Do not “transition slowly” to barefoot running

Transition to barefoot runningThe more time you spend around barefoot running and minimalist running — the more articles you read in magazines and newspapers, the more interviews you hear with doctors or runners, the more stories you see on the news, the more websites you see about it, the more research you hear about it — the more often you’ll hear one particular admonition.

Actually, if the piece is supportive of running barefoot, you’ll hear it as a recommendation. If the piece is anti-barefoot, then it’ll be a warning.

And that bit of instruction/caution is:

Transition to barefoot running SLOWLY. If you make the transition too quickly, you’ll get hurt.

Admittedly, even on this site I say something that could sound similar about how to start running barefoot.

But to focus on how quickly or slowly you make the transition is to miss the point. Running barefoot safely and enjoyably isn’t about whether it takes you a day, a week, or a year to do so. It’s about HOW you make the transition, not HOW LONG it takes to make it.

It’s about form and function, not about seconds on the clock.

In other words, the keys to running barefoot are following a few rules:

  • When your foot touches the ground it should be almost directly under your body. Don’t “overstride.” That is, don’t reach out in front of you with your foot in order to land. Many people who’ve been running in padded, motion controlled shoes already overstride, reaching out with their heels and landing on an almost straight leg. Some  people will take off their shoes and continue to do the same thing, but point their toes in order to land on their forefoot. Others, who may not overstride in shoes, hear that you have to land on your forefoot when you run barefoot, and then will overstride in order to do so. Either way, landing on your forefoot, with your foot out in front of your body puts extra stress on the forefoot and could lead to problems or injury. Especially, if you have a “no pain, no gain” mentality and treat discomfort as something that you just have to work through.
  • Focus on using less energy and effort. For example, rather than pushing yourself off the ground with your foot/toes, lift your foot off the ground by flexing at the hip. Pushing off the ground uses WAY more calf muscle effort than is necessary. Similarly, if you think you have to stay on your toes and never let your heel touch the ground, which isn’t true, you’ll put more strain on your Achilles tendon than you need. Many people confuse the calf/Achilles pain they get from using too much effort with having tight calves/Achilles. Trust me, 99 times out of 100, calf or Achilles pain are an effort issue, not a tightness issue. And, trust me again, you’re probably not the 1 out of 100 for whom it’s not.
  • Rather than “landing” on your feet, think of your feet as something that only touch the ground for as little time as necessary, and have them moving at the speed you’re traveling across the ground. Your feet should contact the ground more like a wheel that just rolls over it, than like a stick that gets planted and pulled out.
  • Many of the other instructions about how to run barefoot are really just cues to help you get the correct foot placement and use less effort. For example, the idea that you need to run at 180 steps per minute — it’s not a magic number. It’s that picking up your cadence makes it easier to place your feet under your body, at the correct speed, and with less effort. You can’t “plant” your feet, when they have no time spend on the ground. Similarly, successful barefooters recommend running on a HARD, smooth surface… the reason is that you get more feedback from running on a nice road or bike path than you do from running on the grass (besides, there could be things hiding in the grass that you don’t want to step on).
  • HAVE FUN… if you’re just grinding out the miles it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll fall into bad form and increase your chances of injury.

How long it takes for you to learn to follow those rules is idiosyncratic. For some it takes no time at all because they already run in the way I described. For others, it takes longer, since you’re learning a new skill — and different people learn at different rates.

But to focus on the amount of time it takes you to make the change is to put your attention on the wrong thing. If you believe that it’s just about putting in the hours until you’re suddenly a successful barefoot runner, you may never make the form adjustments that will give you what you want.

On the other hand, if you pay attention to the correct things, the important things, to your form… that could speed up your transition time dramatically. Pay attention to your sensations — if it hurts, take a look at the tips, above and try something different until it doesn’t hurt. No pain, GAIN.

Turn off the clock and turn on you awareness and you’ll be having fun running barefoot in no time.

  • This was a truly brilliant piece of writing. As a voice teacher, I frequently run into unproductive attitudes regarding the time it takes to learn. I was thrilled to read this post and modified it for my students:

    Thank you so much. BTW, I’ve just ordered my first pair of Xeros and am looking forward to transitioning to running in them….however long that process takes!

    • wrjohnson45

      I ordered the original Invisible shoe, same thing, and have ordered 5 more pairs since then. I gave two pair away to a store manager as he loves to try new things. He loves them. I just ordered two more of the earliest style just to make sure I always have a pair handy. Besides, I have my own working template. Cost of the shoes, less than half for the two pairs for what one could barely buy one. This company is great to work with.

  • Kevin Hulburt

    #2 for me. When I first started, I was running without my heel ever touching and my calf exploded with pain. I was overemphasizing in order to forefoot strike.

  • chelsea dudley

    I tend to run barefoot tip toes is that okay ? I barely hit the ground with my heal of my foot. I also noticed the tops of my foot would hurt but nothing else which is nice since I have a disease called RSD/CRPS and i’m trying to cure myself with running ( which is very heard when its in your legs ) but the only way is to be active. so. anyways is it okay to tend to run on the front of your foot?

    • Most people who land first on their forefoot find that it’s best to relax and let the heel touch down after the forefoot landing. There are some (not a lot) barefoot runners who stay on their forefoot entirely and never let the heel touch. And others land more flatfooted. All of these are fine as long as you’re landing with your foot close to your center of mass (almost under your body) rather than way out in front. From there, experiment. Relax. See what feels best (knowing it may change depending on the speed you’re running, the surface you’re on, and whether you’re going up or down hill). In other words, play and have fun 😉

  • Kevin Borschel

    I’ve been running minimalist since 2011 and exclusively barefoot now for a little over 2 months. My feet have toughened up significantly, but I still get tender (or blister mildly) mostly on the forefoot pads between my big toe and second toe. Also, my second toes extend a little further than all the rest and occasionally blister still. I realize blisters can be a sign of incorrect form, but I am wondering if they are ALWAYS a sign of improper form, or is there an amount of normal acclimation to be experienced regardless of form? I walk and/or run most everyday with my walks averaging 1 mile and my runs are now 4 – 8 miles. Thanks for any feedback!

    • a) Blisters are always a sign of a form problem. Or, more accurately, of creating more horizontal force (friction) than is necessary.

      b) Stay tuned. I just made a video about this and will be posting in (along with 9 others) in the “Discover Your Feet” section of our site (if it’s after September 1st, 2015, it’s probably there already).

  • In short, if it hurts you’re doing something wrong.

    Try landing more mid-foot or flatfooted. See if you can become aware of where and how you’re expending energy and try to relax more and “do less.”

    I can’t really diagnose much more from a couple of sentences in a message.

  • Arjan Wiertz

    Thank you! Just ordered my first pair of Xeros. When running barefoot, I have found the perfect form after some years. Never pain or tight muscles. However, as soon as i put on my five fingers or vivos, i seem to lose touch with the ground, and run with much more effort. I hope the xeros will help me do better at this!

  • Ami Chopine

    Thanks for the tip to flex the hip, and thinking of my feet touching the ground more like a wheel. I just tried it, and solved the calf pain. I started barefoot running after a) I sometimes struggled to afford the running shoes, or was grateful when we didn’t – then thought about how olympic runners and the rest of the human race who ran and hunted, etc didn’t have such shoes until quite recently, and why would evolution/God lead to feet that had such a need? and then b) my feet are really wide, and my middle toe was going numb on one of them.

  • moses5407

    While this is good general advice .. focusing on the ability to maintain proper mechanics .. it dangerously ignores the known timelines of tissue accommodation to new imposed loads. Bone, muscle, tendons and ligaments all have different and well-known adaptation timelines which can be delayed by age, various medical conditions and medications .. but not accelerated.

    The runner’s ability to accurately detect faulty mechanics is very limited, barring access to high-speed video, force plates and a very trained eye.

    Given the fact that post-overload tissue inflammation does not become apparent in slight overload situations for 8-24 hours afterwards, it’s far too easy for the runner making training changes to get into a “dig-the-hole-slowly” progressive injury before they realize it.

    For these reasons, a transition calendar which respects tissue accommodation timelines as well as education in early detection of problematic inflammation is critical to assured success.