad outcome down the road (pun intended 🙂 ).
Address the problem and troubleshoot
Okay, so you felt a twinge or pain somewhere in your body and stopped your activity. Great! The next step is to be patient and address the problem. Get to the root of your discomfort. Is the pain stemming from an improper warmup, too long of a session, tight calves, shortened arches, improper nutrition/dehydration, poor biomechanics? Something else?
Continue troubleshooting. If you think a tight calf muscle is the culprit, stretch and roll it out with The Stick (one of my favorite tools of all time). If you think your arch may be shortened or overworked, roll it out with a tennis or lacrosse ball. If you are dehydrated, get some electrolytes into you. If your arches are weak, rest and then add foot strengthening exercises to your routine. If you think your mechanics are to blame, seek out professional help. Ask someone to take a video of you running. Having a visual of what you look like while you run can be extremely helpful.
Minimalist and barefoot running can provide your body with incredible benefits… if done properly and wisely. In the beginning, be the tortoise, not the hare. Take it slowly. Heed your body’s warning signs of overtraining and remember, rest (and proper nutrition) is just as important, if not more important, than the actual training.
If you have questions about how to make the transition to barefoot running and walking, please let me know – I’d be more than happy to help you get started.
I want to hear your opinions. Barefoot exercise is rather controversial right now.
- What are your thoughts on the subject?
- Are you pro or anti barefoot training? Why or why not?
- If you are in the barefoot club (which I have been a member of for many years), what helps you stay strong and injury free?
I look forward to hearing from you – in the meantime, keep those feet happy and strong!
When she is not slaying fat and building muscle, Jennifer can be found trekking barefoot, traveling, cooking and refining her photography skills. She also enjoys reading and writing about food culture, history and the science of human movement.