Getting Started Running Barefoot

footprint

Inspired by the research and story in the book Born To Run, I’ve decided to try out barefoot running. Or at least “nearly” barefoot running. There’s just something about the minimalism of it that appeals to me. No need for fancy shoes or gear – just man vs. nature.

I also think there’s a lot of truth to the idea that running shoes can often contribute to the problem that they try to solve by overcorrecting and reducing the feedback built into the foot. If nothing else, I’m glad to try something new and see if it works for me. If not, I can always go back to my running shoes.

As I began to look seriously into barefoot running, I learned a lot about minimalist shoes and even spent one week trying them out.

The (non) Shoes

It seems silly to be talking about shoes in regard to “barefoot” running as it would kind of defeat the purpose…right? But, as it turns out, one of the best ways to get into barefoot running is to ease into it.

If you are used to doing 12 mile long runs wearing traditional running shoes, you can’t just kick off your shoes and do your next one entirely barefoot. The experts say that it’s best to ease in with minimalist shoes (ie – less padding) before going cold turkey. The added benefit of minimalist shoes is that they offer a level of protection from the realities of sharp sticks and broken glass (the bane of barefoot runners everywhere). There are really two levels of minimalist shoes:

  • LEVEL 1: Nike Free: The Nike Free shoes are the first level of minimalist shoes, they have less padding than a normal running shoe, and are a lot more flexible. Their flexibility helps them to mimic the natural motion of the foot. I have the 5.0 pictured below and they really do feel like a lot “less” shoe. As compared to the more serious barefoot shoes, they lack the tactile feedback of the vibram’s because your foot still doesn’t feel the ground. Overall though, I like them and would recommend them to someone who wants to dip their toes into the idea of barefoot running, but still keep the general look and feel of a traditional shoe.

nike-free-50

  • LEVEL 2: Vibram Five Fingers: The Vibram Five Fingers are the next (much more serious) level of minimalist shoes. These shoes bring you the closest to the real barefoot experience. They are for people who are much more serious about barefoot running and willing to put up with some ridicule as they will stand out. They shoes act a bit like a second skin because they mold to your feet and have a spot for each toe. They are difficult to get on, but once you’re wearing them they have a very natural feel. I’ll go out on a limb and say they’re the most comfortable shoes I have. My choice was the KSO model (pictured-below) which are so named because they “Keep Stuff Out” by covering your entire foot. In my opinion, the best aspect of these shoes is the tactile experience they bring to running. You can really feel your run as you go through wet grass or down a dirt trail.

vibram-five-fingers-shoes

My First Week

I ended up going with the Vibram’s for my first week of “barefoot running” because I felt that they gave the truest barefoot experience. Here’s what I learned from that week of barefoot running:

  • It Uses Different Muscles: All of the barefoot running sites, recommended easing into it and for good reason. Running barefoot uses different muscles than running with heavily padded shoes. You feel it much more in your calves because they act as more a shock absorber. The good news is that this helps teach you not to heal strike and to use the proper running form. The bad news is that you’ll have to cut back on miles as your muscles build up and your form corrects.
  • It Lets you Feel Your Run: As I alluded to earlier, the best part about the barefoot running experience is the ability to feel the ground beneath you. Normally on my runs with heavily padded shoes, I would listen to loud music and try to zone out, but on the barefoot runs I really enjoy running with no music and just feeling the ground below me. Trail runs are a totally different experience.
  • It’s a Process: I’m a week into it, but I feel like there’s a lot more to learn. As I’ve started barefoot running, it’s really made me begin to focus on my form because it’s much more noticeable how your feet strike the ground. I’m beginning to investigate techniques like Chi Running and the Pose Method of running which both focus on improving posture and running form.

It definitely seems like I’m at the beginning of a long journey. I’ll let you know how it goes and how many barefoot miles I work up to. I’d also be interested to hear anyone else’s experiences as well. It this the solution to the many running injuries or just a fad brought on by a popular book?

Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, “I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.” It’s more then just a race, it’s a style. –Steve Prefontaine

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “Getting Started Running Barefoot

  1. Good feedback for folks interested in trying out barefoot running – dipping their toes into it, as you say. I want to point out that you you’ve outlined one way to try minimal running (though I don’t consider Nike Frees minimal at all – still way too much padding).

    I want to point out that there’s another way to ease into barefoot or minimal running (as Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run, suggests).

    This way of trying out barefoot running forgoes any padded shoes and goes straight for shoe-less running, or at least in something with no padding and full flexibility (like the Vibram Five Fingers), on a hard surface. The key to this approach is to do very little distance at first. Think feet, not miles. Like 500 feet your first time out.

    The advantage to this approach is that you will learn the proper form immediately. You’re body will simply not allow you to run poorly – it just hurts too damn much! What I’m talking about is striking with the forefoot instead of the heal.

    The big problem with trying to run in Nike Frees is that they will still allow you to land heal first, which is what causes so many injuries in the first place.

    Again, as you point out, you have to ease into running barefoot. A friend started running barefoot by adding a few trips around the playground at the end of his runs. He immediately noticed muscles getting activated that haven’t been used for years. But you have to take it very slowly and be very patient, otherwise all those muscles you normally don’t use much – such as your calf muscles – will get extremely sore.

    Thanks for sharing your experience to date. It sure is an adventure! For others reading this, I have yet to run barefoot because I’m recovering from back surgery, but am walking in my Five Fingers daily and will begin running (only a little bit!) as soon as I get the green light from my surgeon and physical therapist.

  2. @Clynton: Thanks for detailing another great option for starting out. That’s for the hardcore folks.

    @Ravi: Looking forward to the new model. Thanks for all your writings about vibram’s products.

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