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Please read the disclaimer prior to attempting barefoot running.

Read more about the progression of steps you should take here:

http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2012/05/04/learning-to-run-barefoot-where-should-you-begin/

Our philosophy is deceptively simple.  We provide you with a basic framework, then teach you the skills to evaluate your own experiences.  This will help YOU develop the form and techniques that are best suited for your individual characteristics.  See our GUIDING PRINCIPLES in the “About” section for a more thorough explanation of our philosophy.  The following guidelines are the basics of our teaching methods.

This plan is one method you can use to learn barefoot running.  I go into much more detail in my book The Barefoot Running Book.  I also helped develop Merrell’s barefoot running resources, including videos and an iPhone app.  You can access that information here:

http://www.merrell.com/US/en/BarefootConnection

I have also written many articles here about pretty much every aspect of barefoot and minimalist shoe running NOT covered in this post.  The best way to find articles about specific topics is to search Google for “Barefoot Running University ___________________” where the underscore is your desired topic.

Prior to Starting

  • Learn to run barefoot first, then incorporate minimalist shoe running if you so desire.  This is the fastest way to transition to a minimalist shoe
  • Spend time strengthening your feet by spending time walking around barefoot
  • Do our drills, including the walking in place drill and jump drill

Terminology

  • Barefoot Running (BFR) – Running with nothing on your feet.
  • Cadence – How many times each foot touches the ground, usually measured per minute. Barefoot cadence is usually greater than shod cadence. Most barefoot coaches recommend a cadence of at least 180.
  • Fartlek Run – Run with varying levels of intensity ranging from walking to sprinting.
  • Hill Work – Running up and down hills, done as either as continuous run or as repeats.
  • Long Run – A continuous run at a slow speed. Used to build endurance.
  • Minimalist Running (MR) – Running in shoes that provide limited or no support and only minimal protection. Also, the heel will be at the same level as the forefoot. Examples include Vibram FiveFingers®, Feelmax® shoes, aqua socks (or beach shoes), or some racing flats. MR is often an acceptable second choice to BFR from an injury-prevention standpoint.
  • Over-Striding – The tendency for a runner’s foot to make contact in front of their center of gravity resulting in a “braking” action. Common among heel-strikers. Leads to decreased running efficiency and may be a major cause of running injuries.
  • Reduced Shoe Running (RSR) – Running in a shoe that provides less support and less cushioning than a traditional running shoe, but still causes many of the same problems as traditional running shoes. The heel of RSRs will be slightly higher than the forefoot area. Nike Frees and most racing flats are an example of RSR.
  • Speed Work – Fast paced running above normal running pace. Usually involves running repeats over a given distance (run fast for a short time, recover, then repeat).
  • Stride Length – Distance between successive points where one foot touches the ground. Barefoot stride length is typically shorter than shod stride length.
  • Tempo Run – Fast-paced run of intermediate length; runner speeds up as the run progresses until 10K pace is reached.
  • Too Much Too Soon (TMTS) – The tendency of new barefoot runners to run farther or faster than their body is capable of. Often results in injuries.
  • Top of Foot Pain (TOFP) – Pain experienced along the top of the foot. Strong top of the foot pain usually indicates the new barefoot runner is doing too much too soon. Some degree of mild, dull soreness is common as feet adapt to barefoot or minimalist running.
  • Vibram FiveFingers® (VFFs) – Minimalist shoes commonly used by barefoot runners. Known for their glove-like appearance.

Form

We’re all different

There is no such thing as universal “good form.”  Every barefoot or minimalist runner will develop their own style that works for them (see videos towards the bottom of this post.)  Each of us has our own unique physiological makeup.  It is up to us to figure out what works best.  These are a few universals that most barefoot runners seem to have in common.  These elements are listed below.

Listen to your body

When learning to run barefoot or in minimalist shoes, your best coach is your own body.  The soles of your feet provide excellent feedback.  If you are doing something incorrectly, you will experience discomfort.  When you discover your own unique barefoot form, you will know it by the feeling of everything “clicking.”  If your form does not feel right, try various adjustments until you are able to run comfortably.  It is common for new barefoot or minimalist shoe runners to run too fast or too long, thus causing poor form and injury problems.

Relaxation

Relaxation is one of the fundamental skills all barefoot runners share.  It is critical to developing the ability to run with little impact.  You cannot run softly if you are tense.  Running itself, as is all physical activity, will result in some degree of tension.  Exercise causes your sympathetic nervous system to activate, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and all the other elements of our “fight or flight” response.  Our body is preparing for physical activity.  That inherently makes relaxation difficult.  However, like every other element of barefoot running, it can be practiced.  I find it very helpful to use visualization to help relax your arms and legs.  I pretend my arms and legs are very loose and free-flowing… much like a wet noodle.  I will actually move them around as if they are wet noodles.  Odd?  Perhaps.  But it really does help with the visualization.  When doing all the walking or running activities, always imagine your arms and legs are loose and free like wet noodles.  In the next section, I will give you a very basic exercise to help supplement the visualization, thus helping you reach a greater level of relaxation.

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

Lift feet

Relaxation is one of the fundamental skills all barefoot runners share.  Another skill that is nearly universal is lifting your feet.  Most shod runners will use a heel strike (heel hits the ground first) where the heel hits the ground in front of the body’s center of gravity (over-striding).  This causes two problems.
First, it acts as a slight braking action that interferes with your forward progress.  This wastes a tremendous amount of energy with every step.

Second, it causes undo stress on your entire body because of the force of the strike.  This force is thought to be a major contributor to the many pains traditional shod runners experience.  The solution is to allow your feet to softly touch the ground under your center of gravity.  The easiest way to achieve this is to focus on lifting your foot off the ground instead of driving it into the ground.  Different runners will accomplish this lifting motion in various ways using different muscle groups.

I believe the exact method is inconsequential.  All that really matters is you are lifting.  This lifting will automatically result in a softer step.  If we focus on lifting, we forget about the other foot that is touching the ground.  When we forget about it, our brain takes over and automatically causes the foot to land with less force.
The focus on lifting the feet will also help prevent another common problem among new barefoot runners: “pushing off”.  Many runners mistakenly believe their forward motion is created by using the foot on the ground as an anchor point and pushing off against that anchor to generate forward motion.  This “pushing off” technique causes undo stress on the body, especially the legs and feet.  It also causes runners to land with much more force than they would if they focused on lifting the feet.

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

Cadence

A fundamental difference between barefoot or minimalist shoe running and traditional cushioned running shoes is the rate your feet touch the ground.  Most runners that wear traditional running shoes will strike the ground approximately 140-160 times per minute.  Barefoot and minimalist shoe runners will touch the ground at a significantly higher rate.  The minimum cadence a barefoot runner should use is around 180 steps per minute.  This faster cadence causes two significant changes to your running form.  First, it shortens your stride.  This helps prevent over-striding where your foot touches the ground in front of your body.  Second, it helps you develop a more efficient form by limiting excessive movement.  The shorter the stride, the less vertical movement runners seem to develop.
As mentioned above, stride length will be shorter when running barefoot.  The exact length of your stride will be determined by your own unique physical characteristics.  The idea is to find a cadence greater than 180 steps per minute coupled with a relatively short stride length that results in the greatest comfort for you.

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

Beginning

Disclaimer

The material contained on this website is for informational purposes only.  The author and anyone else affiliated with the creation or distribution of this information may not be held liable for damages or injuries of any kind allegedly caused or resulting from the use of this material. Before beginning this, or any type of exercise program, it is recommended that you consult with your physician for authorization and clearance.  The information contained herein is not intended to, and never should, substitute for the necessity of seeking the advice of a qualified medical professional.  Furthermore, if you have any medical condition that affects the tactile sensations or blood flow to your feet or legs (diabetes, neuropathy, etc.), you should not attempt barefoot running.  It is my sincere desire to provide information that enhances your running experience and allows you to reach your potential.  This will only happen if you stay healthy, injury free and use common sense.

Speed of Progression

When learning to run barefoot, several factors will affect the speed at which you can make the transition from traditional shoes to barefoot or minimalist shoes.  The greatest factor seems to be prior barefoot experience.  Runners that routinely do other activities barefoot will be able to advance at a faster rate.  Their muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and skin will be more adept at the stresses and rigors of barefoot running.  Runners that have adopted a midfoot strike will also be able to advance faster.  This particular running style is nearly identical to barefoot form.  Like individuals that spend time barefoot, this group will have already pre-strengthened many of the anatomical features that are stressed when running barefoot.  Youth may play a role, as younger runners are able to physically heal at a faster rate (thus progress faster).  Prior injury history plays a role.  Runners with few injuries may be able to advance at a faster rate.  A runner’s ability to listen to their body will also make a difference.  A key to learning good form is the ability to monitor the state of your body.  Finally, trail runners may be able to transition faster due to their already-developed skills of running on uneven surfaces and monitoring the terrain they are running.  All these factors may play a role in the rate of progression.  Regardless of your own characteristics, it is important to exercise patience.  You will learn to run barefoot significantly faster if you utilize a “slow and steady” approach.

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

Starting barefoot

It is common for new barefoot runners to have a desire to “ease into” barefoot running by using a minimalist shoe (Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot® shoes, Vibram FiveFingers®, Feelmax® shoes, cross country racing flats, huarache sandals, etc.)  It is better to learn the proper form of barefoot running first, and then use minimalist shoes as needed.  If you begin by wearing minimalist shoes, you may be insulating your best form of feedback- the soles of your feet.  Starting by learning to run barefoot first generally speeds the transition.  You will learn good form faster, strengthen your feet faster, and ultimately be able to reach your goals faster.

To learn good form, it is critical that your brain receive accurate sensory feedback from the rest of your body.  This is especially true of your feet.  The soles of your feet will tell you if you are over-striding, running too fast, or creating too much friction.  If you cover your feet, even with a minimalist shoe such as the Vibrams®, you will short-circuit that neural pathway.  Too many people seem to be tackling barefoot or minimalist running too aggressively, which leads to injury.   Resist that temptation!

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

The “Lose the Shoes” Plan

Each stage of the plan is designed to help acclimate your body to barefoot running.  The temptation to speed the process will be great.  Rushing through the process will greatly increase the likelihood of injuries.  To resist doing too much too soon, do not advance to the next stage until you can successfully complete the recommended mileage pain-free!  This plan uses a conservative time frame because of the frightening frequency of overuse injuries.  If you meet any of the criteria in the “Speed of Progression” section, you can increase the distances listed throughout the plan.  Just remember to listen to your body!

Stage 1: 2 weeks

Walk around barefoot as many places as possible.  Do not start running yet.  This will begin to condition your feet and soles for more active barefoot running.  This stage could also include barefoot activities such as hiking.  There is no mileage associated with the stage.  Also during this stage, take time to do exercises to strengthen your calves.  This will reduce the likelihood of Achilles tendon and plantar fasciitis pain and injuries.  Move on to stage two if you do not experience pain after two weeks. If you already do a lot of barefoot activity, this step may be skipped.

Stage 2: 2 weeks

Begin walking in place barefoot.  Slowly increase your cadence until you are slowly running in place.  The idea is to learn how it feels to lightly touch the ground and pull your feet straight up without pushing off.  This will also begin the process of preparing the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments of your feet to barefoot running.  Start with 30 seconds of running in place 2-3 times per day.  Increase this time by 15 seconds each day.  Move on to stage three when you can run in place for three minutes without pain. If you already do a lot of barefoot activity, this step may be skipped.

Stage 3- 4 weeks

Find hard, smooth surface without debris.  Examples include new asphalt, smooth sidewalks, or running tracks.  Begin running 3 times per week with at least one rest day after each barefoot run.  Limit distance to 1/8 to 1/4 mile depending on running experience.  Increase distance by 1/8th mile each day.  Pace should be VERY slow, the focus is on finding a form that works well for you.  If you experience pain, take an extra day off.  If you develop blisters, slow down or reevaluate form.  Move on to stage four when you are able to run 1.5 miles barefoot without pain, including one or two days after the barefoot run (some injuries are not immediately apparent).

Stage 4- 4 weeks

Begin adding different terrain, including softer surfaces and hills.  This can include grass, dirt trail, sand, etc.  A good strategy is to run a hard surface one day, then a soft surface the next.  At this stage, you should be running approximately 1.5 miles barefoot.  During this stage, continue adding 1/8th mile per run.  Continue going slow, your focus is going to be perfecting your form.  Again, if you experience blisters, slow down.  If you feel pain, take a day off.  Move on to stage five when you are able to run 3 miles barefoot without pain, including one or two days after the barefoot run (some injuries are not immediately apparent).

Stage 5- No specific time frame

By this point, you should be running about 3 miles per run.  You may begin experimenting with slowly increasing your pace, increasing your distance, or adding technical trails or hills to your routine.  Only add one element at a time.  Do not increase distance by more than 10% per week or speed by more than 15 seconds per mile.  Again, if you experience blisters, slow down.  If you feel pain, take a day off.  Your feet should now be conditioned enough to be your “running shoe” of choice for most of your runs.  Just keep in mind that completing this transition is similar to earning your black belt in martial arts; which is considered the point at which you know the basics and true learning begins…not where the learning ends.  Take it slow, listen to your body and enjoy your journey.  (Thanks for the conclusion, Notleh!)

Credits: This plan was developed based on my own experiences coupled with the advice and feedback of the many wonderful contributors to the Runner’s World Barefoot Running Forum, including Notleh, Barefoot Hugo, PeaceKaren, Jeff D in MA, Blind Boy, Barefoot Dama, Barefoot TJ, Barefoot Huang, AFrunner, syndibee, Nergock, Tender Toes Mark, Nazaretti, Dirty Toes Joe, Barefoot Bonehead, and Zolodoco.  If you have questions, comments, or would like to become part of a friendly, helpful community of caring barefoot runners, please visit this forum.

Injuries

“Top of the foot” pain

One of the dangers of beginning barefoot running is doing too much too soon.  Your feet have likely spent most of their active life confined in shoes.  Shoes weaken the bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons of your feet.  The skin on the soles of your feet will not be used to the sensory input of the ground.  In order to prevent injuries, it is important to begin barefoot running cautiously.   Barefoot running feels wonderful!  The urge to do too much before your feet are ready is very powerful.  As such, it is important to follow a conservative plan even if you feel great in the beginning.  Going too fast may result in a myriad of injuries, including tendon and ligament damage, excessive blisters, stress fractures, and other over-use type injuries.  If at any time you experience pain, STOP!  Add a second day of rest, and then try again.  Continue until you are pain-free.  Do not give in to the temptation to “run through the pain.”  The soft-tissue injuries that can occur during the foot-strengthening process can set your progress back by weeks or even months.  TOO MUCH TOO SOON injuries are the greatest obstacle to successfully transitioning to barefoot running!  A fairly universal complaint is often referred to as the “top of the foot pain”; it feels like a dull ache on the top side of your foot.  This seems to be a function of your foot anatomy adapting to the different stresses of using new muscles, tendons, and ligaments.  Mild soreness is not a major issue.  Generally, you can train through this dull ache.  If the pain becomes moderate to severe, stop.  Rest until the pain subsides.  Give this process time and the rewards will be great!

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

Calf/Achilles Issues

Aside from TOFP, the other common issue experienced by new barefoot or minimalist shoe runners is calf and/or Achilles pain or tightness.  The cause of this is obvious.  Traditional shoes, running or otherwise, have a built-up heel that is higher than the forefoot region of the shoe.  Think of high heels, just not quite so dramatic.  The more we wear these shoes, the more we chronically shorten the Achilles tendon.  When we move to barefoot or minimalist shoe activities, the Achilles tendon is stretched.  This stretching causes calf tightness.  If we are not patient in the transition to barefoot or minimalist shoes, we run the risk of injuring this area.  Also, the tightness of the calf and Achilles tendon can lead to other problems such as plantar fasciitis.
Some degree of tightness or soreness of the calf muscle is expected.  This is the normal consequence of using a muscle that has been allowed to weaken for years.  If you are patient, there is no danger.  However, if you fall victim to doing too much too soon, it is possible to develop a litany of problems associated with the calf muscles and Achilles tendon.  If you experience any acute or moderate (or severe) pain, stop immediately.  Rest until the pain subsides, then ease back into your training schedule.

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

Blisters

Blisters are a fairly common issue for the new barefoot runner.  Generally, blisters result from some combination of heat, friction, and moisture.  If all three are present, blisters tend to form quickly.  In the absence of one variable, blisters may still form if the other two conditions are fairly extreme.  For the new barefoot runner, friction is usually the main culprit.  Moisture is a non-issue unless you are running in mud or rain.  Heat can be an issue if running on a hot surface such as asphalt on a sunny day or some treadmills.  If blisters do develop, they can be an indicator that your form is not quite as good as it could be.  Where blisters develop can be very informative.  If blisters develop on the heel, that is usually an indicator that you are heel striking or over-striding.  If they develop on your toes or the ball of your foot at the base of your toes, that can be an indicator that you are “pushing off” with each stride.  If you do develop blisters, slow down.  you are most likely running too fast or too long for your current skill level.

This section © 2010 Jason Robillard; used with permission from “The Barefoot Running Book” available January 2010.

Advancing

  • Keep gains less than 10% per week distance or 15 seconds/mile pace
    Add a variety of terrain
    Practice Fartlek drill, hill drill, debris drill

After learning the basic form and elements of barefoot running, we also instruct our students on racing, trail running, extreme conditions, and other special topics associated with barefoot and minimalist shoe running.

LEARN ABOUT BAREFOOT RUNNING ON DIFFERENT TERRAIN

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