First, let me start this article by addressing why the word “barefoot” is in quotes. I do NOT believe that running without shoes is the best idea. You should have some kind of protection on your feet. My choice of “barefoot” running shoe is an extremely minimal shoe. This is as close to the concept of “barefoot” as I choose to get. Okay, I’m going to stop writing barefoot in quotes.
Barefoot running has always intrigued me. At an American College of Sports Medicine conference, I witnessed an awesome debate between two opposing viewpoints: Running shoes vs barefoot running. I was not swayed either way – and you shouldn’t necessarily be either. In exercise, there are very few ‘absolutes,’ so don’t get caught up in the details. I’m a fan of whatever gets you off the couch and is safe!
My barefoot shoe of choice is an Amazon purchase for less than $40. These shoes seem very durable (I only have 100 miles in them so far, but there are zero signs of wear and tear). I think this is because they have no ‘cushion’ that can degrade over time. It’s essentially a mesh upper connected with a rubber sole. There is ‘zero drop’ between the heel and forefoot, meaning that your heel is not elevated like with other running shoes.
In order to start your barefoot running experiment, I would encourage you to get a decent pair of minimalist shoes, start with an easier training protocol, keep an open mind, and be sure to read the rest of this article for the pro tips!
How NOT to Start Your Barefoot Running Journey
As in many cases, this story starts with, “Kyle and I…” Well, Kyle and I were on a road trip from Wisconsin to Florida. We were on a week-long spring break and decided to stop at the beautiful Naples Beach.
We parked our car, put a few dollars in the parking meter and walked to the beach. If you’ve ever been to Naples Beach, you know how beautiful the scenery is; the estates that overlook the ocean are absolutely unbelievable.
Kyle and I started to walk. Between an occasional swim, checking out the houses, and walking down the beach, we lost track of time. I looked at my watch and we had about 30 minutes left on the parking meter. The unfortunate part was that the pier we had parked by was no longer in sight; we had walked MILES from our car.
We had one choice: Barefoot running. We eventually mapped the distance we had run and it ended up being about 4 miles. We took our beach run to the hard sand down by the water so that we could maximize our speed. With absolutely no concept of barefoot running form, we hammered out nearly 4 miles in just under 35 minutes. We ended up making it back to the car a few minutes after our meter had expired, but the parking attendant had not yet given us a ticket – home safe! …Or maybe not.
Over the next few days, every muscle and tendon below my knees was stricken with stiffness and pain. In fact, Kyle and I went to the Nike Factory Store and bought some air-cushioned shoes in an attempt to reduce the pain and inflammation.
My point is that you should NOT start your barefoot running journey with several miles at a max-effort pace. Start small and start slow. Build over time as your musculoskeletal system adapts to the new strain you are placing on your body. This is my warning – don’t make the mistake that I made.
Why Should I Run Barefoot?
So, you’re telling me that my expensive running shoes aren’t awesome?! No – but I am saying that barefoot running engages musculature that running shoes do not. Believe me, I am a heel-striker by nature. This means that I have a long stride and the impact of my front foot is initiated by my heel as I run. I absolutely benefit from cushy shoes when I jog.
However, barefoot running makes me change my running style in a few ways. Rather than a long stride, I tend to shorten my stride a bit. It’s not significant, but I can feel that my stride is shorter. Also, I cannot heel-strike when running in my minimalist shoes. Barefoot running forces me to have more of a forefoot-strike (almost like a sprint). Lastly, barefoot running definitely makes me more conscious of my impact with the ground while running. I am more deliberate about my stride and try to avoid running ‘heavy.’
Personally, I think these are great changes if you are looking to maximize musculoskeletal engagement while running. I feel my muscles, tendons and ligaments working differently while running barefoot compared with when I run in traditional running shoes. Personally, I think there is a time and a place for both.
Barefoot Running Protocol
Hopefully, by this point in the article, you understand that barefoot running requires a gradual training curve in order to effectively condition your body. Don’t get your minimalist shoes delivered to your door, put them on, and go run your usual mileage.
Your barefoot running protocol will depend on your current mileage/fitness level. I will share my personal protocol so that you have an idea of how to apply the same training principles to fit you.
On a weekly basis, I usually go for 2-3 runs. Typically, one of those runs is a part of a cross training workout and is less than a mile long. The other two runs may be between 3-6 miles for a weekly total of 7-13 miles. To give you some background, I have run a half marathon, but running is not my primary form of exercise.
When I began barefoot running, I did bouts of 400m at a time. Essentially, I would run around the block, work, run around the block a couple hours later, go back to work, and repeat. The first day, I did 4 rounds for a cumulative mile. The next day, I was sore, but not brutally sore. I did this every-other day for the first week.
The second week, I tried my first consecutive mile. That went fairly well (as I wasn’t too sore). I repeated a 1 mile run 3 times in my second week. My third week, I ran 2-3 miles consecutively on two separate days. Now, after a month of training, I am up to my usual 3-6 miles of consecutive running and I feel strong in the minimalist shoes.
This is simply an example of how to structure your training. I recommend starting with shorter bouts and accumulating mileage with rest spread throughout your day, if possible. As with any training, recovery is also paramount.
Whether you are an elite runner or have never jogged before, barefoot training provides a completely different modality of running than most people are used to. There is something primal about it. I find barefoot running interesting, considering that humans have adapted over thousands of years to run barefoot and in the last century, we decided to strap cushions to our feet.
It’s not for everyone, but my job is to keep you thinking. I want you to explore all different ways to create a strong, resilient, conditioned body. Barefoot running is another tool in my fitness utility belt.
Are you an expert barefoot runner? Maybe you’ve never tried before but are going to give it a shot? Either way, we want to hear from YOU! Drop us a comment below and until next time.. Stay moving!