Stepping In To Barefoot Running

The Works Sport KiltIf you’ve found your way here, then you’ve probably heard a little bit about running barefoot and are intrigued enough to want to know more. Like most people, you probably have all sorts of questions running through your head:

  • Won’t I step on glass?
  • Will me feet get ugly?
  • Do I have to grow a beard?
  • What will my girlfriend/boyfriend think?
  • Is it OK to wear shoes when I’m running barefoot?
  • Can I ever wear shoes again?

Every barefooter before you has had similar questions and have found a variety of answers (especially to that beard one). In this post we’re going to talk about some of the risks and rewards of running barefoot, what you need to do to get ready to take your first steps, and a few other tips and tricks to get you started off right.

So, to begin, let’s start by dispelling a myth.

Now, you may have heard that running barefoot will cure your plantar fasciitis, put an end to injuries forever,  grow hair on your chest, bring about world peace, etc. I’m afraid that as much as I would like all this to be true, if you’re looking for a magic cure-all, then you may be disappointed. Like any physical, outdoor activity, there is a chance you will aggravate an existing injury or even obtain a new one. Transitioning to barefoot (or minimal shoes) is notoriously risky and if done incorrectly can cause serious damage (see pretty much every article on this site for tips on how to minimise this).

However, though running barefoot isn’t a 100% cure for running injuries, it does offer a number of very worthwhile benefits.

To begin with, it’s FUN! Really, really fun! I honestly think this is the top reason why so many runners find their way into running barefoot. It’s hard to overstate the enjoyment of throwing off your shoes and running down a beach, or sloshing your way along a muddy trail.

What barefoot running offers is a change from the increasingly common mentality of needing to experience pain and discomfort for the sake of exercise. One thing that barefooters seem to have in common is the uncanny ability to smile throughout their runs. It sounds cheesy as hell, but it really does give you a spring in your step, and can bring back the enjoyment of running to those who have lost it.

Apart from sheer pleasure, there are many physical benefits to running unshod as well. Once you learn how to do it correctly and safely, it is a great way to stretch and strengthen your feet. Our poor feet spend a lot of time in shoes that, frankly, aren’t fit for feet. The damage caused by office shoes in particular, especially high-heels (or so I hear) is appalling.

By running au naturelle every now and then, it’s possibly to strengthen the arches of your feet and even reverse some of the damage caused by shoes. Your feet will start to change, and many barefooters, myself included, have experienced widening feet as their toes spread apart. Once you get to this point, the idea of cramming your piggies back into a pair of hush puppies is abhorrent.

What I’ve found really surprising about learning to run barefoot however, has little to do with feet at all. As you scan the ground in front of you for broken glass, thorns, dog poo, etc, something strange happens to your brain. You start to notice more, be aware of your surrounding more, and even begin to feel more ‘present’. It’s something akin to mindfulness meditation, and can have a major affect on you, even when you’re not running. Barefoot running is meditating without needing to meditate, and even more than shod running, can snap you out of a funk like you would not believe.

Now there is one concern that new barefooters have that can’t be dismissed. It’s the totally justified fear of stepping on something sharp. The fact is that when you leave the protection of a pair of shoes behind, you open your soles to the possibility of damage. At first this seems like a really dumb idea, but in practice, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Think of it like parenting – you can wrap your kids up in cotton wool to protect them from ever getting hurt, or you can let them roam free and collect the bruises and scrapes that will be inevitable. By protecting the child, they never learn how to deal with bumps and bruises, so when they eventually grow up and get their first scrape, the world seems to be coming to an end. For the free-roaming kid, they’re likely to get bumped around a little bit initially, but they learn from the experience and develop the skills and resilience to manage or avoid similar situations in the future.

The same goes with feet. Sure, you might get the odd scratch or bruise, but this will make you more aware of your surroundings and more careful about how you run. It forces you to treat your body and environment with respect which, in the long term, pays off huge dividends. And don’t forget, your feet evolved to do this, so they’re actually very well equipped to deal with outdoor terrain.

Initially, when the shoes first come off, your feet will likely be soft and weak. You’re going to feel every little stone and stick, and it’s probably going to be a little bit uncomfortable and even painful. But by slowly exposing your feet to more and more time in direct contact with the ground, your brain will learn how to filter out the unimportant signals and focus in on what’s important.

Many people think that by running barefoot all the time, you just end up with big, nasty callouses, and that this toughening of the skin is what makes it easier for long term barefooters to cope with the sensations. In fact, after seven years of barefoot running, I have got very little callousing on my feet, and in fact I think it’s actually less than when I always wore shoes. Despite this, I can run on gravel now that would have stopped me in my tracks in the early days.

Barefoot running is not for everyone, and that’s fine, but it can be a very rewarding way to spice up your running, improve your foot health, and allow you to feel more attuned to your surroundings. You don’t have to do it for every run, and you don’t have to run marathons unshod either. All you need to do is take off your shoes, slow down, and enjoy the experience.

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

Barefoot running is not for everyone and has associated risks that may not be suitable to your individual situation. Please see out disclaimer regarding information shared on this site.

A Barefoot Runner’s Guide To Gravel

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

It may seem counter-intuitive to new barefoot runners, but the best surface to run on isn’t grass. As you may have guessed by the title, the actual best surface is gravel! But why?

Running on grass is a pleasure. It’s soft and yielding, feels nice underfoot,  and doesn’t make your feet too dirty. In fact in most ways it’s like wearing a pair of running shoes.

Of course, for many of us, the reason that barefoot running is so appealing is that it’s exactly not like running in shoes. From there it follows that we should be seeking out terrain that’s as unlike a shoe as possible. Hence, gravel.

I’ll be honest, the first couple dozen times I tried to run on gravel, it was agonising and unpleasant. I think I ‘ran’ about 20m all up over all these sessions, and swore through most off it. Luckily, learning to run on gravel is as much about practice and patience as it is about having tough feet.

Types of Gravel

Just as the Inuit have several dozen words for snow, barefoot runners can learn to recognise a dazzling array of gravel. Once you get used to running on it, you’ll probably start to wonder how it can all be lumped into the same category.

When you first start out with gravel running, it’s best to find a spot that has what I like to call ‘smooth gravel’. Smooth gravel is basically made up of sand and stones with few edges. These can be rounded, water-eroded stones, or gravel that is well-trodden, such as can be found on walking paths and unsealed roads.

Smooth gravel is still harder to run on than pavement and will give you bucket loads of feedback, but it’s not so sharp that you’ll end up crying your way back home.

Once you’ve mastered smooth gravel, you’re ready to try ‘Mixed Bag’ gravel. This type is what you will likely encounter on forest trails and the like. Mixed Bag is tricky because you don’t know what you’re going to come up against. It could be sharp stones, twigs, thorns, you name it. The name of the game here is not foot-toughness, but visual acuity.

When running on Mixed Bag gravel, it’s really important to make sure you have ample light to see by and that you are fully present while running. This means leave the iPod at home, scan the path 4-10 feet in front of you, and do your best to avoid the sharpest bits you see.

In my experience, Mixed Bag is the most common type of gravel, takes the most effort to learn how to run on, and is the most rewarding. It gives you heaps of feedback, and you will be really exercising the full range of leg and feet muscles as you dodge and weave around obstacles.

Lastly we have ‘Never Again’ gravel. This type of gravel is the worst. It pops up from time-to-time in the unlikeliest places, from city streets, to park paths. You will know it the instant you set foot on it (even if you’re walking). It’s incredibly sharp, unforgiving and torturous. Even experienced barefooters wish they wore shoes for this stuff.

Unless you’re Ken Bob Saxton, I’d recommend avoiding this type of gravel for awhile. It’s way too hard to run on for beginners and will demotivate you from running at all. Luckily this is also the rarest form of gravel, and you may never even encounter it.

Tips For Running On Gravel

Regardless of what type of gravel you’re running on, there are some things you can do that will make it a more pleasurable and educational experience.

  1. Slow Down: Hitting gravel at full-tilt is a sure-fire way to experience a lot of pain, fast. When you come to a gravel section, slow down to a light jog. Once you’re on it, you can pick up speed as you adjust, but start off slow.
  2. Step Lightly: Use gravel as an opportunity to teach you how to run more lightly. Focus on your form and lifting your feet. Step down carefully and gently.
  3. Step More: The less time your feet spend on gravel, the less it will hurt. This works on a step-by-step basis, so the faster your feet go, more painless it will be. Increase your cadence by 25% if you can, and your soles will thank you.
  4. Scan Your Path: Half the battle with running on gravel is avoiding the worst of it. Scan the ground in front of you and step around the biggest and nastiest looking pieces.
  5. Know When To Quit: Somtimes it can all get a bit much. There’s no shame in discovering your limits, so don’t push yourself through agony just because you want to run on some gravel. If it’s becoming unbearable, then slow down, walk, or step off to the side and give yourself a break.
  6. Keep At It: Most importantly, keep trying. It’s tempting to seek out the most comfortable paths, but if you want to improve as a barefooter, then you really need to be constantly challenging yourself.

Have you tried running on gravel before? How did it go? Leave us a comment and share your experience!

Barefoot Basics #5: Landing

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

It’s become fairly common knowledge among barefoot tranistioners that a shift to fore or mid foot striking is required when moving from shod to unshod running. On the whole this is true, but I’ve always found the term ‘strike’ to be a bit misleading. I prefer the term ‘landing’.

When running barefoot, the key to success is minimising the impact forces involved. Once you take off your shoes, there’s literally nothing getting between you and the road. This is a wonderful, liberating experience, but needs to be done correctly. That inch or so of padding did have its uses, afterall, even if it did encourage sloppy form.

As you run in bare feet, try to imagine your soles coming in for a landing, similar to how an airplane would. The aim is to match the speed that your foot is moving as closely to the speed that the ground is flying past you. This way, when they eventually touch, the amount of friction experienced is reduced.

This technique can be somwhat difficult to learn in practice as it’s quite subtle and there isn’t really a ‘eureka!’ moment when you get it right. The best way to learn it is to pay attention when you’re doing it wrong. There are two key signs to look out for when you haven’t quite got it right.

The first indicator is blisters. If you’re getting any blistering or hot spots on your soles, then you are doing it wrong and need to make adjustments. Blisters are caused by friction, which means that your foot is skidding a bit when you land. To fix this, try slowing down a bit and visualise your landing as each of your feet touches down.

The other indicator that you can use is thumping. When you run, you will experience a little bit of a thump each time you step. This is perfectly natural and expected, but there are degrees of thumping. If you pay close attention, you will be able to feel the shock of each step run up your feet and legs. The more you can reduce this sensation, the lighter you’ll be running, and the less strain you will put on your body.

The landing is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of barefoot running form to perfect, but once you get it, you will find yourself running smoother and faster than you ever could before.

Barefoot Basics #4: Posture

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

Running barefoot can be very unforgiving to bad form, so it’s essential to aim to improve all aspects of it as you learn to run unshod. One of the most important parts of this has little to do with where your feet meet the ground, but everything to do with the rest of your body. What I’m referring to is posture.

When running it’s really important to have your head, shoulders, hips, and feet aligned. By keeping each of these parts positioned directly above the other, you can reduce the amount of energy spent just holding yourself up, and will also improve the quality of  your breathing.

A lot of runners tend to want to bend forward as they run. They bend at the hips and even slouch their shoulders, which not only looks a bit odd, but also restricts their breathing and engages a lot of extra muscle tissue unnecessarily.

One of the reasons for this behaviour, I think, is that runners are often instructed to ‘lean forward’ when running. This is good advice, but is often misinterpreted. What you should be doing is pushing your hips forward slightly. If you do this with correct posture, the effect will be that you are impelled to move forward by shifting your centre of gravity just a little off centre.

Leaning too far, or bending over, can overdo it and cause your form to fall apart.

So, on your next run, focus on running tall, keeping everything in line, and using your hips to ‘lean’ with,  and you’ll be on the road to improved running efficiency before you know it.

Barefoot Basics #3: Cadence

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

If you want to adjust one element of your running form in order to gain the most benefit, then it’s pretty hard to go past cadence. Most of us, especially when shod, tend to settle into a loping, low cadence run. The exception to this is trained athletes and runners who never or seldom wear shoes.

Part of the reason why low cadence is so common is because in shoes it can be more comfortable and seem easier than the alternative. What this ends up doing however, is increase the amount of time your foot spends on the ground.

When you run with a high ~3 steps per second cadence, you remain airborne slightly longer than you would otherwise. Over short distances the difference can be negligible but for longer runs, such as half and full marathons, the reduced friction can take minutes off your time with no extra effort.

There are other benefits of high cadence as well, as it naturally discourages over striding. Over striding is commonly viewed as one of the biggest no-nos in running as it can cause injury and degrade performance. In order to run with a high cadence, you will need to take shorter strides, which will keep your feet directly beneath your centre of gravity, where they should be.

So the next time you go out for a run, focus on spinning those feet and once you get used to it, you’ll never look back!

 

Barefoot Basics #2: Bend Your Knees

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

When you first take off your conventional shoes and try running barefoot, the first thing you will probably notice is that the ground is really hard! It might sound silly and obvious, but the truth is that it’s easy to forget this simple fact when running with a big wedge of padding beneath your soles.

To compensate for this hard ground, your legs come with built in shock absorbers. And because you’re now running without the squishy comfort of foam underfoot, you need to make absolutely sure that you’re using them to your best advantage.

The easiest way to do this is to bend your knees. And when I say bend them, I mean really bend them. At first you’ll feel a bit funny, like you’re running in a crouch, but this is what you want. The more you bend your knees, the more they will absorb the shock that your legs and feet experience during running.

When you bend your knees, you’re not only engaging your knees, but also your ankles, Achilles tendons, and even your feet. All this extra absorption not only makes for a more comfortable run, it also will allow you to store and reuse a lot more energy which you can use to run further and faster.

Barefoot Basics #1: Relax

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

There are literally dozens of tips, tricks, and techniques that I can (and will) show you about barefoot running, but there is one simple tip that rules them all: Relax!

When you’re relaxed, running becomes a wonderul, enjoyable experience. Without tension in your body, you use less energy just flexing unnecessary muscles. You will run farther, and may even find yourself smiling like an idiot at the passersby.

You may have heard this tip before, and wondered how to implement it. It can take a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, it quickly becomes second nature.

To begin with, get yourselff relaxed before you even take your first step. Stand in place, and, starting from the top of your head, allow each and every muscle between there and your toes relax, one by one. As you do this, breathe in slowly through your nose, hold for a moment, then exhale out your mouth.

Once you’re fully relaxed, lean your hips forward and let your bodystart to run. Keep breathing at a nice, even pace. As you run, you will notice tension begin to slowly creep in to your neck, shoulders, legs, etc. Try to spot these pressure points early on and focus on relaxing them again.

Be careful not to let yourself get too relaxed. You don’t want your feet to flop about and your legs to turn into jelly. The art is to learn to relax yourself just enough.

Keep practising, and you’ll start to notice a big difference in your enjoyment and mastery of running.