And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair. -Kahlil Gibran
When I first heard about barefoot running, several years ago, I was skeptical dont we need cushion to protect us from injuries, and why would I want to run barefoot, anyway?
But several months ago, I read a few influential articles (stemming from the popularity of Christopher McDougalls book, Born to Run) and decided to give barefoot running a try. Why not?
Today, Im happy to say Im a barefoot runner, and I love it.
Ive given away my Asics, and now I run exclusively with my Vibram Fivefinger KSOs or completely barefoot. Im running as fast or faster than ever, lighter than ever, injury-free, and I feel connected to the ground I run on. My feet have become stronger, and I feel better. Running was always fun, but now it feels like play!
The Whys of Barefoot Running
For decades now, runners (including me) have been sold on the need for good running shoes if you want to prevent injuries, invest in good shoes. Proper cushioning, and sometimes rigid motion control or stability features, were needed, and if you had injuries, you probably had the wrong shoes.
But recent studies have proven what traditional peoples have known all along that running barefoot strengthens your feet and is a more natural way to run. Running in cushioned, motion-controlled shoes is like having your neck in a cast for a month when you take the cast off, your neck muscles will be weak. You also pound your feet much harder with running shoes, causing problems not only with feet but knees and other joints. Were making our feet weak, and pounding them hard its no wonder we have all kinds of injuries.
When you first start running barefoot, your feet will be weak, so take it very slowly at first. It takes weeks and months to build up the strength necessary for faster or longer running, but after a while, your feet get stronger than ever before.There are numerous studies still being done on this, so dont draw any long-term conclusions yet. My thinking is to give it a try, and see how it works. Even more important than the strength of your feet is your connection to the earth. Simply put, shoes shelter us from the surfaces we run on, but thats not always a good thing. Read The Barefoot Philosophy for more.However, a big caveat: if you think barefoot running will make you faster, youre probably going to be disappointed. Its not about running faster although it is possible. From what I can tell, Im running faster than ever, though Im also lighter than Ive been since I was around 18 or 19. Running barefoot is about connecting with the ground, about feeling, about freedom and lightness, about fun. Its not about speed.Read Barefoot Ted on this for more he knows way more about the topic than I do, and is an amazing resource.EquipmentIt might seem weird to talk about barefoot running equipment, but its not a bad idea to use barefoot shoes. A contradiction? Of course what would life be without contradictions and ironies?
I mentioned my Vibram Fivefinger KSOs ... Vibrams are the most popular of minimalist shoes that simulate barefoot running. The KSOs, from my research, are probably the best Fivefinger model for running. While they might seem a little expensive, running shoes can often cost this much, and if you shop around, you can probably find a pair for under $100.Why use Fivefingers? They remove the cushioning and motion control of running shoes, allowing your feet to strengthen and feel the ground more, but still give your feet the protection youll probably want as you head out on roads of asphalt and glass, and trails strewn with pebbles and roots. Its actually a good idea to start with barefoot shoes, as they make a great transition into barefoot running.Its worth noting that many traditional societies that run without cushioned shoes (such as the native Tarahumara tribes of Mexico, featured so prominently in Born to Run) often do use some kind of sandals or other protection against getting cut on the soles of your feet.Do you need barefoot shoes like Fivefingers? No. You can go outside right now and get started, with no shoes. It would be smart to start on surfaces you know are safe from glass, metal, and rocks, though, as you dont want your barefoot experience to be a painful one.
Fivefingers allow you to learn the mechanics and form of barefoot running, build your strength, and transition into barefoot running, without the pain.Putting the Fivefingers on: It takes some getting used to. Its like putting on gloves you have to put your toes in the five fingers of the shoes but you dont have the control over your toes that you do with your fingers. So it was difficult putting the Fivefingers on at first, but I got used to it. Now Im pretty quick: 1) slide feet partway in, until toes start entering the Vibram fingers; 2) take a couple seconds to line the toes up with the proper fingers, slotting the spaces between the fingers with the spaces between your toes; 3) pull from the heel of the shoes so that your heel slips into the shoes and the toes slide into the fingers; 4) wiggle your toes until they feel right within the fingers, and strap on the Velcro strap. That sounds complicated but really it takes less than 20 seconds per shoe.Choosing the right model: Ive only tried the KSOs, but from the research Ive done it seems to be the best model for runners. The Velcro strap helps keep stuff out (KSO), so its good for trails, running or grass or dirt, or even sand. So far, Im very happy with the KSOs, but I cant definitively say theyre the best.
Keeping them smelling decent: Many people have complained that Fivefingers can start to smell bad after a few weeks. Interestingly, my Fivefingers didnt smell at all for almost two months, so I wondered where this notion came from (and I dont have odorless feet). But then they started to smell, so I just followed the Vibram recommendation: throw them in the washer with a little laundry soap, and let them air dry (not in the dryer). Works like a charm. I do this every two weeks or so. They dry quickly.Cost: Theyre usually in the $125 range, but shop around. Replacing running shoes with $125 barefoot shoes isnt the minimalist way, perhaps -- that would probably be to start completely barefoot, with smooth or soft surfaces and only going a little at a time until you build up the strength and tougher soles to go longer. And thats a completely valid way to go. I started with the Vibrams because I felt a little safer transitioning from shoes to barefoot the Vibrams give you a little protection, and it takes some getting used to when you first transition to barefoot. I recommend this method, but its not the only way. Btw, you can probably find Fivefingers for less than $100 if you look around, and its also worth noting that most quality running shoes are in the same price range.
Doing other workouts with them: I regularly do weight workouts and bodyweight workouts with the Fivefingers. Theyre great, and unlike running shoes, they dont make you lean forward when you do squats.How to Get StartedIn a word: slowly.Many people make the mistake of doing too much, too quickly, and thats a big mistake. It can lead to pain, injury, and discouragement. Remember, your feet, ankles and calves are weak from running or walking with shoes all the time. You will find a lot of soreness if you go too far or too fast. You need to build it up slowly, gently.Heres what I recommend:1. Try running barefoot or with barefoot shoes on a hard surface, just for a few minutes, slowly. Maybe at the end of a regular run, if youre running regularly. If youre not a regular runner, just do a short run for a few minutes, because your body wont be used to running for any longer amount anyway. Running on a hard surface is good for your first few times, because you will naturally run with better form with shoes, youre used to pounding on your heels and overextending your legs, but when youre barefoot, you have no cushion, and running by extending and pounding your feet on your heels is going to hurt on a hard surface. Run lightly, landing quietly and softly on your forefeet or midfeet. See more about form below.
2. Slowly lengthen the time you run barefoot (or with barefoot shoes). Just a minute or two longer, a few times a week. Go slowly dont try to sprint or run hard. Continue to run lightly, working on not pounding. Try different surfaces asphalt, concrete, grass, dirt. Let your body slowly adapt to this new running style, and your muscles slowly get stronger.3. Eventually, you can do shorter runs completely with barefoot shoes. Shorter runs might mean 15-30 minutes if youre an experienced runner, or perhaps 10 minutes for a less experienced runner. For longer or harder runs, you might still wear shoes for now, because youre not ready for long or hard runs barefoot. Let this phase take several weeks.4. Eventually you can stop using your running shoes. Especially if you have barefoot shoes and are used to running in them for longer runs. Your feet and legs should be stronger at this point. It might take a couple months to get to this point. I let my Asics sit in the closet for a month before I got rid of them.5. Gradually try running completely barefoot, on softer or smoother surfaces. A park with a smooth concrete surface, or grass or beaches, are good places to start running without the barefoot shoes. Your soles are probably soft and sensitive if youve been using shoes most of your life, so it takes some adjustment to all of a sudden feel varied and rough surfaces under your feet. Starting out on rougher asphalt or surfaces with lots of pebbles (or worse, glass or pieces of metal) is a bad idea. I know I tried it the first few times and it hurt! Eventually you can do short to medium runs with bare feet.
Remember, at each stage, go slowly and take your time. Theres no need to rush it, and even if youre feeling ambitious or you think youre better than the rest of us, hold back. Itll make the whole experience much, much more enjoyable.The Barefoot Running FormSome notes on form:Land on your forefeet or midfeet (balls of your feet) instead of your heels. Too much on your forefeet can make your calves sore. If you feel yourself landing on your heels, shorten your stride.Strides should be short dont extend your legs as far as you do with shoes. It should feel almost like youre running in place.Keep upright and balanced. Keep your feet under your hips and shoulders.Stay light. You should feel like youre light on your feet, not pounding at all. Barefoot runners tend to be a little more springy in their step.Run quietly. If you are making a lot of noise with your steps (as shoe-wearing runners do), youre pounding too hard. Try to run softly, quietly, like an animal.FAQsSome Frequently Asked Questions if you have other questions, please ask them via Twitter and Ill add answers to this section.Q: Have you experienced any pain or injuries yet?A: No, but keep in mind Ive only done it for a few months now. The jury is still out. Sometimes Im a little sore after a longer run, but then I realize that I was pounding too much, and the next time out I am a little more conscious of my form and everything is fine.
Q: My calves get really sore! Whats up?A: This is probably normal. Youre running with a different form, and anytime you do a new physical activity youll probably get some soreness. Just be sure to start slowly, and just do a few minutes first, and increase slowly. Youll minimize the soreness this way. I still sometimes get pretty sore after doing barefoot sprint intervals, but Im probably pounding too fast when I sprint.Q: Do you have problems with glass or rocks?A: Sometimes. I tend to watch the ground a little more than I used to, which is a good thing it forces you to be more conscious of where youre running. I try to avoid places that are too rocky, and I go around glass. I havent had too much trouble, even when completely barefoot, but it is something to be aware of.Q: Will this make me faster?A: Not necessarily. Ive been running faster after a few months, but Im not sure its the barefoot training. I havent been any slower. But running faster isnt the point, and theres no guarantee itll happen.Q: Im the kind of runner who runs through pain. Is that OK with barefoot running?A: Its not smart. The best way, again, is to do it slowly, and without pain. If you feel pain, stop or slow down. You dont want to injure yourself thats counterproductive.
Q: Are there people who shouldnt run barefoot?A: Sure. This article from Running Times says that diabetics and others who cant feel their feet well shouldnt do it without the feedback of feeling in your feet, youll probably pound too hard. Others who probably shouldnt run barefoot include those with bones that didnt heal properly from a break, and those with rheumatoid arthritis or otherwise abnormal feet. Id add that anyone with ongoing feet or leg injuries should wait until the injuries are completely healed, and those who arent likely to take it slow (overly competitive runners) might not be good candidates for barefoot running.Q: Can you do HIIT sprints barefoot? Or is that too strenuous for barefoot running?A: You can, but thats more of an advanced step I wouldnt start with them. Give yourself a couple months of regular running first. Ive done some pretty hard sprint intervals barefoot, and I had very sore calves for a couple days after (way more than when I sprint in running shoes).Q: Would you recommend wearing toe socks with Vibram Five Fingers? Also, how tight should be the shoes be?A: Ive never worn toe socks with Vibrams, nor have I found the need for them. As for fit, they shouldnt be too loose or theyll move around as you run. I like the straps of the KSOs, as theyll keep the Vibrams tight. Shouldnt be so tight theyre cutting off circulation or hurting, though.
Q: Does running barefoot result in thicker soles over time?A: I havent seen a noticeable difference yet, but others have reported tougher soles. Not necessarily thick calluses, but just a slightly thicker, more leathery, but soft and pliant, sole.About the Author:Leo Babauta is the creator and writer of www.zenhabits.net. Currently based in Guam, he created mnmlist.com (on minimalism) and Write To Done (for writers and bloggers). He is also the author of a new best-selling book, The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential, in Business and in Life. Follow him on twitter or identica.