“How do I start barefoot running?”
“What’s the best book/course/coach for learning to run barefoot?”
“Can you show me what barefoot running form looks like?”
I get these questions a lot. And, frankly, I don’t want to answer them. In fact, I’ve resisted writing this post for, well, months.
Here’s why (in no particular order, even though I’m using numbers to delineate my reasons):
- Frankly, if all you did was take off your shoes, go for a run, stop when it hurts, and experiment to find ways of running that don’t hurt, you would learn more than I, or anyone else, could tell you.
- Those of us who’ve observed barefoot runners and coached barefoot running are starting to notice the obvious: different runners have different form. That is, when you look at the BEST runners, they may have a few things in common, but they’re not all doing the same thing. So, I don’t want to say something that isn’t going to be relevant for YOU.
- To be totally candid, I’m in an awkward political situation — as a guy who sells “barefoot-style” footwear, and who would like to have ALL the coaches referring their clients to me, I can’t single out one coach/book/technique over another (or one “under” another, either). I can tell you that if you listen to ALL of them, and then follow a bit of advice I’ll give, below, you’ll appreciate each coach for his/her unique contribution to you barefoot running form.
- Many runners aren’t aware of what their bodies are actually doing, so certain recommendations won’t be effective anyway. If I say to you, “don’t land on your heels,” and show you a video of how you’re “supposed” to land on your foot, you may be 100% convinced that you’re doing what I suggested, and then a video might show that you are totally heel-striking. In other words, what I say will be less important than what you learn on your own.
That said, here’s some thoughts about getting started with running bare footed.
- Realize that the best coach you have is YOU and your sensations and whatever you can learn from watching video of yourself (especially slow motion video). In fact, you MUST become your own best coach, because no external coach will be there for every situation you’ll encounter as a runner. If you can’t listen to yourself, make adjustments in what you’re doing, and know when to STOP… no other coach will be helpful anyway.
- Start SLOWLY and build up. Check out my post about getting started with barefoot running. There’s no rush in making the transition to barefoot running. And there’s no way to predict how long it will take YOU.
- Remember that this is a never-ending process that you can always improve.
To be slightly more specific and technical, and tell you some of what you would discover on your own with enough time and attention:
- Hard, smooth surfaces are the best for learning. They give you the most feedback.
- You want to land mid-foot or fore-foot. Do NOT reach out with your foot to do this; that’s the opposite of what you want to do.
- You don’t need to stay on the balls of your feet and put extra strain on your calves and Achilles tendons. Once you land on the ball/midfoot, you can let your heel drop if it feels better to do that, and it will feel better/worse depending on whether you’re going uphill or downhill or on a flat, and depending on what speed you’re running.
- Don’t PULL your foot toward you, or PUSH it behind you… that’ll cause blisters as well as put extra strain on your hamstrings (pulling) and calves (pushing). Think, instead, about PLACING your foot on the ground and LIFTING it off. And lift by using your hip flexor. That is, think about lifting your foot off the ground by lifting up your knee, not by pushing off the ground.
- Aim for having your feet land more “under your body” than you’re probably used to. Landing with your foot out in front of you too much is “overstriding” and it’s one of the habits that most of us need to work to overcome. You may need to even exaggerate this to get the feel of it — put your feet “behind you” when you land. You won’t actually be able to do this, but if you try it will highlight what overstriding feels like… and the correct place to put your feet is probably somewhere in between.
- Un-Plop your feet. This is hard to describe, but many of us slam our feet into the ground, or wait for the ground to hit our feet. We plop them onto the ground instead of meeting the ground lightly. There are a lot of “cues” coaches use to teach this: Pretend you’re running on hot coals, or on thin ice, or trying to sneak up on a deer, or that your feet are wheels and you want them to touch where the wheel meets the ground, or that the ground is moving below you like a treadmill and you want to move your feet at the same speed as the treadmill. You will need to find your own way to feel this.
- Core tight… when you run, your body is a spring. If you collapse in your midsection, you’re weakening the spring and making it less efficient and, therefore, making it harder to run.
- Pick up your cadence. Most people think 180 steps-per-minute is some magic number. It’s not. Some successful runners do more, some do less. The point of moving your feet faster than you’re probably used to is that it gives you less time to keep your feet on the ground… and that’ll help you learn to place/lift, “un-plop” and not overstride.
- LISTEN… if you’re running loudly, if you make a lot of noise when your feet hit the ground, you’re doing one of the above incorrectly. This is true if you’re barefoot, in Xero Shoes, or any other footwear. You can run quietly (not silently), and quiet running is usually a sign of good form.
- WONDER! When I run, I keep a question in my mind, “How can I make this lighter, easier, and more fun… and, sometimes, faster?” Then, I experiment and see what I can find.
Then, most importantly:
- REST. Bodies get stronger when you let them rest. There are no bonus points for not taking a day off.
- HAVE FUN! If it’s not fun, do something different. Try a different surface, a different speed, a different reason for running (compete if you haven’t before, do an obstacle course if you’re usually all about putting in mile after mile).
I’m sure others of you have other simple pointers. Can’t wait to hear them.
Oh, and did I mention, barefoot running can be, should be, and IS (once you get it) FUN… don’t forget that!