While barefoot running isn’t new, it’s popularity has been going through the roof since Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run, became popular in 2009.
Ironically, Born To Run isn’t really about barefoot running. It’s about the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyon of Mexico and how they’re able to run pain-free and injury free for hundreds of miles, well into their 70s. It’s about the first ever ultramarathon held in the Copper Canyon. It’s about the fascinating characters around this race. And it’s about Chris’s exploration of safer, more enjoyable running.
It happens that around the time the book was becoming popular, one of the people featured in the book published a study about barefoot running. That person is Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University and, in a nutshell, what Daniel showed was:
Runners in shoes tend to land on their heels, essentially using the padding built into the shoes
Landing in this manner sends a massive jolt of force (called an impact transient force spike) through the ankles, knees, hips, and into the spine
Runners who run barefoot tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot, with the landing point nearer to the body’s center of mass (not out in front of the body, like shod runners)
Barefoot runners use the natural shock-absorbing, spring-like mechanism of the muscles, ligaments and tendons within and around the foot, the ankle, the knee, and the hip.
Barefoot runners do not create the impact transient force spike through their joints
In short, running shoes could be the cause of the very injuries for which they’re sold as cures!
Take off your shoes and you’re less likely to land in a biomechanically compromised manner.
This seems to explain why people who run barefoot often report the elimination of injuries (that were caused by bad form that they no longer use) and, more importantly, that running is more fun!
Now it’s not all as simple as this.
The shoe companies, realizing that barefoot was becoming a big deal, began selling “barefoot shoes”… most of which are no more barefoot than a pair of stilts.
Even the Vibram Fivefingers, which look like bare feet, aren’t necessarily as barefoot as they appear.
In an independent study, runners in Xero Shoes (formerly Invisible Shoes) were found to be biomechanically identical to when they were barefoot.
The key to successful barefoot running seems to be the ability to use the nerves in your feet, to Feel The World. Basically, if you try to run barefoot the same way you do when you’re in shoes, IT HURTS!
Figure out how to do what doesn’t hurt and you’ll be running in a way that’s more fun and less likely to cause injuries.
Now, I know it’s not as simple as that, and I’m the first to admit that the science supporting barefoot running isn’t in yet. But, then again, there’s no science that shows that running shoes are helpful.
Think about this: people lived for millions of years without shoes, or without anything more than a pair of sandals like Xero Shoes or a pair of moccasins. Runners ran successfully up until the 1970s with shoes that had no padding, no pronation control, no orthotics, and no high-tech materials.
The three parts of our body that have the most nerve endings are our hands, our mouths and our feet. There’s only one of those that we regularly cover and make numb to the world… does that seem right?
Put a limb in a cast and it comes out of the cast a month later atrophied and weaker. When you you bind your feet in shoes that don’t let your foot flex or feel the earth, isn’t that similar to putting it in a cast (or as barefoot runners like to say, a “foot coffin”)?
There’s a lot more on this site about what the benefits of barefoot running — and walking, and hiking, and dancing, and playing — may be. If you have any questions, ask them here, or on our Forum. Or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Pinterest.
Join the conversation. Join the conversion. Feel The World!
The 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.
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: Continue Reading
Here’s another Barefoot Running Q&A video, where I take an email I’ve received and give an answer on video.
In this video we look at the relationship between barefoot and minimalist shoes, foot and calf pain during the transition to barefoot, how minimalist shoes fit in with the transition to bare feet, and how to handle the cold.
Many of our readers heard about Chia from the book, Born To Run, which described it as one of the superfoods that the Tarahumara use to fuel themselves for epic runs. And you’ll often find barefoot runners with a handful of seeds, or a gloopy-looking beverage full of chia.
The Consumerist blog reported that many people are unaware of the recall of chia seeds, caused by the fact that certain chia brands are contaminated with salmonella and have sickened at least 65 people so far.
So, barefoot runners, and everyone else who eats chia, please check your supplies, and not just the seeds that are still stuck in your teeth from last week’s smoothie
Thanks to Frédérik Sisa, for asking me to answer a few questions about barefoot running on his site, The Front Page Online.
I want to highlight a point that I make in the interview, because I think it’s under-appreciated and under-discussed in the barefoot community.
If you haven’t been barefoot in a while – especially if you want to explore barefoot running – you probably are not used to using your muscles in the way that barefooting will demand.
Sometimes this means that the transition to barefoot may require strengthening. More often it means simply paying attention to your body, finding the comfortable way to move that doesn’t require extra effort (that is, I would focus on moving with less effort before trying to get stronger).
The key point I want to emphasize is use less effort.
Most people think that calf or Achilles pain is simply part of the transition process from running in shoes to running barefoot, that the cause is previous underuse, and that the solution is to get stronger.
More often than not, calf or Achilles pain is from using those muscles/tendons more than necessary, not that they’ve been weakened by wearing shoes for some amount of time.
If, when you land, you reach out with your foot (overstriding), you use your calf and Achilles to decelerate. Sure, getting freakishly strong may make that easier to do, but the correct solution is to “stop putting on the brakes” when you land by stopping your overstriding and, instead, placing your foot more “underneath your body.”
Similarly, if you remove your foot from the ground by pushing off with your toes, you’re essentially doing bodyweight calf raises every time you take a stride… and even a short run would be more than your body can handle. Again, the solution isn’t to hit the weight room and improve your calf raise strength. It’s to LIFT your foot off the ground (instead of pushing) by flexing at the hip. If you imagine what happens if a bee would sting your foot… you wouldn’t try to push away from the ground, you would reflexively (faster and easier) pull your foot from the ground with a hip flex.
In order to use less effort, you’ll probably have to start with less running. That’s fine. By the time you figure out how to make things easier, you probably will have gained any extra strength that you may need, if any.
Remember my barefoot running mantra: “How can I make this lighter, easier, and MORE FUN?”
Why would you make the transition to running barefoot? And what’s it like to do that?
How do you avoid doing “too much, too soon”?
Are Vibram Fivefingers the same as barefoot? The best minimalist choice?
We sat down (well, stood up, since I use a treadmill desk ) and talked with Alex Hill about how and why he made the move. Plus we get 2 special guests during our talk, and see some AWESOME feet when we do.
Alex made a “commercial” about Xero Shoes… here it is:
We take a break from our usual chat about barefoot running and walking for this:
I don’t think it’s much of a confession to say that I’m a total health and fitness geek.
I love keeping up on the research about strength training (most recently: power factor training), diet (my latest obsession: resistant starch), supplementation (lately: nothing), and anything else that could improve the quality of my life.
Amber Rogers, from gokaleo.com has put together an incredible collection of 23 ebooks and audios that dig behind the mythology of health and fitness. Some of my favorite writers/researchers are in the mix. In fact, I already owned 3 of the ebooks in the Superheroes of Health collection. But that didn’t stop me from buying the whole package
I hope that you get introduced to some great people, including Armi Legge, Chris Highcock, Alan Aragon, Amber Rogers, and a LOT more. And, more, I hope yu get some great value out of the info that Amber has put together for you.
And now, back to our regular barefoot running shoes programming
I met (online) Al Kavadlo over 3 years ago and was really impressed with what he was teaching and how well he practiced what he preached.
Al has been a big fan of Xero Shoes, sending us photos of him running through the streets of New York, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and performing all manner of impressive bodyweight exercises in his Xeros.
Al is a master of body weight training and has put together some of the best coaching I’ve seen on that topic… something that we both agree every runner could benefit from.
We got together thanks to Google Hangouts to have a chat. We didn’t have an agenda, and didn’t prepare anything in advance, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching this conversation with Al that includes:
Strength training without equipment
Best strengthening exercises for runners
The link between barefoot running and bodyweight exercise
Can you go barefoot in New York? REALLY?
A new way to bring fun — and fitness — into your running
… and a lot more
Let us know what you think in the comments below.
And check out Al’s fitness products:
Pushing The Limits — one of the best books on the essential bodyweight exercises I’ve ever seen. Great photos, and not just because so many of them feature Xero Shoes!
I had an intense sprinting workout 2 days ago, followed by an even more intense weight lifting workout and this morning I can barely walk. Even more, I did a minor tweak of something in my ankle which I’m noticing as I walk on my treadmill (I have a treadmill desk). As I’m walking, I have to experiment and make minor changes to my gait in order to walk with proper form and pain free.
This reminded me of an old joke:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
“Well, stop doing that!”
While this is an old joke, it’s important barefoot running lesson, namely:
If it hurts, STOP DOING THAT.
Remove the following thought from your mind
For decades now we’ve been told things like “No pain, no gain” (I’m assuming you remember the running shoe company that first told you that).
(BTW, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but if I sold a product that contributed to injuries the way that running shoes seem to, I can’t think of a better way to convince people to use my product, despite the effects they may have been experiencing when using it.)
But, back to the point… When it comes to barefoot running (and walking, and hiking, and anything else), the most important skill you can develop is the ability to be your own coach. And the most important coaching skill you can learn is to experiment with different movement patterns.
When it comes to running barefoot, the odds are high that if you’re doing something that hurts you’re doing something incorrectly. And the way to make things stop hurting is to do something differently.
Becoming your own barefoot running coach
What are some of the kinds of hurts I’m talking about?
(sore anything, really)
Abrasion between your toes, on top of your foot, or around your heel (if you’re wearing huaraches).
If you’re wearing huaraches running sandals, there are some “injuries” to the sandals that “hurt”, like:
Wearing away the toe knot
Breaking the toe strap above the knot
Breaking the strap by the outside ankle hole
All of these can be corrected by doing something differently, by changing your gait, or your thinking.
What kind of changes are we talking about?
Don’t reach out with your foot (overstriding), but place your foot under your body as much as possible. For some people, you’ll want to try to have your feet land behind you (you won’t be able to, but the cue will move your feet further back). Barefoot Ken Bob has a great line: Move your torso forward and have your feet try to catch up. Another tip for doing something different than overstriding: pull your toes up towards your knees slightly, just before you land… some people overstride by reaching out with their toes.
Don’t push off the ground with your toes/calves, but LIFT your foot off the ground by flexing the hip.
Don’t think of your foot as something you “land” on, but as something that skims across the ground at the speed you’re moving.
Try a different surface — smooth hard surfaces are the best for barefoot running because they give you the most feedback about your form. But if you’re on a surface that hurts to run on, try a different one.
Do shorter runs. Give yourself as much time as YOU need to learn proper barefoot technique. There’s no magic number of days or weeks that it’ll take. It’s different for everyone. Start with short runs, really short runs… like 200 yards.
Pick up your cadence. Move your feet faster, without running faster. Experiment with different speeds. Some people say you MUST run at 180 steps per minute. It’s not true; that’s not a magic number. But the odds are good that you’ll want faster turnover than you’re used to.
In the cold, do “loops” instead of runs. Your body can handle cold better than you think, especially if, instead of doing one long run, you go out until your feet are cold, come back and warm up, and repeat.
Try landing on your feet in different ways. You’re not required to land on the ball of your foot. Midfoot might work better for you. Flat footed might work better. How you land when you’re going uphill may be different than downhill. Fast may be different than slow.
Many of these are overlapping. If you don’t overstride, you won’t have to pull your foot toward you. If you speed up your cadence, it’s harder to overstride and harder to use your calves too much.
Do the math
Many of the problems described above are related to these equations:
Excessive friction causes abrasion.
Abrasion causes blisters or lace wear.
Excessive friction is unnecessary for running barefoot.
Using muscles more than necessary causes soreness.
You can run barefoot with less muscle tension than you think.
If you look at the feet of accomplished barefoot runners, you won’t find blisters or callouses. If you look at the bottoms of the sandals of accomplished barefoot sandal wearing runners, you’ll find no abrasion on the toe knot or the ankle hole areas.
If you tested barefoot runners for calf strength, they’re typically not any stronger than the average non-barefoot runner.
Did I mention: Have Fun!
Perhaps this is the most important coaching tip you can give yourself
If you’re not having fun, do something different until you are! Run like a 3 year old for a while: let your head lead you, let your arms flail, run in circles and sweeping arcs, make noise!
I often have this thought going through my head as I run: “What can I do to make this lighter, easier, and more fun?” Give it a whirl.
Good to great
A good coach can give you a workout to follow.
A great coach will adjust the workout, moment by moment, based on reality.
Feeling good? That’ll change things.
Feeling tired? That’ll change things.
Different location, elevation, weather? That’ll change things.
Let yourself become a great barefoot running coach.
And let us know how it goes!
Quick update: The evening after writing this post, Lena asked me, “How’s your ankle?”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“You wrote a post that said you tweaked your ankle.”
“Oh, right,” I said, remembering. “After an hour of experimenting with how I was walking on the treadmill, it must have fixed itself, because it’s fine now.”
There are LOTS of reason you'll want to get out of your regular shoes and go barefoot or wear Xero Shoes. But the "barefoot world" is full of mythology, contradiction and, frankly, lies told to you by giant shoe companies. Even ones that sell minimalist shoes.
How do you discover the truth? How do you find the fastest and easiest way to start enjoying being barefoot or minimalist, whether you're a walker, hiker, paddle boarder, or runner? Simple. By signing up and receiving our free 7-part series: "Feel The World: How to enjoy the fun and benefits of being barefoot"
“An almost-barefoot feel, but with some protection... provides barefoot-like balance. It's so light you hardly feel it...” -Los Angeles Times
“Winner 2011 "Best Huarache" A powerhouse of a sandal that has no apparent weaknesses.” -Christian Peterson
“I was extremely surprised and delighted by how well the Invisible Shoes fit my feet... the closest to going barefoot without actually going barefoot...” -Jessica Lee
“It wasn’t until Steven made me my first pair that I understood how much fun they are to run in. My feet feel like they’re completely bare...” -Scott McLean
“If you are a barefoot runner or plan on running barefoot, you need a pair of huaraches!...”
“Xero Shoes for kids make an awesome summer sandal. They can be tricked out with beads and charms to make them even more fun. My daughter's daycare teachers always want to know where to get them!” -Justin Owings
“These are soooo cool!! It really is like running barefoot, but with a little protective mat under your feet. Your foot is completely free, unlike the Vibram FiveFingers...” -Joy Frantz
“Running in my Xero Shoes is really enjoyable – they maintain almost all of the fun barefoot feel, and give me enough protection to take on more challenging terrain..." -Donald Buraglio
“These are pretty much the only shoes I wear now. It makes sense that being barefoot (or close to it) is the way to walk..." -Tracy Jones
“Xero Shoes are the closest thing to actual barefoot running. Putting them on made me feel like a Native American warrior! They're great for my strength training workouts as well as running..." -Al Kavadlo