Barefoot running is becoming more popular.
There are many benefits to this type of running, including increased foot strength, decreased risk of injury, and a lower impact on the body's joints.
Barefoot running is not for everyone. It can be hard to transition from wearing shoes to going barefoot with different surfaces and challenges.
If you're considering switching, here's a complete guide on how to transition to a barefoot running technique.
Foot Position & Striking
Overstriding & Heel Striking
More often than not, you'll hear that heel striking is bad. And it often is.
Easy to fix right? Instead, just land on your toes. Not quite.
This jump in logic leads beginners to avoid letting their heel touch the ground at all costs and, instead, run on their toes.
There is a big difference between landing on the heel with force and the heel touching the ground as part of a wider movement.
It's okay for your heel to touch the ground.
The real enemy is overstriding and heel striking is an easy to recognise symptom of it.
First, we have to focus on not overstriding.
To prevent overstriding, aim to land the feet as close to your centre of mass as possible. That's directly under your hips. That means shorter, quicker strides so that your foot lands directly under your body.
This is a big change if you've run in cushioned running shoes your whole life as they allow you to overstride and get away with it (at least in the short term).
If you can get that nailed down first, it doesn't matter about your heel so much. In fact, most experienced barefoot runners will touch their heel down with some force after already landing on their mid-foot.
The key is that by landing with the foot under the body, the shin bone is always perpendicular to the ground essentially making overstriding (and therefore heel striking) impossible.
But Don't Think About It...
Great advice is to not think about your stride length or how your feet are hitting the ground at all.
Don't try to micro-manage the feet, simply keep them fully relaxed and let your involuntary instinct take care of their positioning. If you consciously flex your foot in either direction, it can reduce the elastic recoil of your tendons lowering efficiency.
Instead, if we focus our attention on simply lifting the foot from the knee cap as quickly as possible after it touches the floor, instinct will take care of the rest.
"Lifting the foot" doesn't mean pushing off the ground with force and you don't need to "reach" out with your feet. Simply let your legs spring along using the tendons own elasticity to maximise efficiency.
Upper Legs - Knees, Glutes, Hamstrings
The glutes are the biggest muscles of the body and they're full of slow-twitch muscle fibres that are highly fatigue resistant. The hamstrings and hip flexors are smaller muscles and they're full of fast-twitch muscle fibres that are highly fatigue sensitive.
You want to use your glutes more as they're designed with running in mind. Gary Ward's videos for training the glutes are a great place to start.
Pop, Pop, Pop; Lift, Lift Lift
To generate forward momentum, most people make the mistake of pushing off with their back leg.
Instead, try falling forward by leaning your whole body. Your instinct will kick in and you'll step forward. You didn't need to 'push off' with your back foot to do that.
Running is simply this process repeated at a quicker pace. We're using gravity to accelerate rather than our own 'pushing'. Don't create extra friction between the foot and the ground by accelerating yourself forward faster when your foot is placed firmly on the ground.
All you need to do is focus on one thing...
Lift your knees up quickly to keep catching yourself whilst keeping the forward lean.
Mental Tips & Tricks
For many, it's useful to keep a simple analogy in the head whilst running to help maintain running form.
Different ones seem to work for different people and so here's a list... choose your mental poison:
- "Push off the ground with the heel" - Touchdown with your forefoot and midfoot, then push into the ground with your heel.
- "Kiss the ground; don’t bash it."
- "Running barefoot on hot coals."
- "Sneaking up on someone."
- "Falling forward."
- "How fast I can lift my feet once it touches the ground."
- "Lift foot from the knee cap."
- "Lift foot from the hips."
- "My feet are light as a feather."
Run tall. Imagine you're a puppet and there is a string connected to the top of your head and it's pulling you upright. Start with that feeling and aim to maintain it at all times.
This makes you high in your hips, tightens the core and prevents the bum from sticking out.
From there, lean forward and let gravity do its thing. Instinct will move the legs forward to stop you from falling on your face. Don't try to consciously extend the legs further than they want to go on their own.
Repeat. This is running. Keep checking in with your posture to make sure you're not getting sloppy and slouching as the mileage increases.
Running cadence is a good indicator of your stride length but don't make the mistake of seeing it as the end goal. Your cadence will be a result of your genetics, biomechanics and will be different for everyone.
180bpm thrown around a lot and it's good to have in mind but your personal BPM may vary.
If your BPM is <150 it's a sign that you may be overstriding or of a serious inefficiency in running form which needs attention.
Run with the idea of lifting your knees with quick light steps, like running on lava. Cadence will increase naturally.
Arms & Shoulder Movement
Similar to the feet, the arm and shoulder technique will typically fall into place naturally when we focus on the pop, pop, pop motion.
That said, here's a great barefoot running technique video from Dr. Mark Cucuzzella that explains it in great detail.
Modern Running Shoes vs. Minimalist Shoes vs Barefoot Shoes vs. Fully Barefoot
It's clear that humans don't normally need artificial support or cushioning to run.
Modern running shoes have both cushioning and support in abundance. This causes a lot of problems with muscles atrophy, impacts and heel-striking.
It's important to know the difference between minimalist shoes and barefoot shoes, essentially all 'barefoot shoes' are considered minimalist, but not all minimalist shoes are considered 'barefoot'.
Shoes, even barefoot shoes, always create a more comfortable barrier between your foot and the ground, especially from friction from lateral forces.
By going barefoot, you can feel the feedback with your feet and make quick adjustments to your form resulting in greater performance over a potentially shorter transitioning time.
Being barefoot is the greatest teacher.
But if you want to run in shoes, here's the ultimate list of barefoot shoes and sandals to run in.
Barefoot Running Tips, Trick & Hacks
- Make sure to have the appropriate foot strength needed before going too hard. You can understand where you're at based on this video.
- Learn to run well at slow speeds by doing easy runs. Feel free to add in intervals of faster running eg. 5 reps of 30 seconds faster running, 1min rest towards the end of a run).
- Work on drills and exercises outside of running to reinforce better biomechanics.
- Film yourself and analyse your form. Ask for feedback from running coaches with a barefoot ethos or on barefoot running forums. Here are some tips for getting maximum value from your videos:
- Run-on hard surfaces (like concrete).
- Running barefoot (no shoes or socks), makes it easier to see any potential flaws.
- Get footage from the side, front, back and close to the foot landing.
- If you want to wear shoes, you'll want to look for minimalist shoes that meet all the criteria of a barefoot shoe.
- On Spotify, there are playlists of songs that are 90/180 bpm to help you keep your running cadence high. Many also recommend downloading a metronome app, setting the beat to 180, and using that to measure your cadence.
- Want to listen to your own music? Use SortYourMusic to organise your own Spotify playlists by tempo.
Barefoot Running Technique Videos
Barefoot Running Warm-up Exercises:
- Are You Ready to Go Minimal?
- 8 Drills to help you run faster with less injuries!
- Intrinsic Foot Strengthening by Dr. Spina
- Rebuilding your feet
- PEP - Prevent Injury, Enhance Performance program
- FIFA 11+ a complete warm-up programme
- Navy SEAL BUD/s Training | Preventing Knee Pain
- Injury Prevention: 6 Moves to Protect Your Knees
- 4 Knee Strengthening Exercises for Runners | Knee Exercises
- Knee Exercises to Strengthen Muscles around the Patella to Avoid Knee Pain
- Knee Pain Stretches & Exercises - Ask Doctor Jo
Barefoot Running Technique Videos:
Barefoot Running injuries: How to Fix and Strengthen your Feet!