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Learning to Run Barefoot: Where Should You Begin?

Posted by on May 4, 2012 | 7 Comments

So you want to learn about barefoot running, huh? Where should you begin? There are a ton of resources available. In fact, there are so many options people may be paralyzed with indecision. Worse, they may encounter sources that offer conflicting advice.My recommendations are based on effectiveness and cost. I don’t recommend the more expensive options until I exhaust the free options while also considering effectiveness.

Here’s a recommended course of action based on my experience working with new barefoot runners:

1. Take off your shoes and walk around barefoot for two weeks or so. Explore your environment. Have fun with the new sensations.

Rationale: This serves a few purposes. First, it begins the process of strengthening the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments of your feet. Second, it allows for sensory adaptation, or your brain adjusting to the new feeling of the skin of your feet feeling the ground under foot. This will help hone your ability to respond to the sensations coming from your feet. Sometimes we refer to this as “listening to your body.”

2. Try running barefoot. Find a smooth, hard surface and try running about 400 meters (or a quarter mile). Go slow. Focus on how it feels. Try to make as little noise as possible. If something hurts, try adjusting so it doesn’t.

Rationale: Your brain has an amazing ability to adjust your running form to limit pain and increase efficiency. The skin on the ground creates a great feedback loop. For many, this is all that’s needed to learn good form. This is the same method little children use to learn to run. If you’re having trouble after a few weeks, move on to the next step.

3. Get VERY basic instruction. The elements of better running form are simple, and there are a few good resources to help teach these methods. I would recommend two: The Bareform program I helped develop with Merrell, or the program developed by my friends at Playmakers- Good Form Running.

Rationale: Both of these methods distill the basics of better running form into three or four key points. It’s intentionally simplified because many people do not need complex explanations. They just require a slight nudge if step #2 isn’t successful. Adding unnecessary information usually gives people too much to think about to the point where they lose the ability to “feel.” Better running form is more about feeling than thinking.

4. Watch as many videos as you can find. If the basic instructions from above are not successful, sometimes watching a wide variety of successful barefoot runners can be useful. I would suggest going to YouTube and searching for “barefoot running.”

Rationale: Most of us are visual learners. As children, a great deal of our physical skills derived from observing adults then repeating their movements. The same concept can be used to learn better running form. You should watch a wide variety of barefoot runners because everyone has slightly a different running gait.

5. Check out some of the barefoot running books. There are quite a few books on the market today, but I would recommend two. Ken Bob Saxton and Roy Wallack’s book is excellent. I learned how to run barefoot from Ken Bob’s website years ago, and this information is clearly presented in this book. Ken Bob uses many techniques that simplify complex ideas, which makes the book user-friendly without unnecessary fluff. I will also shamelessly recommend my own book. I use my experiences as a teacher to explain barefoot running in a series of easy-to-follow steps. The second edition of my book can be found here and will only be available until June or while supplies last. The updated (and significantly improved) version of my book can be pre-ordered here and will ship in late August.

Rationale: The books get away from the simplicity of the previous four steps, but add quite a few useful tools that can help explain the concepts.

6. Connect with other local barefoot runners. There area growing number of local barefoot running clubs, most organized via The Barefoot Runners Society. These groups regularly host group runs or clinics.

Rationale: These groups give you a source of instruction from a variety of individuals. It also provides a support network that can help encourage progress or troubleshoot problems.

7. Attend a local barefoot running clinic. These are usually easy to find. I travel around the US (and sometimes internationally) to offer free clinics in conjunction with Merrell. Ken Bob also travels the country hosting free clinics. Michael Sandler, another barefoot instructor, does the same. Most of these clinics will be held at local outdoor or running stores. You can find my schedule here.

Rationale: These clinics give you the opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback from people that have been teaching barefoot running for a number of years.

8. Find a qualified running form coach. There are a growing number of coaches that teach better running form in a variety of different flavors. Some coaches teach specific barefoot running skills.  Others, like ChiRunning and Pose, teach specific methods that are nearly identical to the better form achieved via barefoot running. The shoe companies VivoBarefoot and Newton have coaching certification programs that will also teach better running form. Any of these options are excellent.

Rationale: A coach is the most expensive option, but also highly effective. A quality coach that is willing to tailor their methodology to their client can be invaluable. I would recommend researching each of the methods, then find a coach that teaches a method that sounds most appealing. As for references and contact them.

What I Would Not Recommend

One of the worst sources of information for brand new barefoot runners are the forums that specifically discuss barefoot running. This includes the BRS, the Runners World Barefoot Running Forum, or Reddit.  Each of these sources are populated with tons of experienced barefoot runners, but they’re also populated by complete novices. If a new barefoot runner asks a question, they’ll likely get a wide range of answers. Some advice will be excellent; some advice will be terrible. In essence, there’s absolutely no quality control.

Once you develop a basic understanding of barefoot running, you’ll begin to discriminate between good advice and bad advice. At that point, the forums become a wealth of information. In fact, I believe these forums are the absolute best media for expanding our collective knowledge of barefoot running.

In short- don’t use forum advice until you’ve built a decent foundation of knowledge.  Think of the forums as Advanced Placement barefoot running.

If you know anyone that’s just beginning this awesome journey, share this post!

Good luck on all your barefoot adventures!


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  3. Gabe
    May 6, 2012

    Excellent post. And I completely agree with you. I started barefoot running a few months ago and did steps 1 and 2, loved it, and I’m now running always barefoot or with “minimal” shoes.

    II’ve done a few 10k and I’m training for a half marathon in 2 weeks. I’ve had no issues.

    One thing I’d add though, is to start reading and following sites/blogs about the topic (like yours). There’s much to be learned that way and they’re a great source of inspiration.

  4. Dave Goulette
    May 5, 2012

    I should also say that I really liked this post and recommended it to a friend today. And I too endorse KenBob’s book and Jason’s book as the best of the lot for sure.

  5. Glenn
    May 4, 2012

    I have a tip I’d like to offer up. (Note: I am new to barefoot running, so take this as you will). I think is worthwhile to buy a pair of minimalist shoes for daily use.

    This is my 2nd attempt to enter the barefoot realm. I gave it a shot last fall with poor results. I work at a hospital where I spend the majority of 12+ hour shifts on my feet (I also wore thick “cushiony, comfy” shoes. My progress was not very good at this point. Fast forward to this spring when I began wearing minimalist shoes whenever I’m forced to wear shoes. My progress has progressed much more smoothly and quickly than my first attempt. I credit much of this to being as close to barefoot as much possible.

  6. Bare Lee
    May 4, 2012

    Superb summary! Now I have a great, single link I can send folks when they ask about BFR. Keep up the good work.

  7. David Goulette
    May 4, 2012

    I got my start barefoot running after stumbling upon KenBob’s site three years ago. I liked the informal simple advice he used to have on his site. I’m glad I started simply. After about 6 months of playing around with barefoot running I started overthinking things and I don’t think I got much out of it. I have come full circle back to letting my feet teach me by relaxing, being aware, being patient and having fun with it. I do recommend the videos that Dr. Cucuzzella put out, especially the one where he had the basic couple of exercises to loosen up the legs. Very simple anybody can do them in 5 minutes. Barefoot running is like learning to sketch. You can read 1000 books about how to sketch a flower with pencil and certainly you will learn SOME things from all that reading, but you only really learn the skill by putting pencil to paper, messing up, tossing the paper out and trying again. Kids do that very well!