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Running Barefoot Without Being Barefoot

Updated on October 14, 2014

All the Benefits of Barefoot Running, None of the Bare Feet

If you're a runner, or just go outside sometimes, you've probably seen people out in weird toe shoes, or even barefoot. Maybe you'd like to know how to get the benefits of this "running barefoot" trend, but without the inconvenience of actually being barefoot. If so, this article will describe why running barefoot has attracted such zealous supporters, and how you can enjoy most of the health benefits of barefoot running without giving up your running shoes.

Image used under Creative Commons from 666 is money.

You're Telling Me I Don't Know How to Run?

Barefoot running (or running in minimalist shoes) has become quite popular, in part because a growing body of research shows that it encourages proper running technique. Or, to put it another way, those running shoes in your closet tend to encourage bad running technique. If this makes perfect sense to you, and you'd just like to improve your form, go ahead and skip to the next section; I won't mind. For the rest of you, perhaps I should spend a minute trying to convince you of the following:

Running is a skill.

Many of us believe that we're born knowing how to run. That we each have our own individual gait, which is determined by our body's frame, genetics, and personality. Yet we accept without question that it takes years of practice, coaching, and training to master gymnastics, ballet, martial arts, basketball, swimming, rock climbing, and pretty much every other form of human movement. I'm not saying it will take you years to learn how to run; I'm saying that there is a proper running technique, one that applies to everybody, and is built on basic facts of human biomechanics and physics.

Again, it won't take years to learn proper running form, and you don't have to be barefoot to do it. But there are a handful of principles you should internalize and work on, which will improve your efficiency. Read on for those principles.

Remember This

If you learn to run correctly, it won't hurt, and you can go faster.

How To Run Barefoot Style

Barefoot style running proponents include people who enjoy running, but suffer chronic pain as a result, often in their knees or back. I've written five tips for injury-free running below, but the ultimate point can be stated like this: absorb the impact of running with your muscles, not your bones and joints. The following five tips are concrete steps you can take to achieve that principle. And none of them require you to give up your shoes.

1. Land on the balls of your feet. Wherever you're reading this, stand up. Your weight is probably back on your heels. That's okay for standing. Go ahead and shift your weight forward to the balls of your feet, and bend your knees a little. This doesn't mean you need to get up on your tip-toes; in fact, your heels can still maintain contact with the floor if that's comfortable.

Every step should land on the front part of your feet. This is the hardest part of barefoot style running for most people. Even if you're okay with the concept, there is a good chance that the muscles in your feet, ankles and calves are underdeveloped, and will need to become stronger and more flexible before you're able to run significant distances landing on the balls of your feet. Be patient with yourself; start with short distances and gradually build back up.

2. Lean forward. Shift your center of gravity out in front of your feet to propel you forward. This will probably feel awkward at first. In fact, you can't practice it standing still unless you are leaning against something. What will happen as you incorporate this into your running is that your feet will no longer land in front of you, but below you. As that happens, you won't need to pull your knees up with each step, but rather kick your feet back. This is a much more efficient way of running.

3. Increase your cadence. Get a stopwatch and make sure you are taking at least 180 steps per minute. You'll probably shorten your stride, and that's okay. Your Achilles tendon and some of the other connective tissue in your feet have a natural elastic 'springiness' that only works if your feet don't spend too much time on the ground. I still struggle with this sometimes, and need to remind myself to shorten my stride.

4. Don't bounce. A little bouncing is inevitable, but try to keep yourself moving in a straight line. Every time you go up and down, your body has to work against gravity to slow your fall, causing you to spend more energy. On a related note, let your arms swing naturally to maintain lateral balance. You don't need to waste energy moving in a zig-zag pattern.

5. Relax. Keep good posture in your upper body. You don't need to stick your chest out, but you don't want to bend forward at the waist. Your hips will be doing a lot of the work, so let them go to full extension with each step. Also, any tension in your upper body will simply waste energy that could be better used in your legs.

Image used under Creative Commons from Explore the Bruce.

Isn't There An Easier Way? - Maybe.

Don't feel like reading all that? Are you a fan of violin music? Okay, just watch this video, and all will be made clear.


Excellent for interval training


So that’s the program. The main idea with toe shoes is that they discourage landing on your heels (step 1 above), and tend to “force” people into proper running form. For those of you who want to keep your running shoes, though, don’t worry. You can still learn to run barefoot style, and enjoy many years of injury-free, efficient running. What do you think? Are you a full barefoot convert? Are you in the process? Any additional tips?


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