How NOT to start barefoot running - Xero Shoes

How NOT to start barefoot running

I was on a panel discussion about barefoot running a while back. At one point, someone in the audience asked,

So how do I transition to barefoot running?

  • NOTE — even if you’re not a runner, this story is still relevant and important for you… okay, back to the story…

Before I could respond, a well-respected physical therapist suggested the following:

“First, switch to a slightly lower-heeled shoe than what you have. Run in that for a few months. Then switch to a racing flat, maybe one day a week for a while… then add an extra day every month, until you can run in those. Then maybe try something like Vibrams on a soft surface, like grass in a park. Work up to being able to run on the grass… then try a soft dirt path. Eventually you may be able to run on hard surfaces, but don’t do that too often. And I don’t recommend being totally barefoot because you could step on something.”

The only reason I didn’t interrupt him was that I was in shock!

I had never heard anything so insane in my life. Until he he tossed out his next bit of barefoot running advice:

“Expect to spend about 2 to 3 years making the transition. That’s how long I’ve been doing it and I’m still not there.”

That’s when my shock gave way to action, and I took off the politeness gloves.

“Hold on,” I said, “this is completely upside down and wrong!”

Danny Abshire from Newton jumped in as well, “Right, that’s backwards.”

I’ll tell you what Danny and I proposed, instead, in just a moment. But first, let’s back up to the question that started it all.

“How do you transition!?”

The idea built into the question itself seems to make sense. If you’re wearing a motion-controlled shoe with a 3″ heel and a $400 orthotic, it seems logical that you need to slowly wean yourself from all that support. It seems clear that you would need to get comfortable in a lower and lower heel until you’re ready for barefoot.

But as we’ve already seen in the previous days of this course, things are not always as they seem.

Here’s the bottom line:

There is nothing that “prepares” you for being barefoot.

Nothing.

Not “zero-drop” shoes (where your heel is at the same height as the ball of your foot). Not Vibrams. Not a thinner insole. Not even Xero Shoes (more about those in a second).

Anything that you put on your feet will change either your stride and biomechanics, or the amount of sensation you’re feeling in your feet (or both) compared to being barefoot. So once you take off your shoes, or fully feel the ground, you’ll need to learn to move differently.

Here’s where some people stop reading what I’m saying and respond with two arguments (to points I’m not making).

First, they’ll say, “Oh, so you’re some sort of barefoot purist! Who are you to tell me what to wear or not wear?”

To be clear, I’m not telling anyone what to wear and I’m not saying barefoot is the only way to be. Admittedly, the majority of my time I am in Xero Shoes, but not always (more about when I’m not, and when you shouldn’t be in an upcoming lesson).

This article is about the myth of “transitioning”, not about your footwear, or lack thereof.

Secondly, people will say, “Yes, but switching to a racing flat or zero-drop shoe will give your Achilles time to stretch and strengthen, and that better prepares you for being barefoot.”

To them I say, “Not always. And for almost everyone, your Achilles has more than enough stretch. And, even if it were true that you needed to stretch your Achilles, there’s a better way than spending 2-3 years to make that happen.”

Keep in mind that the biggest reason for going totally barefoot is that feeling the ground with your skin gives you the most feedback about your form. Feedback that, if you attend to it, can inspire you to change your gait to something more efficient, easy, and natural. Running in Xero Shoes is, really, the same… if they covered everywhere you stepped in 4-6mm of flexible rubber.

All the other shoes I’ve tested reduce the amount of ground sensation you feel so that you don’t get the feedback you need to adjust your gait.

I’ve seen hundreds of people in VFFs or racing flats who still heel strike or have some other gait pattern where they aren’t getting much if any extra “Achilles strengthening and stretching”.

So, what’s the better way to “transition” that Danny and I chimed in with?

  1. Take off your shoes (or put on your Xero Shoes), find the hardest and smoothest surface you can find (like a bike path or street) and run.
  2. But only do it for about 200 yards.
  3. See how you feel the next day.
  4. You may be sore, you may be fine. If you’re sore, wait until you’re not. Then go try again, and add 100 or 200 yards. Repeat.

I think of this as the “Shampoo method” of barefoot running. Instead of “Lather, Rinse, Repeat,” it’s run a little, rest, repeat (and run a little more).

Keep in mind, there are two types of soreness. One is from using muscles you haven’t used in a while, or using them in a way you haven’t used in a while (if ever), or using them a bit more than usual.

The other is from doing something wrong. Like doing way too much distance (which part of 200 yards was confusing to you?), or trying to stay on your toes without letting your heels ever touch the ground (Not necessary… land mid- or forefoot, but your heel can touch down. No need to do 200 yards of calf raises).

In other words, a little soreness is probably normal. A lot of soreness is telling you to try something different.

And this idea that you need to be on soft surfaces. Completely wrong. And wrong for the same reason that you don’t want to be in cushy running shoes.

Give yourself a soft surface and the odds are good you’ll heel-strike. Plus, soft surfaces don’t give you the feedback you want, the kind that can help you quickly learn a new and better way to run. I’ve seen barefoot runners who’ve only run on grass, and they usually look like shod runners who lost their shoes.

Instead of thinking that you can work your way to barefoot or huaraches slowly, go there immediately. But work your way up in time/distance slowly.

All the strengthening that you want to do before you run barefoot, you’ll get that faster by running barefoot.

All the stretching you need (if, in fact, you need any), you’ll get that by building up your distance, slowly.

To misquote Yoda’s famous “There is no try. Only do.” There is no transition, only run (or walk, as the case may be).

Oh, and in the next lesson, I’ll share some of the most important tips about exactly HOW to run barefoot, including some suggestions that, frankly, I never wanted to share with anyone… shhhhh.

Let me know what you think. Put in your comments, below.

  • Pingback: Barefoot Running: There is no transition, only run. | Discover Vitality Now!

  • Rich Hofmann

    As a child I was barefooted from middle June to early September. I remember people asking my mother about me being barefooted and she always told them that the Dr. said that it would be very good for me to be barefooted – and I did enjoy it. I lived by a lake all year long. As I got older I turned to shoes all year long. In my years as an adult I abandoned shoes and socks and wore burkenstocks (about 28 years ago). I have shoes that I wear to funerals, marriages, and when the temperature drops below 20 degrees. I am smart – about avoiding walking in deep snow (2 inches or more. I have been looking at your barefoot running sandals. I’m now retired and am looking for a light comfortable sandal. How the heck do you keep the barefooted sandal on your foot? I’m very interested in the barefoot sandal and I’m also ready to transition to shoes when the temperature reaches 32 degrees with snow.

  • Randy Kreill., Beavercreek OH

    Steven,

    I’ve been transitioning to barefoot/minimalist for about 20 months. I’ve done it the slow way, as I was training for marathons and a couple ultras during that time. And I didn’t know better at the time…that what you are saying is correct, albeit counterintuitive to most of us who have been “brainwashed” by the shoe industry and society our whole lives.

    Your method is in fact the best way. Run completely barefoot on a smooth, hard surface. Start slow. Build up.

    It’s just that simple, only it’s not. Unless you already have really good running form, which few people do. Even many teenagers who run cross country have sloppy technique and lame posture.

    What’s working for me are two key things. I wish I’d have gotten them done in the proper order.

    First, use Pete Egoscue’s book, Pain Free, to work out any chronic aches, postural weakness, muscle imabalances etc.

    Second, work on running technique, as proper running technique gets you to run from the core, tall and strong from the gut, which lets your feet and legs come along for the ride with less stress. I’ve had wonderful results with Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running book. Both of these books are low cost in paperback.

    Then go barefoot or as close as possible, as often as possible!

    Via this ongoing process, I’ve changed the way I eat, sit, stand, breath, walk, run, etc. Measurable results have been amazing so far and I love the way I feel now.

  • Mark

    Hi Steven, I hate to be that guy but the quote is “Do or do not, there is no try.” which would make yours “Run or run not, there is no transition.”

    Love the post, very good advice about transitioning. The hard part is just getting the technique down. As always, thanks for a great product!

  • Paul

    Hi,

    I fully agree with Steven. I started running barefoot (plus) on asphalt hilly roads just because I have no other choice. Was I injured? Yes, I had to give up running for 2 weeks because of my Achilles. Why? Because I ignored the pain. That was the lesson of patience for me. It’s incredible how you can improve the awareness of your body and understand the messages that it sends you. I’d say – do it slowly but DO IT!

  • tim rodgers

    “…trying to stay on your toes without letting your heels ever touch the ground”

    This was my problem the first few times I tried to run BF. I would get blisters between my first 2 toes just between the ball of my feet and my toes, which I thought was a weird place to get a blister, and couldn’t find anywhere on the internet where anyone else was getting blisters like these.

    All of a sudden one day it dawned on me that I must have been running way to far forward on my toes, and was causing unneeded surface abrasion.

    Subconsciously, I was still thinking of myself as being barefoot and needed to tiptoe around to keep from hurting my feet, even though I was trying to run that way. I relaxed my heel back down and took a more natural gait and voila, no more blisters.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Great insight, Tim.

      Not uncommonly, when people hear that barefoot runners land on their forefoot, they will then REACH OUT with their foot to do so, rather than placing their foot down under them. And this’ll cause the blistering you described.

  • Chrissie

    Use to run alot when I was at school 30 years ago, got out of the habit, then, a few years back trained for and did a half marathon. Every step was endurance, no enjoyment at all and over the last 6 years or so my running just wasn’t worth the pain, in my hips, knees, feet, everywhere really (and I’m only 46!). I’d train to do the odd local 5k or a 5 miler once a year, dose up on ibuprofen and then stop running for weeks afterwards. Until someone at work mentioned barefoot running. Knew nothing about it, and didn’t want to read a whole lot of pros and cons and confuse myself further, so I initially just took out all the padding and insole from my trainers and gave that a try – with a reasonably psoitive result (I had been wearing support shoes with orthosoles). My husband is a qualified sports coach who runs in Brooks Beasts, so, not wanting to give him a seizure by turning out without anything on my feet, I persuaded him to buy me a pair of Merrell pace gloves for Christmas. Two weeks ago I finally got out running – what an awesome difference. A mile the first day, a mile two days later, and so on, then 2 miles last Saturday, leaving just enough time in between for my calves to recover. It has been absolutely awesome!
    Muscle pain is positive pain, I’ve had no repeat of the hip/knee/joint pain from before and, for the first time ever I actually enjoyed running. Now planning a 5 mile race in July and a half marathon sometime next spring.
    Enjoying reading your posts now that I’ve made a start and can make comparisons, try out ideas etc. Who knows, I may actually take the shoes off completely before long :-)

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Chrissie, if you liked the barefoot feel of your pace gloves, I predict you would LOVE the feel of Xero Shoes… check out http://www.xeroshoes.com/compare (and the sites linked to from that page). Xeros are as close to barefoot as you can get, while still giving you protection and having “something” on your feet.

      Your husband would just think you’re in a cool pair of sandals. You don’t need to tell him you just did a 5k in them ;-)

  • Staffan Svensson

    Tried BF a couple of times last year and it was a great experience. This winter I’ve been skiing, cross-country, but now I’ve started to run again, BF. I’m puzzled because BF gives me kneeproblems this time. Maybe I run to long at a time, 2-3km. I will try to start with 0,5-1km and see what happens. All my training works except running which gives me kneeproblems. I do hope BF is the thing for me!

  • Henry Gaynor

    Children learn to walk before they run. I think it’s the same for transitioning to barefoot. I’ve been walking around as much as possible in bare feet for the past month on different surfaces. I find walking on loose gravel is the best training for landing on your foot properly – mid foot lands first followed gently by the heel. I do it naturally on loose gravel without even thinking about it. It’s true you’re inclined to heel strike when walking on soft surfaces like grass and sand. For sheer pleasure I walk on tarmac or asphalt surfaces – something in their surfaces really stimulate the feet – almost like a massage. I put on my old running shoes yesterday and took them off again straight away as I could’t bear having them on. Walking barefoot has straightened out my toes and they are now as wide as my mid foot – I can now only wear Crocs as they are moulded in the same natural shape as the foot – shoes with pointed toes are out for me now. I’ve ordered two pairs of Xeros, one 4mm and one 6mm to start running barefoot again. At 50 years age it’s been a long time since I ran around as a barefoot child so I reckon it will take a while to complete the transition. I have one word to describe the pleasure of going around barefoot- complete FREEDOM (it’s actually two words). An old man once told me to look after my feet properly. He said “If your feet aren’t happy you won’t be happy”. I now know what he meant.

  • guest

    I spend four months transitioning to the Xero shoe and then I ran a marathon in them. But Steve is right — don’t “transition” — just switch. And then run what you can, starting very low mileage, and slowly work it up.

    I ran a January half marathon in shoes. I then ran ONLY in Xero shoes. I worked up to 10 miles without injury and then did the marathon training program. There was no “transition” period where I was running in both shoes and Xero shoes.

    Lastly, BEND your knees when you run and you will NOT have any calf soreness. Concentrate on bending your knees when you feel any calf tightness. It lowers your heel and puts less strain in the Achilles.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Great point about bending your knees… the other thing is to think about LIFTING your foot off the ground (by bending the hip) rather than pushing off the ground with your toes.

      And congrats on your running success!

    • Mike C

      I was thinking about the transition. My Xeros are in the mail as I type this. From your description it sounds like you cold turkeyed off traditional running shoes and went straight to Xero. At what mileage did you start? I am currently at 30+ miles/week in my marathon training and have scheduled a half marathon race next weekend with my full marathon in October (6 months from now.)

      I am trying to decide if I should start running in my Xero leading up to my half next weekend, run the race shod and then continue on my training but with Xeros on instead of regular. It’s just hard to imagine starting off 30+ miles a week. I have been practicing my form as described in Barefoot Ken Bob’s book and practicing some of his exercises and nearly feel ready.

      How did you go about it?

      • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

        I did go straight to barefoot/Xero… but my situation is different than yours because I’m a sprinter, not a distance runner.

        If you have a race next weekend, then DON’T DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT between now and then. In the same way that you wouldn’t wear a new pair of shoes for a race, don’t… well… wear a new pair of NOT-shoes, either.

        And for the race in the Fall, assuming you want to keep your mileage up, you’re not going to simply switch to barefoot/Xero, but add in more barefoot/Xero mileage over time.

  • yepitsme

    “To misquote Yoda’s famous “There is no try. Only do.”

    There is no transition, only run (or walk, as the case may be).”

    To pick a nit, the quote is actually “Do or do not. There is no try”

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Man, my nerd cred has just taken a big hit.
      ;-)

  • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

    Francis,

    I have a different diagnosis of your situation.

    a) I can’t comment about what caused the issue to begin with, because I’d need to see video of your running style.

    b) It sounds to me like you needed more time to heal than you originally gave yourself. That is, when you went back to Xeros, it wasn’t necessarily running in Xeros that made you feel the symptoms again, but simply that you weren’t ready to run. When you went to VFFs some weeks later, you were fully healed and you *may* have been fine in your Xeros at that time.

    c) That said, I also suspect that you do something most people do: change your gait depending on what footwear you have on. You *may* be doing something different in your VFFs than you do in Xeros (or barefoot, for that matter). In a lab, I once video taped a very well-known barefoot runner… when he was barefoot he had a midfoot strike. When he put on his VFFs he was heel striking… and didn’t even know it!

    So, if I were to give a recommendation, it would be: When you try actual barefoot running, or try Xero Shoes… see if you can bring your attention to your footstrike and to the difference between what you do in VFFs vs. what you do in anything else. Also, do SHORT runs for this experiment. And, finally, try various things — rather than sticking to what you think is the correct way to run, try something else. In other words, if you were keeping your heel off the ground (for example), let it drop; if you were landing midfoot, land forefoot (or vice versa).

    Keep us posted!

    • Francis Gignac

      Wow, thanks for the fast reply. I’ll try and follow the advice you gave me when I start up again in the spring. I like running, but not enough to run in the snow ;-)

      Thanks again!

  • mciheal

    So if you propose a step into the cold water, I suppose “just do it” is the right approach.
    It is 1°C above freezing outside… But when I find out how far 200 yards in meters are, I am definitely ging to try it this weekend. Note: 200 yards are approx 180 Meters.
    There is no excuse!

  • mciheal
  • Anne Eagles Johnson

    So i supose i should start out by saying i have two conditions from old injuries i am adressing with my xero shoes. An old dislocated hip, and out of alignment pelvis due to a bad fall two years ago. So before i bought the xero shoes, i went and got the flatest shoes i could find in the store about a week before i got my xero shes. As soon as i put them on within one hour i had reduced a significant amount of pain. Just walking in those flat shoes through the grocery store. But i thought maybe a fluke, so i kept it up and three days later i orderd the xero shoes and got them friday night and took my first walk saturday morning WOW. I only walked a mile and a half in them very slowly because it took me four days to get walking in flat shoes down. I tried a few laps running in the house and was stunned i had the perfect foot strike in bare feet but had to relearn how to correctly walk. not sure why that is except when i run i dont think as much, I expect the pelvic pain will be all gone after another week of walking and i might try a bit of light jogging you know small sprints. But what i did the most was slow down and take shorter strides. It was the nicest walk i have taken in forever. And i am hoping if i am pain free to eventually start training for a 5 k. So my transition is just jump in do short walks or runs to start…and dont be in a hurry just relax and take a slow walk and maybe also a slow short run. So thanks for the xero shoes. I cant say enough good things about them.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Anne!

      BTW, you may find http://xeroshoes.com/barefoot-running-tips/how-to-walk-barefoot/ helpful (the gist: USE your glutes and hamstrings with the leg that’s on the ground, and RELAX the leg that’s swinging forward).

      Keep us posted with your progress!

  • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

    a) Start some of your days with the SHORT barefoot runs.

    b) As you build up your distance, THEN, substitute a barefoot day for one of your shod days.

    c) Eventually, you’ll be able to do more and more barefoot (and, probably, all barefoot).

    d) If your calves are tight, do something about it ;-) Stretch. Foam roll. Massage. Something.

    That help?

    • Kehau

      Thanks!
      Yep, been stretching, using the stick, massaging, wrapping, using topical magnesium, icing & using essential oils. I took a week to rest a bit (did really short runs & one barefoot run to try it out for fun). That seemed to help. Am also planning on doing some light weights to build strength in other areas of my legs on my non-running days. I need to work on my core too.

      Okay, so its okay to do like 200 yards barefoot, then put on my shoes & go run a few miles? Then slowly increase the barefoot distance and simultaneously decrease the shod distance?
      Thank you! I wasn’t sure how to start my transition. This is very helpful.

      • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

        It’s ABSOLUTELY okay to start barefoot, then put on your shoes as a way to start while keeping your mileage up.

        And, yes, as your barefoot mileage increases, you’ll naturally decrease your shod mileage.

        BTW, don’t do LIGHT weights. HEAVY weights are what build strength. Don’t be afraid to drop a day of mileage for something that could have a bigger impact: GETTING STRONG.

  • Matt Green

    My barefoot journey began three weeks ago after having completed a 10K cross country I could hardly walk… following the advice in ‘Born to Run’ I took a week off running and made a pair of huarache running sandals from flip flops (thongs) and some old para chord.

    The first week back: running I did a few short runs, two or three miles each. The second week: I ran two half marathons and a couple of 10K’s… It’s now week three and no pains at all. In fact the constant background pain I used to have has all but gone as well.

    Convert.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Welcome to our world ;-)

      When you wear through your homebrew huaraches, think of us. If you stay the DIY route, our FeelTrue outsoles have a 5,000 mile warranty ;-)

  • Emil

    Hello, I’m new to this forum. Been running in minimalist shoes for a couple of years and can do quite a distance in those. Ran a half marathon and have been running around 10 miles without any issues. Until last summer when i got plantar faciitis. Since then I have had doubts on barefoot running. I even bought support inserts to go with my zero drop Inov-8:s, which makes no sense at all. But the wrong thing I did was that I probably used shoes which enabled me to run faster than my feet ligaments could handle. Just for clarification, I have not been heel striking, only perhaps over striding when trying to increase my speed last season. So now to my question. If I take my shoes off, how should I transition? Bare in mild that my calfs can handle long distances. I am a little impatient so I would like to be running for a couple of miles to get a good work out and break a sweat. How should I go ahead? Shall I stick with 200 yards or do you think I could go farther?

    Best regards
    //Emil

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Hi Emil,

      The difference between ANY minimalist shoe and either barefoot or Xeros is usually like night and day. I’ve never seen a minimalist shoe that gives you enough feedback about your stride to be helpful.

      And since most runners change their stride, naturally, when they take off their shoes, the fact that your “calves can handle long distances” may be irrelevant. For example, many people, when they switch to barefoot, use their calves MORE — totally unconscious of doing so — and unnecessarily (see http://xeroshoes.com/barefoot-running-tips/barefoot-calf-pain/).

      You, like everyone, should stick with the recommendations here. Start with 200 yards (or 30 seconds).

      Then wait and see how you feel the next day. Fine? Great, add a TINY bit of time/distance on your next run.

      Not fine? Rest and try again until you can do the 30 seconds and it feels light, easy, and fun (you’ll have to find the tweaks to your stride that allow that… typically, not overstriding, and a slightly faster cadence).

      Regarding heel striking… I’m not saying that YOU are heel striking, but I will tell you that I’ve received dozens of videos from runners who say, “I don’t heel strike” and when you look at the video (or the bottom of their shoes), you can see that they do, in fact, heel strike.

      The amount of padding in their minimalist shoes (I often see this in Vibram wearers), eliminates their ability to feel that they’re heel striking.

      Do with all of that what you will.

      -S

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