The big question people ask me about barefoot running (after “are you NUTS?”) is, “How do you start?”
Well you can’t just throw off your shoes and start running. Well, you could, but you will soon be in pain and have torn up feet.
Note: if you are not an experienced runner, it will likely be easier for you to start barefoot running, as you don’t have bad habits to unlearn.
Here’s what i did to become a barefoot runner this spring.
Step 1: I became aware of my feet
The first step in making any big change is to become aware of the status quo. I think most of us just take our feet for granted until they are injured or sore. I started becoming aware of how I placed my feet – when walking, when running, when standing. I noticed that I had a big callus where my little toe rubbed on my boots because they were squished in. I noticed that my shoes were worn on the outside edge (I pronate, or roll inwards). As I stood, I noticed how my weight was placed. I did this for a few weeks while I waited for my RunAmoc minimalist shoes to arrive from SoftStar Shoes.
Step 2: Walked barefoot at home/started walking around wearing minimal shoes outside
I was already someone who walked barefoot at home, so that was good.
When my RunAmocs arrived, I put them on, they felt like slippers. I was actually scared to wear them outside at first (not even sure why anymore). But one day when I was heading to my local coffee shop to read a book, I decided THIS was the day I was going to wear my new shoes. I felt naughty, subversive somehow. As I took my first steps on the sidewalk, my feet felt bare: exposed, unsupported. So odd. But there were other sensations – I could FEEL. It was electric in a way. New sensations traveling from my feet, up my legs, to my spine, into my brain.
“WHAT IS THIS???” I could hear my brain saying. “THIS IS NEW INFORMATION!”
I still kept wearing my “normal” shoes (boots, I’m a boot girl!) but I took more and more walks with my minimalist shoes.
Step 3: Started introducing spurts of minimalist running into my runs/walking barefoot outside
I suppose I had an advantage over other runners switching to minimalist/barefoot running. I had been on hiatus from running because of ankle/foot issues for a while, so I was basically starting from scratch.
I lived about 8 minutes from a park, so I’d walk to the park, walk around the park, and then when I got to the grassy/woodchip section, I would do a few minutes of running. (I was doing the old “run on soft surfaces” thing that we were taught as runners, as if that helps us somehow even with the overcushioned shoes!) My feet hurt when I got home – but hurt as in a “what the heck?” manner, not a “you’re doing this wrong” manner. My feet were finally being used as nature intended, and they had to get stronger. As time went on, I upped the time running and lessened the time walking, just like a regular running program. I happily also didn’t have the “screaming calves” issues that many people experience, because I was taking it easy and slow.
During this time I started taking off my shoes outside to get used to walking barefoot outside. While walking home from the train, for a few blocks while walking the dog, or just walking in the grass in the park. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s actually more fun and interesting to your feet to walk on hard varied surfaces than on grass.
Try it for yourself! Try to do some barefoot walking every day if possible. Go barefoot to walk out to get the mail. Then go for a few blocks. Then do your entire walk with the dog barefoot. Carry some light shoes with you for “insurance.” But I’ll bet over time you will need them less and less.
Step 4: Started introducing barefoot spurts while running
One day on a run in the park, I did something impulsive: when I got to the track at my local park, I took off my shoes, and decided to run a few laps around the track barefoot. Well, i suppose I was influenced by a post I’d read on the barefoot boards, that a good way to figure out how to run barefoot is to just let your body figure it out. To do this, you have RUN. FAST. So, that’s what I did. With my shoes in my hands, I started jogging, then, i upshifted into a RUN. HOLY CRAP THIS FEELS AMAZING! I didn’t even know if I was doing it right, but it was FUN!! I felt like a kid again. I got so cocky, that I left the track, and ran the rest of the way around the park barefoot too (not so fast though).
MISTAKE VALUABLE LEARNING EXPERIENCE: Since I hadn’t run truly barefoot in the park before, I wasn’t yet aware of where the “clean” sections of the road/paths were (those with the least amount of detrius), and how to properly run downhill, and how hot pavement can get.
This is what happened after that run.
Severe blisters on the second toe, blisters under the big toe and second toe, and a general soreness/sensitivity on the whole foot.
BUT I HAD RUN TOTALLY BAREFOOT!
Step 5: Run totally barefoot and listening to my feet stage
Over time I started lessening the time spent in shoes running, and increased the barefoot time. I wasn’t logging much mileage yet – maybe 3 miles per run (not because of my feet, more because of my lack of stamina!)
During this period lots of things are happening:
- your foot muscles are getting stronger
- your are developing fat pads on your feet
- you are becoming aware of the feeling of the surfaces you are running on (both the tactile and temperature)
- you are figuring out which sidewalks/roads are swept the cleanest (i.e. less rocks)
- you are a genius of avoiding glass by watching for the tell-tale glints in the light
At first, I had blisters. I stepped on sharp rocks. One day I found a sliver of some metal in my foot. Oddly enough, i found it later that day when I was mindless touching my sole while sitting down - I had developed enough of a fat pad that I hadn’t even felt it when it went in!
The wonderful thing about running totally barefoot is it makes you acutely aware of your personal biomechanical idiosyncrasies.
I made copious use of the barefoot boards to validate experiences I was having, or to troubleshoot issues. Every few days I’d post something like, “I have toe blisters, what does it mean?” and “Are my feet going to become all crusty and hard?” I found out that toe blisters likely mean you are pushing off with your toes as you run, which is a no-no. More importantly, someone posted something about “moist feet are more prone to blisters” and a light bulb went off. I had been jogging from my house to the track in my shoes, heating up and moistening my feet. I wondered if that was making them prone to blisters? I tested it by walking barefoot to the track, and then running. BINGO! less blistering! This sort of tweaking leads us to the next stage…
Step 6: The form tinkering stage
This is the stage I’m in now. It’s been three months since I started wearing my RunAmocs, and about a month of straight up barefoot only running. After you’ve figured out how not to hurt yourself running barefoot (whether that’s no longer heel striking, learning to avoid glass and hot pavement and other hazards), you begin the fun and sometimes maddening process of tweaking your personal biomechanics to run more comfortably and efficiently.
I began to tinker with my foot placement, posture, knee bending, faster cadence, hip flexing, and other form tweaks. I no longer blister on my toes but occasionally I misjudge the temperature of pavement so I annoy my soles. Some days I have a great run and I feel like I’m floating, some days I feel clunky and I’m still not sure if I’m doing it right. I scour the boards looking for help and looking for a tidbit that will make something “click.” Like someone posted on the boards that you should imagine “hoisting your junk onto a table” to correct your posture. That worked!
As much as I love going purely barefoot, I am finding there is wisdom in having a little sole between you and the road. The moccasin shoes get a bit hot in the summer, so my next step is going to be getting a pair of Catamount Luna sandals – just a little rubber, a nice leather footbed, a wrap around the ankle. My feet will be free!
I should note at this point also that I no longer wear my “regular” shoes. My toes have naturally spread a bit and so I no longer want to “smash” them into regular shoes like I used to. Also, I don’t like wearing shoes with platforms or heels, because I can’t feel the ground. Luckily, it’s summer and I can wear flip flops, and I also wear the moccasins around too. Sadly there are few options for cute minimalist footwear for women, so I don’t know what I’m going to do come fall!
Now it’s your turn to try it!
Doing barefoot running properly can be talked about and shown, but it’s like sex, you can watch porn all day long but you eventually have to do it yourself to get good at it. You just have to tinker and adjust, and you get better in increments. If you live in New York, try to attend the NYC Barefoot Runner’s group’s “First Steps” mini-clinic this coming Sunday July 31, where people will help you with your form. They have it periodically, and also have weekly barefoot runs in Central Park. I haven’t gone yet because I haven’t built up my mileage yet, but soon!
I hope that helps some of you imagine the process to becoming a barefoot runner. Like any worthwhile endeavor, it will take time. But I’ve been rewarded in so many ways that I’m so happy I’ve done it. I’m looking forwards to what other changes it will bring in me!