A Beginner’s Guide to Running in The Barefoot Style

Ultra-runner Micah True running in a pair of sandals.
Luis Escobar/Reflections Photography

Whether you are already a runner or want to become one, “barefoot” or minimalist running is a great and healthy way to run. Agree or disagree with that statement all you want, but if you want to know how to go about running in the “barefoot” style, this is a guide for you. (And don’t worry if you want to keep your feet covered. While it is called “barefoot running” you do not actually need to run shoeless to use this technique.)

Step One: A Rule to Remember

The most important thing anyone can ever tell you about running, regardless of your running style, is what the recently deceased eccentric ultra-runner, Caballo Blanco (a.k.a Micah True), told writer Christopher McDougall when he was writing his 2006 book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless… When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”

In reality, you just need to remember “Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast”, in that order, to be a successful runner.

Step Two: Take Your Shoes Off and Become Aware

Take your shoes off. (Calm down, you can put them back on in a minute!) Go to a track. An indoor track might be kinder on your newly shoeless feet. Put in some headphones and listen to an audio book or a podcast of the BBC News, you don’t need music getting you all wound up and ready to run at full speed.

Pay attention ONLY to what you are listening to, not to what your body is doing, and run a slow lap (or part of one) around the track. A good rule of thumb for running slowly is to run at such a pace that you can manage to breath using only your nose. If you are new to running you may have to breath through your mouth, but that is okay.

Now, without stopping, run another lap (or part of one) while paying attention to what your body is doing. Don’t try to change what your body is doing, just become aware of it.

You should also notice that instead of your feet landing out in front of you they are landing below you. Also, you are not on your heels, but either on the balls of your feet or on your midfoot, with your feet flat like a pancake, with the weight being distributed evenly between your heels and the balls of your feet.

Either of these is great. It is also what you should try to do when you have your shoes on. Avoid landing on your toes (in front of the balls of your feet) as this can stress the foot in a manner which it is not meant to be stressed.

Step Three: Finding Perfect Form

Go stand in front of a mirror. Stand up straight! Face the mirror, with your feet hips width apart, your arms at your sides. Imagine there is a string attached to the back of your neck and it is pulling you straight up. Bring your shoulders down, back, and slightly together, so that they are straight and not hunched over.

Now that you are standing up straight bend slightly at the knees. Your hips will naturally bend a little bit as well. Remain standing up straight from the waist up.

Now turn to the side and look in the mirror. Your hips and your feet should be lined up vertically. In other words, your feet are directly below your hips when you are standing with your knees and hips slightly bent.

To maintain proper form, this is how you should look when you land on your feet. Landing with your legs extended out in front of you with your knees locked torques your hips in a manner that can damage them and puts unnecessary force on your knees that can severely harm them as well. Landing with your knees bent and your feet and hips lined up, or “stacked” on top of each, other allows your muscles to do their job of absorbing the impact forces of running.

Step Four: Put It All Together

Now that you know the various components, try them out. Go for another lap around the track focusing on maintaining good form.

Go through a mental check list:

-Land on your midfoot or the balls of your feet

-Land with your knees bent and your hips stacked above your feet

-Keep your back straight

-Keep your shoulders pulled back, down, and relaxed

The key here is to be aware.

To move forward you don’t even really want to push forward. You just lift your feet, one at a time, back behind you and then let them fall. Running is not pushing forward, but leaning your entire body (not just the top half) ever so slightly forward and taking next step is what keeps you from falling over completely. The leaning should be as though you were walking up a hill. Be sure to take shorter strides to insure that you are keeping your feet and hips stacked.

Your arms should be at your sides, bent to roughly 90 degree angles at the elbows, with your hands in front of you. Swing them forward and backward. Do not twist from your hips to the right or left as you swing your arms, keep your torso pointed straight ahead at all times.

All of this should be done in a relaxed manner without any muscles being tensed up. As I said, it is as though you were falling forward and catching yourself with each step. And as Caballo Blanco said, it should be easy.

Step Five: Increase Your “Barefoot” Mileage 

If you are switching from “traditional” running shoes with fancy arch supports and thick heels you want to transition slowly to barefoot or minimalist shoes. Switching over too quickly could result in injury or just unnecessary pain.

You want to follow the same “10% rule” that you use when increasing your mileage. In other words, the fist week of running “barefoot”, the actual “barefoot” part should only account for 10% of your running. From then on out, increase the amount you run “barefoot” by 10% each week until you feel comfortable doing all of your running barefoot. You should also avoid running “barefoot” two days in a row during this transition phase.

For those of you who are new to running go for a short run, no more than a mile, maybe two miles if you are already physically active and just haven’t done running as a standalone sport before. You could do this maybe two or three times the first week. From then on out you will want to increase your mileage each week by 10% of the previous week’s mileage. So if you run 10 miles one week, you would run 11 miles the next week. And in reality, you might find the 10% can be the 20% or 30% rule until you get up to 10 miles per week. The key to running safely is to listen to your body and do what you are physically comfortable with.

Step Six: Find Some Good Minimalist Footwear (If you don’t want to be barefoot.)

You will want to go to your local running store that specializes in “barefoot” footwear and try on a few pairs of minimalist shoes. If you live here, in Columbia, Missouri, Starting Block is a great place to go.

Before you go to a store read a few reviews on minimalist shoes so you know what you are talking about and what is available. You could easily walk into a store that does not have a wide variety of minimalist shoes and find yourself unnecessarily limited in choices. The website for the most comprehensive set of minimalist footwear reviews is birthdayshoes.com.

You will likely jump on the bandwagon and go with a pair of FiveFingers from the minimalist shoe market leader, Vibram, who also makes soles for many of the other minimalist shoe brands. But be sure to try on other minimalist shoes. They do not necessarily need to be thin soled, they can be cushioned if you want. The main idea is to get a pair of shoes that has a small “heel to toe drop”. Meaning that the difference in height between your heel and your toes is as small as possible in those shoes.

Once you have read up on the topic go try on a few pairs. If you go to a store, such as Starting Block, that specializes in “barefoot” running and even gives lessons on how to run in this style, it is a good idea to buy your first pair of minimalist shoes from that store and even take a class. Buying the shoes on the internet may be cheaper, but when starting out the advice of a good intentioned shoe store with well informed employees can be quite valuable and worth the extra money. It can also help you discover the local running community.

Step Seven: Go Running!

Now that you know how to run with proper “barefoot” form, get out there and do it!

If you are just starting running for general health reasons, or for weight loss, a good rule of thumb is to go for longer runs at a slower pace. Go for runs like these at a pace that allows you to breath easily through your nose, especially when starting out. Though as stated earlier, breath through your mouth if you need to.

Once running in this manner becomes easy and routine to the point that you can do it without concentrating, you can focus on making it light. That is to say be sure you do not to hammer into the ground, but land softly as though you were nearly weightless. As the quote from the Tao Te Ching says on the opening page of McDougall’s Born To Run, “The best runner leaves no tracks”.

Once you have achieved lightness aim to be smooth as though you are gliding along in a continuous motion like a train rolling down a railroad. For a good example look at some YouTube videos of Kenyan runners or an Olympic Champion like Haile Gebrselassie.

Once you have succeeded at these things and you are running a few times a week you can increase your speed. One of your runs each week can even be dedicated to running a few sprints of shorter distances at high speed.

If you just remember to maintain proper form, listen to your body, and enjoy yourself, you will do just fine!

Happy Running!

Those wanting to read more guides to barefoot running are highly encouraged to check out this one by Vibram.

Those wanting to know more about running in general should check out McDougall’s book, a review of which can be found here.

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