An Education In Losing Your Shoes

What are some of the most common mistakes made by new barefoot runners?

The most common mistake is doing too much too soon and ignoring the feedback they receive from their body.  It is very common for new barefoot runners to run much farther than their body will allow, then ignore obvious symptoms of overuse injuries.  Part of this problem has to do with the nature of the common “beginning barefoot” injuries.  Modern running shoes, with their raised heel, motion-control, arch support, and excessive cushioning act as casts that prevent our feet from moving.  The result is a great deal of atrophy.  Your body needs time to physiologically adapt to the “new” stresses of barefoot or minimalist shoe running.  Unfortunately, many runners begin running barefoot or in minimalist shoes do too much too soon, suffer an injury, then criticize the practice as causing injury.  This is more common when runners try a minimalist shoe such as Vibram’s Five Fingers.

I cannot overemphasize these points–if you begin barefoot or minimalist shoe running, it is critically important to be patient and listen to your body.  This is the reason many of us recommend people start running barefoot before introducing minimalist shoes.  The time it takes for your brain to adapt to the new-found tactile sensations from your soles acts as an excellent natural regulator that prevents doing too much too soon.  Most of the lessons I’ve learned come from barefoot running guru Ken Bob Saxton.  He famously said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Your own two feet are the two best running coaches in the world.  Learn to listen to them.”

As a guy who has run in cushioned training shoes for the last 13 years, but wants to give barefoot running a try, what’s the best way for me to go about it?

First, take off your shoes.  Spend time walking around barefoot.  This will begin the process of strengthening your anatomy.  After a week or two, start experimenting with running.

Find a smooth, hard surface as it provides accurate feedback.  Start at a very slow pace and only run a very short distance.  For about a third of the runners I encounter, this is all they need.  They are able to run a bit, determine what feels right and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly.  Within a short period of time, they find a gait that works well.

For about another third, some instruction is needed.  I give them these tips:

  • Relax.
  • Take small, short steps.
  • Focus on lifting your feet instead of pushing off to propel yourself forward.

For the last third, extensive coaching is necessary.  For whatever reason, they have difficulty interpreting the feedback they receive from their body.  For these individuals, I recommend attending a clinic, reading a book, or researching some of the barefoot running websites on the net.

Regardless of the person’s aptitude, I always remind them to be patient and listen to their body.  If they follow those guidelines, the risk of injury will be eliminated.

You’re one of a rare breed known to actually race barefoot. What factors need to be considered when speed is involved?

With the exception of two races run in Vibram KSOs and another partially run in huarache sandals, I’ve been racing barefoot for five years.  I’ve run races ranging from 5K road races to 100-mile ultras.  The most important lesson I’ve learned–know your limitations and the course.

In some situations, I am faster barefoot.  In any road race over a 5k, I am faster without shoes.  In many trail races, I can run faster and longer barefoot.  Shoes tend to interfere with my gait, which increases muscle fatigue.  However, the protection of the Vibrams or huaraches over gnarly terrain offsets that limitation.  If a race contains terrain that will slow my pace considerably if I am barefoot, I opt for one of my minimalist shoes.

An excellent example is this years’ Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run.  My plan was to run the entire race barefoot.  At mile 22, I encountered some brutal gravel horse trails.  By mile 33, I switched to huarache sandals.  That small layer of protection allowed me to run the rest of the race to my full abilities.

Through training, barefoot runners will learn what speed, terrain, and conditions are tolerable.  There is a tipping point where running barefoot can become a liability.  In that situation, I try to assess the conditions and choose the most minimal shoe for those specific conditions.

What are some of the most common injuries suffered by both new and veteran barefoot runners?

New barefoot runners frequently experience injuries.  The most common injury is Achilles and/or calf pain.  This is caused by the transition from a raised-heel running shoe to a zero-differential minimalist shoe or running barefoot.  The raised-heel shoe chronically shortens the Achilles tendon and atrophies the calf muscles.  This problem can be avoided by following the “be patient and listen to your body” advice.

New barefoot and minimalist shoe runners also experience what we call “top of the foot pain”.  This is a dull ache that develops in the metatarsal area of the foot.  This is caused by the new stress on a part of the foot that is largely inactive in modern running shoes.  The pain can be caused by the tendons, ligaments, muscles, or bones in this area.  Again, the patience and body awareness advice will prevent this problem.

Blisters are also common.  Most people disregard them as an inevitable by-product of the transition process.  I disagree.  I believe they provide two critical pieces of information.  First, they are an obvious sign you are running too fast or too far for your current ability level.  As you learn good form, speed and distance will develop.  Second, the location of the blisters can be an important indicator of gait problems.  For example, blisters at the front or the lateral side of the sole indicate over striding.  Blisters on the tips of the toes indicate pushing off.  Blisters on the heel indicate too much of a heel strike.

In my experience, veteran barefoot runners do not have common injuries.  I think part of this is the body awareness that develops.  If I begin to experience what could develop into an injury, I either rest or cross train.  The only time I experience injuries is a race situation where I will largely ignore the early warning signs for the sake of finishing.  I will take that risk because I know I will have time to recover after the race.

You’ve mentioned the importance of good form in undertaking a more minimalist running approach. What considerations need to be made in this regard?

Good form is the essence of barefoot and minimalist shoe running.  Modern running shoes allow bad form.  Need proof?  Watch any local road race.  It is not uncommon to see 80% of the runners severely over striding and landing with a very heavy heel strike.  I think almost everyone would agree that the human body is not designed to run like that.  The less shoe you wear, the less margin of error you have.  Essentially running barefoot or in minimalist shoes teaches you to avoid running in a way that causes pain.  The resulting gait is what many would consider to be good form.  It’s no coincidence that all of the methods to learn good form result in a strikingly similar gait.  Pose, ChiRunning, Evolution Running, and Good Form Running all teach the same basic style of running.  Watch elite runners at any distance. Almost all of them will use the same basic form, which is essentially the same used by barefoot runners.  The elements are the same.  Runners will be smooth and relaxed, feet touch the ground under the center of gravity, the midfoot part of the foot is often the first part of the foot to touch the ground, cadence is around 180-200 steps per minute, there will be a slight forward lean, and vertical movement is minimized.

If you watch a small child run, this is exactly what they look like.  As soon as we place them in raised-heel supportive shoes, their form changes dramatically.  The same thing happens to us as adults.  Unfortunately, many adults have to “learn” to run barefoot or in minimalist shoes even though this is how we ran in our youth.  We have to unlearn years of poor form reinforced by thick padded running shoes.

I am very excited about the future of the running shoe industry because we seem to be in the midst of a paradigm shift.  As consumers, we’re beginning to critically examine the correlation between shoes, gait, and injuries.  I think we are at the dawn of a bright future where running will become more accessible to members of the population that may have been handicapped by the very shoes that were supposed to help them overcome injuries.[sig:MarioFraioli]

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