The Beginners Guide to Barefoot Running

Andy gives us his take and advice on barefoot running
Andy gives us his take and advice on barefoot running

Here at Ultra168, we’re big fans of Andy DuBois and the work he’s doing with ultra-runners in Australia as a coach. Andy had 15 athletes running in The North Face 100 this weekend just past and he stayed to watch every single last one of them finish, ranging from times between 10-19hours. In short, we reckon Andy knows his stuff, which is why we’ve asked Andy to become a regular fixture here at Ultra168. Our goal is to bring you quality insights and information that no-one else can, and Andy fits that mould perfectly. Today, we’re looking at barefoot running – the fad du jour right now with runners around the world. But what actually is it and how do you go about it? Andy explains all…

So you’ve read Born to Run , devoured every magazine article on barefoot running you can find, trawled the Internet for advice on running barefoot and decided you want to give it a go. Before you throw away your shoes you might want to read this. I’m not against running barefoot and believe it can make a big difference for some people but the issue is a little more complicated than many would have you believe.

Does running barefoot change your technique?
For most people, yes. You tend to change from a heel striker to a mid foot striker. However this doesn’t happen automatically. You change because it hurts to land hard on your heel. Of course you can ignore the messages your body is sending you and continue to land hard on your heel (and I have seen some barefoot runners do this ). Listening to what your feet are telling you and adjust your form accordingly will help change your technique.

Is mid foot or forefeet striking more effective than heel striking?
This depends on where your foot lands relative to your hips and knee. A runner that lands heel first with his foot under his knee and slightly ahead of his hips will be more effective than a runner landing mid-foot with the foot forward of his knee and hips. Many elite marathoners land heel first so it is not where the foot hits the ground that is important, it’s where the rest of the body is when the foot hits the ground that matters more.

Generally speaking though running barefoot will encourage a better foot landing position.

Do barefoot runners suffer less injuries?
At the moment there is no research to support this at all. The type of injuries may change but there is nothing to suggest running barefoot will lead to less injuries.

Some runners have reported injuries such as plantar fascitis and runners knee disappearing once they ditched the shoes. Other runners developed Achilles problems and stress fractures in the feet running barefoot.

A recent study suggested that forefoot or mid-foot runners suffered less in injuries than heel strikers but you can land on your mid/forefoot wearing shoes just as easily as you can barefoot.

Does running barefoot cause less injuries?
Does running barefoot cause less injuries?

Does running barefoot help strengthen the foot and ankle muscles?

Does having stronger foot and ankle muscles improve your running?
Maybe, maybe not , there is no evidence either way. Having stronger foot muscles will make you a better barefoot runner but whether that has any benefit once you put shoes back on remains to be seen. It may give you greater stability for running on uneven surfaces like trails.

Isn’t barefoot running  the way we evolved to run?
No-one is disputing this , the question is do shoes improve our ability to run or not? Theoretically you might argue that if we never wore shoes then many of us would be better runners. Since we have worn shoes for most of our lives this argument doesn’t really matter. What is more important is what we can do to improve our running given that we have worn shoes for most of our lives.

Is barefoot running is suitable for everyone?
This will depend on many factors including the structure of your foot, your biomechanics, the surfaces you run on and the distances you run.

If your foot is has good biomechanical structure then you will probably be suited to barefoot running. This doesn’t mean you can simply ditch the shoes completely. It will take time for your body to adjust to the new demands placed on it.

If your foot has some structural issues then the next question is , is the problem muscular or structural or both and how effectively can the rest of your body compensate for those problems.

If your aim was to run 5km three times a week then your body may be able to handle this , if you wanted to run a marathon barefoot you may find that the body simply cannot compensate for the problems with your feet.

The human body is a remarkable and given enough time can adapt to heavier loads. The question is how much time do you have and is the load you are asking of it simply too much?

For example would you be willing to reduce your running by 80% and take 3 years to be back at the running level you are now just to be able to run barefoot?

I thought not.

My own experience may help you understand the complexities a bit better. I bought a pair of Vibram five fingers and started with 5 minutes of running once a week. Initially it felt great but as I gradually increased the time my feet started complaining. It took around 3 months to build from 5 minutes to 60 minutes. By the time I reached 60 minutes the base of my big toe was complaining loudly.

I have a right foot that has a big toe that sits slightly lower than the rest of my foot, hence it hits the ground harder than it should. In cushioned shoes this hasn’t been a problem. Without shoes there is nothing to cushion the big toe so it takes a hammering.

As the problem is structural there is nothing I can do about it, no strengthening exercises will help, the foot will never adapt. This means that running any kind of distance barefoot is not an option for me. Shorter distances on softer surfaces are fine and I still do a small amount of barefoot running to improve my foot and ankle strength.

How do you know if barefoot is suitable for you?

I think all runners would benefit in doing some running barefoot (or in minimalist shoes). It helps develop good technique and strengthens the foot and ankle muscles. It can be particularly beneficial for trail runners as it will strengthen your feet and ankle muscles to cope with technical trails better and anybody looking to improve technique. How much you do depends on your feet.

The key is listening to your body and introducing it slowly. Starting with as little as 5 minutes and seeing how your body responds. Don’t increase the duration until there is no muscular soreness after your run. Also remember that tendons take longer than muscles to strengthen so increase the duration even slower than you think appropriate.

If you are keen to give it a go follow these tips to make sure you don’t injure yourself.

1. Strengthen Your Calves
Running barefoot will place more load on your calves and your Achilles tendon so developing more calf strength will help prevent injuries. Skipping is a perfect exercise for this. In your normal running shoes skip every second day beginning with 2-3 lots of 30 seconds. Gradually increase this time but stop when your calves start to feel fatigued. After a week or two try skipping barefoot or in your minimalist shoes. Reduce the time you skip for and be guided by fatigue in your calves.

2. Wear Flat Shoes
Spending some time walking around in shoes with no raise under your heels will help prepare your calves for running barefoot. Work shoes for both men and women typically have a significant raise under the heel so try to find a shoe that has none and make them your work shoe for the next month. Failing that , walk around your house barefoot as much as possible.

3. Pick Your Surface
The best place to start is a hard, smooth surface like concrete. Whilst a soft surface like grass may seem more logical it has the disadvantage of being more uneven which places a greater load on the ankle. It will also be more forgiving and not give you the feedback you need to change your running style. Once your technique has improved then move to a softer surface such as grass or trails to run longer distances.

Choose your surface wisely says Andy
Choose your surface wisely says Andy

4. Run Softly And Silently
As you run listen to the sound of your feet. The quieter you run the better. This is another reason why learning to run barefoot on concrete is better since you can hear your feet land whereas grass will muffle the noise. If you are a heel striker you will hear and feel yourself crash into the ground whereas if you land mid foot you should land softly and silently.

5. Reduce Your Distance.
Running barefoot is a completely different experience for your legs so drastically reduce your distance and build up very slowly. For most people 5-10 minutes broken up into 1 -2 minute intervals is a good place to start.

6. Shorten Your Stride
By consciously reducing your running stride length you make it easier to land on your mid foot. It will feel unnatural at first but stay focused on short stride, and soft landing and you will gradually become used to it. Although some claim that running barefoot will alter your running automatically I have seen a number of bare footers that still over stride and land heavily on their heels so don’t take it for granted.

7. Build Slowly
Remember when you started running how long it took to go from being able to run 5k to running 10k? It will probably take twice as long running barefoot. Normally the rule of not increasing your distance by more than 10% will allow your body to adapt to training without injury. With barefoot I suggest you drop that to 5%. You are placing a far greater load on the foot and ankle muscles that have been sheltered in shoes for a long time and they will take a while to gain sufficient strength

Inov8 Talon 190s are on the minimal side and a preferred choice of shoe my many trail runners
Inov8 Talon 190s are on the minimal side and a preferred choice of shoe my many trail runners.

8. Don’t Over Do It
Some people will love the feeling of running barefoot and want to ditch the shoes forever. A more sensible approach is to keep running with your normal shoes and once or twice a week do some short barefoot sessions at the end of a normal run. As the length of these sessions increases you can then drop one of your normal runs and replace it with a barefoot run. Be warned that if your normal run is 10 miles it may take several months to reach that distance barefoot.

9. Minimalist Shoes
If you prefer to take the minimalist shoes option instead of barefoot be warned it can take just as long for your body to become used to them so treat it the same as if your were running barefoot. Minimalist shoes by their very nature offer no support or cushioning and their main advantage over barefoot is they will protect your feet from sharp objects.

10. Have Fun
Once you have gained some strength in your feet and ankles and improved your running form it’s time to have some fun. For many the feeling of running barefoot through the fields takes you back to the freedom you had playing as a child. Find a local park , kick of the shoes and enjoy yourself.

In an upcoming blog I’ll look at the different types of minimalist shoes and which ones may be best for you.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

3 thoughts on “The Beginners Guide to Barefoot Running

  1. Great advice Andy.

    When I started wearing Vibram Five Fingers (Fives) about 4 years ago, I knew the importance of not doing too much to soon, but I still got excited one day and did a 2hr+ run barefoot on concrete paths. The run was fine but I definitely overdid it because the tops of my feet hurt badly in a nerve irritation kind of way (I guess it was tendonitis). I rested for a week without Fives and it felt fine, so I put my Fives back on and the painful inflammation returned immediately. It took a full month of not wearing Fives at all before the injury was able to heal and I could get back to running in Fives. Since then I’ve had no injuries and have run Poor Man’s Comrades (90km of roads), 12 Foot Track (90km trail), GNW100s (175.3km), 24 hr Sri Chimroy in Sydney, and many more races in Fives with no problems.

    I run faster on a track doing mid-distance running in Fives (and faster again barefoot) but the main reason I wear Fives (or go totally barefoot preferably) is the sheer pleasure that comes from feeling the ground while you run.

    I may never be ready but I’ve wanted to do GNW100s totally barefoot for several years now. My feet are more ready than ever before, its my favourite race, and the very thought of trying (when I feel I’ll stand a chance) excites me 😀 It would have to be at Bill Thompson’s pace…but I’m sure everyone would agree that’s still pretty fast 🙂

    – Grant

    1. I think its worth mentioning that my personal experience is that an ultra in Fives leaves my legs with dramatically less to recover from than when I run in shoes.
      One issue I’ve notice in doing GNW100s in Fives is overstimulation. By the last 10 miles the soles my feet are screaming out for a rest, but its worth putting up with that for the quick recovery time.
      Minimal footwear and barefoot is great for cooling, but will little to nothing between you and the ground it is not so great on super hot surfaces (like the road to Congewai at midday in GNW100s).
      Clean Injinji socks every 4-5hrs or changed as soon as socks get sand, mud or grit in them mean zero blisters for me which makes running ultras infinitely more enjoyable 🙂

  2. I’ve found out that running barefoot and running in minimalist shoes as a good training tool. It enhances your technique making you more comfortable and efficient in each stride. When I run BF during training, I stick to soft surfaces (grass, sand and turf) and keep this to a minimum time.

    When running in trails, road or on a race, I prefer shoes with more padding underneath the paws.

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