Transition to barefoot running

The more time you spend researching barefoot running and minimalist running — the more articles, interviews with doctors or runners, news stories, and research you dive into — the more you’ll hear one particular warning.

Actually, if the piece supports 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.

What to Know About “Transitioning Slowly” to Barefoot Running

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.

Transitioning safely and enjoyably is about form, not about seconds on the clock.

Improving Form as You Transition to Barefoot Running

To help focus on your form, follow these rules for a smooth transition to barefoot running: 

  • Go barefoot or wear a truly minimalist shoe
  • Run on hard and smooth surfaces
  • Your foot should land under your body
  • Use less energy and effort
  • Have your feet touch the ground as little as possible
  • Pick up your cadence

Let’s dive into each of these tips. 

Go barefoot or wear a truly minimalist shoe

It seems logical that if you’ve been wearing a shoe with a lot of cushioning or a highly elevated heel that you would want to just slowly transition to less cushioning and a lower and lower heel.

The research shows though that this is not the best way to learn to run barefoot or to run with proper, natural form.

Instead, you want to be actually barefoot or wearing a truly minimalist shoe – with a flat, flexible sole and no unnecessary cushioning – so that you’re getting the most feedback from the ground.

Run on Hard and Smooth Surfaces

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).

If you want to see a barefoot runner get misty eyed, show them a freshly painted white line on the side of the road. It’s soft, it’s smooth, it’s cool, it’s delightful 🙂

Your Foot Should Land Under Your Body 

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 with an almost straight leg. 

Some people have heard that when running barefoot you’re supposed to land on your forefoot And will still over stridebut point their toes in order to land on their forefoot. 

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.

Use Less Energy & Effort

Many people  think that when you start running barefoot, calf pain and Achilles pain are almost required. Trust me, 99 times out of 100, calf or Achilles pain comes from using too much effort. And, trust me again, you’re probably not the 1 out of 100 for whom it’s not.

As you transition to barefoot running, focus on relaxing, using less energy and effort. 

For example, rather than pushing yourself off the ground with your foot/toes,  try to 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. You can let your heal naturally come to the ground instead.

Touch the Ground as Little as Possible

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. 

Pick Up Your Cadence

For example, there’s a commonly held idea that when you run barefoot your cadence – the number of steps you take per minute –should be 180 steps per minute. 180 is not a magic number. 

It’s that increasing  your cadence a bit 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 to spend on the ground. 

You will want to experiment with different cadences that are slightly faster than what you’re used to. Knowing that anything that’s different from what you’ve been doing will feel unusual at first. 

Have Fun!

You can spot a barefoot runner from 50 yards away. They look like they’re having a good time. They’re often smiling.

So, perhaps the best instruction to help you transition to barefoot or minimalist running is to use fun as your guide. HAVE FUN… And if you’re not having fun do something until you are.

Besides, 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 Does the Transition Take?

How long it takes for you to learn to follow those rules is different for everybody. 

For some it takes no time at all because they already run in the way I described. For others, it takes longer, since they are learning a new skill — and different people learn at different rates. 

For a rough timeline, it should take anywhere from 1-4 months to fully adapt to barefoot running.

Barefoot running is an ongoing process, and you will continue to improve the longer you do it. Taking the time to transition to barefoot running will be worth it in the long run. 

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 your awareness and you’ll be having fun running barefoot in no time.

The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.