How to Start Barefoot Running: A Beginners Guide

November 19, 2021
Inside this article:

Have you considered making the transition to barefoot running?

Many benefits come with transitioning to barefoot or minimalist shoes. Avoiding injury, improving performance, or just simple curiosity.

This article will help break down the process for making this change and give you tips on how to do so safely!

Why Transition To Barefoot Running

A lifetime in shoes gradually teaches you to run in ways that would hurt any barefoot. Modern shoes encourage you to overextend your legs without immediate consequences. If you do that barefoot, it'll hurt.

And that's important, pain is evolution's warning system. This is the essence of transitioning to barefoot running, listening to the bodies feedback and reacting to it to improve and perfect running form.

This leads to:

  • Less risk of injury (especially in the knees).
  • Performance improvements over time.
  • Higher running efficiency.

Differences Between Barefoot Running and Running In Modern Shoes

Modern running shoes are built with thick, cushioned heels. Take this cushioning away and you will be landing on your mid/forefoot instead of your heel. This change changes the way you use the muscles in your legs essentially making them a big spring. Using them this way leads to more efficiency and a reduction in large impact forces on the joints, especially the knees.

Landing on the mid/forefoot also makes the running gait shorter. This is because of the shorter ground contact time and the inability to land on the heel without it hurting. A shorter gait means that running cadence will increase.

Barefoot running will utilise different muscles too in different ways. The calves and feet become more active. So do a myriad of different stabilising muscles in the foot due to less overall support from shoes. This leads to strengthening these previously underutilized muscles.

Overall, running form will and should change significantly. From a long, heel striking, clunky technique to a shorter, smoother, mid/forefoot striking technique.

How To Transition To Barefoot Running Safely And Effectively

Not Adjusting Stride Length

Often, when transitioning, people try to land on the forefoot/midfoot while keeping the same gait length as before. This is a bad idea as it puts a lot of force on both your knee and ankle.

To avoid this, it's important to land the feet directly underneath the hips when they contact the ground. There are many great videos to help you understand what to aim for when running barefoot.

Don't Ignore Pain

As mentioned earlier, being mindful and careful with every step is solid advice. If there is pain, you're doing something wrong. You absolutely shouldn't 'Zone Out'  or 'get in the zone' and suffer through it.

Should You Use Barefoot Shoes or Run Barefoot

All shoes, even barefoot shoes, take away the direct friction between your foot and the ground. This removes an important feedback loop. Because of this shoes can potentially slow progress down instead of accelerating it.

Furthermore, all types of shoes give you a lot more grip than you would have just been barefoot. This allows you to put significantly stronger horizontal braking forces on joints that they're simply not built to withstand. Do this repetitively and that's when overuse injuries occur.

When fully barefoot, your feet will hurt if you're doing something wrong, so all you have to do is stop when it hurts, and change your form/distance until it doesn't hurt anymore.

It would seem then that going completely barefoot would be the most effective method for transitioning quickly to barefoot running.

The process would look something like this:

Run barefoot on a smooth surface as far and as fast as you want > If your form is bad, the skin on the foot will tell you and force you to stop > On your next run, adjust your form > Repeat.

That said, there are still many cases where you may want to wear shoes such as keeping your feet warm in the wet, winter months, medical reasons or simply preference.

There is a difference between barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes and what you should choose depends on what you need.

When transitioning using minimalist shoes, consider the following tips:

  • Take it slow.
  • Increase your distance by a small % each week.
  • Record and analyse your running form regularly.
  • Focus consciously on form with every run.
  • Go slower than you think you should.

What To Expect When Transitioning To Barefoot Running

Initially, the change can be hard. To learn a new skill you often have to sacrifice performance in the short term to exceed it in the long term.

That said, as nerves and muscles acclimate to the new sensations and you will not be as bothered by them.

If you're considering switching to barefoot running, it's important to practice for several months. It might take longer for you to fully acclimate.

Conclusion

The transition process can take longer than you expect. So take your time and don't rush it. Enjoy the journey, discover and reconnect with your body, and learn how to run effectively.