Here’s what you need to know: Real barefoot running is fun.
And by “real barefoot” I mean no footwear whatsoever, and by “fun” I mean fun.
There’s nothing wrong with footwear in itself. There are times when you will want to wear shoes, like job interviews, or visits to your local obsidian mine. There are times when you’ll want to wear mittens, too, like building snowmen armies. But that doesn’t mean you’ll want to wear mittens all the time. Think of how much stronger and more dexterous your hands are because they’re not stuffed into mittens all day, every day. The same is true with your feet, which like the rest of our bodies, simply perform better when they have freedom to expand and move about.
To me, modern running shoes are like slick corporate yes-men. They showed up one day and promised you a safer, smoother, faster ride, as if you are driving a car instead of your own two feet. And while modern running shoes are busy fixing problems that you probably never really had, they are also inadvertently masking the problems that you do have. They’ll tinker with your pronation while enabling you to hammer your heels on the ground. A 34 mm midsole is no substitute for good running form, just like a 4-wheel drive is no substitute for safe driving habits.
Your bare feet, on the other hand, are like your brutally honest life-long friends. They’re the ones that really support you, but they’ll point out your real flaws. If you are over-striding, you’ll get blisters on the bottom of your toes. If you are heel-striking, you’ll stop because it hurts.
Now, I wish I could point you to studies which definitively show that kicking off your shoes will magically cure your crippling joint problems, but I can’t… so don’t toss away your Bengay yet. On the other hand, there are no studies showing that you’ll cheat injury by burrowing your feet in a pair of $150 marshmallows either. No, it just comes down to anecdotes and your own personal beliefs on the matter.
So I say this: If you haven’t tried running barefoot yet, kick off your shoes and try it. It’s immensely freeing. And don’t kinda-sorta try it by only running on lush grass or sandy beaches. Those are lovely surfaces to be sure, but they won’t teach you a thing about your running form; they’re just as forgiving as your running shoes. Besides, the sooner you realize you can run safely on hard surfaces without wearing shoes, the better.
So if you really want to give barefoot the old college go, then do it on concrete- it’s the safest and most instructive surface you can find. For one, you’ll see any debris in your way. For another, you’ll get feedback like blisters and muscle soreness if your form is bad, and this feedback is what makes it possible to teach yourself how to run lighter and easier.
So HOW do you run barefoot? There is a wealth of great advice out there, from Steven Sashen to Ken Bob Saxton to Barefoot Josh, but ultimately you are your own best coach. Trust what resonates with you, what feels right. Most importantly, do what feels fun. Having said that, here is my own mix tape of mental cues that may work for you:
- Stand tall, as if someone is lifting you up from underneath your arms. Keep your head up, like it’s being pulled up by a string.
- Let your core pull you forward.
- Keep your knees bent. Your ankles should be behind your knees when your feet touch the ground. Imagine your feet touching the ground underneath you, almost to the point of feeling slightly behind you.
- Lift one foot up before the other comes down. Focus on “picking your feet up” instead of “putting your feet down.”
- Finally…. have fun. Cultivate your curiosity and patience; they’ll be your most useful tools. You’ll probably feel a sense of freedom and exhilaration the first time you try running barefoot. Just make sure to give yourself permission to do much less than you normally would at first, because chances are you’ll notice blisters on your feet and calves that feel like granite. Leave the self-imposed pressure behind. Don’t worry about speed, distance, or instant mastery of barefoot technique. It will come with time.
I hope this helps. I will forever be a student, so regardless of your experience level, tell me what works for you, and happy trails, my friends.
The Running Llama