I’ve recently been experimenting with some barefoot running as part of my overall training program. Rather than being a wholesale move toward being a genuine hardcore barefooter, the specific purpose has been to acquire more foot and lower calf strength and to see if there was anything that emerged spontaneously that could help me improve my running technique. So you could say the barefoot running I’ve been doing is more or less a strength and coordination training session.
One of these barefoot sessions, fell on Christmas day, traditionally a day for longer running, but time constraints had me jogging to the park in a pair of Saucony Hattori and then casting them aside to complete a 10 minute barefoot jogging session. The weather in Melbourne was hot and unusually steamy, so despite only managing about 8km I felt like I’d done much more running than this.
Running barefoot or in zero drop or extreme minimal shoes, in my early stages of experimenting, does seem to be more tiring. I’m sure there’s a mental aspect to this, as well as some muscles in my lower extremities being called upon to work a bit harder than usual. If you’re contemplating some barefoot running you may wish to check-out two previous articles I’ve written on the topic. It’s important to be aware of the risks and also take on the process very gradually to ensure you don’t get injured.
This training has taken the form of initially one or two slow jogged laps of a grass oval during one of my easy running days. Over the course of the last month or so I’ve built this up to a slightly larger volume of 10 minutes of jogging verging on brisk running. I’m avoiding barefoot strides or sprints for the moment because I’m convinced my feet and lower legs just wouldn’t stand up to it.
Why am I doing it?
I’m also trying to find ways of improving my forefoot running technique – again as much for my own learning as for potential performance gains. At times this has been a struggle so some barefooting has been introduced with the goal of getting a bit more feel for anything that I might be doing wrong in shoes that may be easier to feel and correct without shoes.
Finally, I’m keen to condition my body for pulling on some spikes in a race sometime in the next few months.
Where to start?
Many barefoot gurus recommend embarking on barefoot running by running on hard surfaces, I don’t think that’s necessary and it makes it risky and less enjoyable. Part of the fun is feeling the grass and earth beneath your feet. So a single 400m jogged lap was the start a couple of months ago.
In Australian we’re lucky to have football ovals in almost every suburb and country town. Even those that have watering systems in place are still relatively firm, especially in the current summer months. So you’re not running on plush cushy grass, there’s more than enough firmness to get the feel for running well but also a little bit of give to offer some level of forgiveness on your body.
Barefoot versus zero drop and very minimal shoes
At the same time I’ve been running in some very minimal and zero drop shoes, the NB Minimus Trail and Saucony Hattori. Again as a learning experience but also with the intent to review these more fully for the website. What’s been interesting is that I’ve probably found running in these more extreme minimal shoes more challenging than the barefoot jogging sessions.
An early theory is that in sacrificing almost all cushioning and support in these shoes, but still having something between my foot and the ground does lessen the feel needed to run more precisely. The jury is still out on this one.
So far I’ve done a few runs where I’ve jogged 10-15 minutes in the Hattori’s to the park, slipped them off and run 10 minutes barefoot on the grass and then put the shoes back on to run home.
Interestingly, the run home always seems to be more comfortable than the first part of the journey. The barefoot seems to help get my eye in and I can then translate this back to the minimal shoe wearing with what feels like better or at least more comfortable technique.
Another explanation could be that I’m just better warmed up but I tend to think it’s the little adjustments I made during the barefoot jogging carrying over into the shoe wearing. Unfortunately I don’t have my Bear Grylls style camera and production team following my on all my runs so it’s difficult to be sure without external observation.
Barefoot running as specific strength training and conditioning for wearing spikes
The other aspect to the barefoot running I’ve been doing is to strengthen up my feet and lower calves for running in spikes. I’ve got a pair of Adidas Adizero Avanti which are pretty aggressive for someone that hasn’t run in spikes for 20 years.
However I like them because they’re quite roomy in the forefoot, I struggle to fit comfortably into many other models which are extraordinarily tight. They also have enough volume to accommodate a small (4mm) heel raise if I think I need this down the track. To begin I’m having a crack at wearing them without this.
I’ve done two mini speed spike sessions now – again slowly easing in, the first with a couple of reps and more recently through a single set of 100, 200, 400 before reverting back to Nike Free 3.0 for the remainder of the session. I think the barefoot running has helped me cope with even that modest volume, but I’m being very cautious of not increasing both the volume of barefoot and spiked running before my body has a chance to adapt.
By tender with your tendons
I had a chat to a Podiatrist a few months ago who mentioned a study that showed tendon adaption (strengthening) takes about 12 weeks and that this time period can be a litmus test for how well your body has adapted to changes such as wearing minimalist shoes or in this case spikes. So I’ve not wanted to risk tendon damage by rushing in to quickly, especially given I’m not a teenager anymore.
A good first step before whacking the spikes on after a long layoff is to include some barefoot jogging as part of the warm up or cool down. A few weeks of using racing flats or light weight trainers or Nike Frees in early season track sessions will begin acclimatising the body for faster running without the stress of introducing spikes too early.
The strategy I’m experimenting with at present is to add sets of spike wearing into a larger track session. For example if you’re doing 6 × 400 the spikes would be worn for the first rep or two only, the week after for a 4 × (200,400) the spikes could be worn for two sets and so on.
I have tried the approach of putting the spikes on at the end of the session but found because of tiredness that I wasn’t coping with it as well as when having them on fresh and strong.
The downside is it involves a shoe change and interrupts the session, but if you treat the shoe change as recovery i.e. instead of jogging 400m then it works in ok. You just need to have your shoes organized and ready to go.
There’s a good case for including some barefoot jogging and/or running in flats/minimalist shoes as preparation for wearing spikes. This is important as many spikes incorporate a negative drop from forefoot to heel in the quest to provide greater performance assistance for running fast.
Barefoot jogging will get the feet and lower leg muscles and tendons acclimatised to the extra stretching and force that will go through that area once spikes are worn. Older runners may also find benefit in gradually stepping down into spikes rather than making a rapid transition from regular trainers into spikes when the warmer months begin.
Give yourself a 12 week window to assess any major changes your make with your runners in training, technique or shoes. Sometimes it’s easy to begin congratulating yourself prematurely and get brought undone!
Training ideas for individuals
The simple step of jogging a lap of a grass oval or sports ground in the middle of one of your easy runs is probably the best place to experiment with some barefoot running if you’re so inclined. Adding single laps or a minute or two of extra jogging each week is adequate progression. The best advice I can give it to take it easy, enjoy it and treat the barefoot running as strength and coordination training.
I’m not sure how far I’ll take the barefoot jogging but have the feeling 20 minutes or so might be my stepping off point. Some parks have multiple ovals and decent connecting grass trails so it makes it a bit more interesting to circulate over a wider area than just jogging laps.
I do think I’ve picked up some added foot strength from the small amount of barefoot jogging I’ve been doing. So far I haven’t uncovered any major improvements in my technique, but perhaps they’re too small for me to notice at this point. I’ll keep you posted.
Written by Brian Martin