Barefoot running baby steps

A couple of weeks ago I put together an article that described some potential issues for anyone thinking about making a transition to barefoot running.

The primary motivation for writing that piece was to put some balanced thinking out there to counter the recent flood of simplistic advice in the media about the relative benefits of barefoot running and zero drop shoes.

While I continue to urge runners to approach barefoot running with caution, for some runners, there is definitely a case to be made for taking a few baby steps towards barefoot running. In this article I describe five simple ideas that will give you a taste of the barefoot phenomenon without having to put yourself at high risk of injury.

Should I run barefoot – a quick recap?

If you haven’t got time to read my previous post on the topic, here’s a quick summary of my last article about barefoot running risks. Be very cautious about and most likely avoid barefoot running if you’re a runner:

  • that lands heavily heel-toe;
  • who mostly runs with the quadriceps and hip flexors rather than your buttocks and hamstrings;
  • that is used to running exclusively in very cushioned and supportive shoes;
  • with unstable hips; or
  • that is currently carrying an injury or have sore lower legs and feet.

Barefoot running, poetry in motion?

Almost everyone likes the idea of barefoot running and you’d like to imagine the mere process of shucking off your shoes will result in the spontaneous adoption of beautiful running form. Posthumous apologies to D.H. Lawrence for dragging him into the debate about barefoot running, but he was ahead of his time in appreciating the gentle patter of unshod feet running over grass.

When the bare feet of the baby beat across the grass
The little white feet nod like white flowers in the wind,
They poise and run like ripples lapping across the water

I’m doubting a few of us who’ve come from a background of running in supportive heavy shoes would inspire this kind of writing. I’m more thinking about the heavy grind of industrial machinery as a metaphor for the weighty tread of those of us who struggle to move lightly over the ground. If this is you, then these simple measures and a slow and steady approach are good way to ease into barefoot.

Barefoot everyday – the first step

A bit of padding around barefoot in your everyday life can’t be a bad introduction to strengthening up your feet before you embark on your first barefoot jog. Ok so it’s the weekend and you’re cruising around at home in your trackie daks (sweat pants for my American friends), why not try and stay barefoot while you push around the vacuum cleaner or potter about in the garden? Hint, some old socks is a good way to avoid the odd prickle of pokey weed in the lawn.

Get out of your hard dress shoes or high heels for long walks

A few years ago when I was working corporate jobs in the city I used to walk to work from inner city suburb Collingwood into the heart of suit wearing Collins Street in Melbourne. It took me about 25 minutes and was a great way to ease into the day. The problem was I was walking in my hard shiny black dress shoes that looked pretty smart with my suit and tie, but weren’t too kind to my feet or shins. As I mentioned in my article about shin splints I have been a sufferer of that condition over the years as a runner. However, 25 minutes walking in those hard dress shoes was enough to trigger achy shins.

I’ll get back to the potential reasons for that at a later stage, but if you’re someone who does a lot of walking about during the day, then consider keeping a relatively flat flexible pair of shoes to hand. You might look like a bit of a tool with your suit pants breaking over your Nike Frees or cut a dashing figure in skirts chasing a tram in some NB Minimus, but what do you care if it helps your running? If anyone gives you any grief just tell them you’re a runner, that fact alone should convince them to leave you be!

The barefoot warm down

Getting in to some actual barefoot running is probably best approached as an adjunct to your main running training sessions. This way you won’t be tempted to run too far and sneak in some extra miles before your body is ready for it. Many serious runners have been employing the tactic of jogging a few barefoot laps as part of their cool down for decades. Who would have thought they were running revolutionaries – certainly they didn’t. When I chat to Mark about his elite running days he’s full of stories about jogging barefoot around the grass at the track, hitting the beach for runs sans shoes and easing through a few barefoot strides. That’s just what they did, he says.

For running mortals not raised on this meat and drink style of training, avoiding strides in the first instance is a good idea as that’s sure to stir things up that you don’t want or need to deal with.
Try, as I have done in the last couple of weeks, just jogging a single lap barefoot on the grass after your track sessions. Or if your run takes you past a football oval then lose the shoes for a few minutes, jog a lap barefoot, lace up and be on your way. Doing this type of thing at the end of the session makes sense as you’re warm and your muscles are supple enough to accept the extra stretching and work. A single lap for a few weeks is a great introduction.

Barefoot strides at end of a training session

So a few months down the track (I’m not there yet) you might consider throwing in a few barefoot strides towards the end of a track session. Again caution around this is smart and as I have previously discovered the urge to run fast barefoot while laudable and exciting is not necessarily something your hooves and shins are ready for after long years of neglect.

50m easy reps on hard surface

Masters running world record holder, coach and barefoot guru Keith Bateman recommends approaching this training step will a lot of caution and common sense. I’ve read a lot of barefoot fans and experts proclaiming the need to get you running without shoes on hard surfaces as quickly as possible. Their reasoning is that you’re forced to adapt more quickly.

There’s a certain electrodes attached to your neither regions type of logic in that approach. However, while pain is a powerful motivating tool, many runners don’t have the strength or mastery of their running form to bridge the gap between their current running technique and that required to run barefoot on pavement without injury in a single step.

Bateman’s approach is to ensure that runners have already demonstrated overall good running technique: hip stability, buttock and hamstring activation as well as the light forefoot/neutral foot-strike needed to tread softly on hard ground. I like the way Keith described it, forefoot, heel, then toe, which captures well the important point that running forefoot is not about a hard landing that keeps you up on your toes throughout contact, but that’s a story for another day.

The smart approach is to wait until you can run well on forgiving ground before trying your luck on a very short easy 50m stride on a harder surface. This way it’s more of a confirmation that you’ve got things relatively well sorted, or not as the case may be. Keith says he sees a lot of runners regress at this point by leaning back and landing too hard, which is the natural response when you think something’s going to hurt. A good reminder that running can be a lot about confidence as much as competence and to run well you need to be embracing contact with the ground rather than shying away from it.

Conclusion

In this article I’ve presented a few simple strategies for introducing a small amount of barefoot running into your program. The primary idea is to use barefoot running as a training stimulus rather than your main method of training. Do you have any barefoot training strategies to share?

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2 Responses to Barefoot running baby steps

  1. Sparta PT October 29, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    Great article Brian! I particularly love your comments around work/dress shoes. The effect that hard dress shoes (and particularly high heels for women) have on your entire leg complex isn’t truly appreciated. And personally I’d rather run than be a fashionista all the time ;)

    Keep the great work coming!

    Regards
    Jen

    • Brian October 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

      G’day Jen, Thanks for the kind words. Yes it’s sad that the better the shoes sometimes look, the worse they are for us. Snappy shoes are like junk food, definitely to be consumed in moderation! Brian