Experimenting in barefoot running

What better place to run like a kid than in a park?

So I’ve been doing the minimalist running thing for a couple of months now, and I can say it’s been a mix of good results and new challenges.

The good results: It’s helped change my running form to something healthier and more sustainable. I’ve also found that without the significant support of traditional running shoes, my legs have had to work harder to get me going. Translation: Stronger legs, particularly my already outsized calves.

All of this has been good. So good that I accelerated my mileage in minimalist running shoes quite a bit. I’ve taken them out on trails, and rugged ones at that. My longest run on the minimalists shoes has been 6 miles on highly technical trails.

Now for the bad news. I’ve experienced some soreness and pain in my feet, particularly on the upper portions. The level or soreness and pain is high enough to alter my stride, so I had to back off and run in more robust shoes when I hit the trails. I’ve been told I’ve tried to do too much, too fast. I believe it.

Enter barefoot running.

Seems counterintuitive, but I truly feel the key to overcoming injuries like this will be to improve my stride and strengthen by legs and feet.

I do not believe the answer is going back to shoes with lots of cushion, motion control and support. Call me crazy.

I’m not sure I’m ready to start doing the barefoot thing on pavement. Places where I go seem to commonly have broken glass and such. I’ll pass on that. But in my reading, I learned that Stanford University’s track team had its athletes run barefoot on grass to strengthen their feet, improve their form and cut down on injuries. From what I’ve read, they’ve had success in those areas.

There’s a park I sometimes go to for quick trail runs. Tulsa’s Haikey Creek Park has a 1.3-mile trail loop that is quite a bit different from my favorite trail haunt. Its trails are mellow, non-technical and relatively flat. The loop circumnavigates a rather large green space or mowed grass.

The green space is where I did the barefoot thing.

Some initial impressions:

– Similar to running in minimalist shoes, barefoot running really works the calves and forces you to run more upright, with shorter strides and eliminates heel striking. It’s harder work it first, but that means strengthening is happening.

– Foot fatigue came quickly, but not too much. I was able to pound out some miles the next day without any issues related to the previous day’s barefoot exercise. This is good!

– The bottoms of my feet started to feel hot. The friction of hitting and rubbing against the ground contributed to this. At that point, it was time to stop.

All told, this lasted about a mile after a short trail run on regular running shoes.

I think I’m going to add this into my training on a weekly basis, while also continuing to throw in workouts in the minimalist shoes.

I’m looking forward to seeing if my foot strength and overall fitness improves.

Have you tried barefoot running? Is it working for you? What are your experiences with it? Let me know!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088 


8 thoughts on “Experimenting in barefoot running

    • I’m still in the experimental stage. It has drawbacks, but it has definite strengths. I think modern shoe manufacturers have programmed the ‘strong’ out of our feet, and that in turn leads to injuries among those who try to take up running.

      I’m thinking that if mixing in barefoot running can help elite athletes, it’s worth a try.

  1. How hard did you find it to switch over initially from traditional shoes to minimalist shoes? Did you also have to change your running technique? I am a classic heel striker and am trying to change my way to help prevent injuries in the future. If you did have to change your running style, how long did it take to click for you? Where you could go out and run lets say 2-3 miles without to much pain in your calves and without having to think about your stride 24/7. How long did it take you to feel like you were running right?

    • Great questions. I’m a mid-foot striker, so my transition wasn’t as hard as it is for heel strikers. I started out faster than I should have, but got up to doing 4-6 mile trail runs within a couple of months. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THAT. I’ve backed off a bit so I can let my feet strengthen more. But overall, it took me a few weeks to get comfortable with runs of between 2-3 miles in minimalist shoes.

      It will change the way you run, particularly if you go with a zero-drop shoe like I did. The shoes I have come with NO cushion. So they force you to run lighter on your feet, more mid-foot, and with shorter, quicker strides. But I also found that the minimalist/barefoot technique makes it almost impossible to heel strike, so you’re not going to be thinking about it as much as you think.

      To this day, I still run a mix of traditional (but very basic) shoes, minimalists and now some barefoot training on grass. With minimalist shoes, I’d start on flat tracks (on the street or in parks), then work your way toward hillier terrain. Save trail runs — particularly technical trails — for later as you get stronger.

      Lastly, when you start out, go with shorter runs at first. Your first workout in minimalist shoes should not exceed a mile. Less even. That will allow your calves (and the rest of your body!) to catch up. You’ll be shocked at how much the spring of traditional shoes propels you forward.

  2. I’ve been running rather regularly in my new FiveFingers. I absolutely love them, I find them very comfortable. I’m not a runner by any means (awful knees that I can’t seem to fix), but I really enjoy the feeling of running in these. I definitely have to change my stride to avoid landing on the heels, and the bottom of the feet definitely get hot quickly. I’ve actually only ran on pavement with them and am excited to get into the woods. Any additional tips for minimalist trail running?

    • Very similar to road running in the respect that you have to use shorter, quicker strides and run light.

      But trails are another animal. And much of it depends on the trail. There’s one park I go to where the trail is really mellow. Level, free of obstacles, not a lot of elevation loss or gain. So you’re pretty much just going forward.

      But the other trails I run are really technical. Lots of exposed rocks, roots and stumps. Tons of elevation gain and loss, some of it pretty steep. These are places where you can’t land hard in minimalists, and that means even more care when it comes to preventing things like ankle rolls. So I run really light on the technical parts of those trails. And I take my time.

      I’ve had to lessen my miles in minimalists when it comes to the trails. My feet aren’t strong enough to go 5 or 6 miles on rugged terrain while wearing minimalist shoes. So I’ve begun to incorporate barefoot running (really short, like a mile or less) in one workout a week. I do this on grass. I figure if it’s good enough for the Stanford track team, it’s good enough for me!

      In short, start with shorter distances, slowly work your way up. Without the protection of thick-soled/cushioned shoes, everything in your running experience is amplified. This will make your feet, legs and core stronger, but will also be (initially) more difficult.

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