How NOT to start barefoot running

Posted by | Posted in Barefoot Running, Running Sandals, Training for Running | Posted on 26-08-2011

I was recently on a panel discussion about barefoot running. At one point, someone in the audience asked “So how do I transition to barefoot running?”

Before I could respond, a well-respected physical therapist suggested the following:

“First, switch to a slightly lower heeled shoe than what you have. Run in that for a few months. Then add a racing flat, maybe one day a week for a while… then add an extra day every month, until you can run in those. Then maybe try something like Vibrams on a soft surface, like grass in a park. Work up to being able to run on the grass… then try a soft dirt path. Eventually you may be able to run on hard surfaces, but don’t do that too often. And I don’t recommend being totally barefoot because you could step on something.”

The only reason I didn’t interrupt him was that I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But then he tossed out this next line:

“Expect to spend about 2 to 3 years making the transition. That’s how long I’ve been doing it and I’m still not there.”

And that’s when the politeness stopped.

“Hold on,” I said, “this is completely upside down.”

Danny Abshire from Newton jumped in as well, “Right, that’s backwards.”

I’ll tell you what Danny and I proposed, instead, in just a moment. But first, let’s back up to the question that started it all.

“How do you transition!?”

The idea built into the question itself seems to make sense. If you’re wearing a motion-controlled shoe with a 3″ heel and a $400 orthotic, it seems logical that you need to slowly wean yourself from all that support. It seems clear that you would need to get comfortable in a lower and lower heel until you’re ready for barefoot.

But things are not always as they seem.

Here’s the bottom line: There is nothing that “prepares” you for being barefoot. Nothing.

Not “zero-drop” shoes (where your heel is at the same height as the ball of your foot. Not Vibrams. Not a thinner insole. Not even huaraches (more about those in a second).

Anything that you put on your feet will change either your stride and biomechanics or the amount of sensation you’re feeling in your feet (or both) compared to being barefoot. So once you take off your shoes, or fully feel the ground, you’ll need to learn to move differently.

Here’s where some people stop reading what I’m saying and respond with two arguments (to points I’m not making).

First, they’ll say, “Oh, so you’re some sort of barefoot purist! Who are you to tell me what to wear or not wear?”

To be clear, I’m not telling anyone what to wear and I’m not saying barefoot is the only way to be (the majority of my time I am in Invisible Shoes). This article is about the myth of “transitioning”, not about your footwear, or lack thereof.

Secondly, people will say, “Yes, but switching to a racing flat or zero-drop shoe will give your Achilles time to stretch and strengthen, and that better prepares you for being barefoot.”

To them I say, “Not always and, even if it were true, there’s a better way.”

Keep in mind that the biggest reason for going totally barefoot is that feeling the ground with your skin gives you the most feedback about your form. Feedback that, if you attend to it, can inspire you to change your gait to something more efficient, easy, and natural. Running in Invisible Shoes is, really, the same… if they covered everywhere you stepped in 4-6mm of flexible rubber.

I’ve seen hundreds of people in VFFs or racing flats who still heel strike or have some other gait pattern where they aren’t getting much if any extra “Achilles strengthening and stretching”.

So, what’s the better way to “transition” that Danny and I chimed in with?

Take off your shoes (or put on your Invisible Shoes), find the hardest and smoothest surface you can find (like a bike path or street) and run.

But only do it for about 200 yards.

Then see how you feel the next day.

You may be sore, you may be fine. If you’re sore, wait until you’re not. Then go try again, and add 100 or 200 yards. Repeat.

I think of this as the “Shampoo method” of barefoot running. Instead of “Lather, Rinse, Repeat,” it’s run a little, rest, repeat (and run a little more).

Keep in mind, there are two types of soreness. One is from using muscles you haven’t used in a while, or using them in a way you haven’t used in a while (if ever), or using them a bit more than usual.

The other is from doing something wrong. Like doing way too much distance (which part of 200 yards was confusing to you?), or trying to stay on your toes without letting your heels ever touch the ground (Not necessary… land mid- or forefoot, but your heel can touch down. No need to do 200 yards of calf raises).

In other words, a little soreness is probably normal. A lot of soreness is telling you to try something different.

And this idea that you need to be on soft surfaces. Completely wrong. And wrong for the same reason that you don’t want to be in cushy running shoes.

Give yourself a soft surface and the odds are good you’ll heel-strike. Plus, soft surfaces don’t give you the feedback you want, the kind that can help you quickly learn a new and better way to run. I’ve seen barefoot runners who’ve only run on grass, and they usually look like shod runners who lost their shoes.

Instead of thinking that you can work your way to barefoot or huaraches slowly, go there immediately. But work your way up in time/distance slowly.

All the strengthening that you want to do before you run barefoot, you’ll get that faster by running barefoot.

To misquote Yoda’s famous “There is no try. Only do.” There is no transition, only run.

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There are (16) Comments for the How NOT to start barefoot running

  1. [...] let Stephen Sashen from enlighten us on the issue of transitioning (source): I was recently on a panel discussion about barefoot running. At one point, someone in the [...]

  2. As a child I was barefooted from middle June to early September. I remember people asking my mother about me being barefooted and she always told them that the Dr. said that it would be very good for me to be barefooted – and I did enjoy it. I lived by a lake all year long. As I got older I turned to shoes all year long. In my years as an adult I abandoned shoes and socks and wore burkenstocks (about 28 years ago). I have shoes that I wear to funerals, marriages, and when the temperature drops below 20 degrees. I am smart – about avoiding walking in deep snow (2 inches or more. I have been looking at your barefoot running sandals. I’m now retired and am looking for a light comfortable sandal. How the heck do you keep the barefooted sandal on your foot? I’m very interested in the barefoot sandal and I’m also ready to transition to shoes when the temperature reaches 32 degrees with snow.

  3. Hi Rich,
    All of the ways of tying running sandals shown at hold our sandals securely on your feet. I’ve never had one slip off my foot and I must have put on 4-5,000 miles by now. Regarding the cold — check out this link: barefoot running in the cold

  4. Steven,

    I’ve been transitioning to barefoot/minimalist for about 20 months. I’ve done it the slow way, as I was training for marathons and a couple ultras during that time. And I didn’t know better at the time…that what you are saying is correct, albeit counterintuitive to most of us who have been “brainwashed” by the shoe industry and society our whole lives.

    Your method is in fact the best way. Run completely barefoot on a smooth, hard surface. Start slow. Build up.

    It’s just that simple, only it’s not. Unless you already have really good running form, which few people do. Even many teenagers who run cross country have sloppy technique and lame posture.

    What’s working for me are two key things. I wish I’d have gotten them done in the proper order.

    First, use Pete Egoscue’s book, Pain Free, to work out any chronic aches, postural weakness, muscle imabalances etc.

    Second, work on running technique, as proper running technique gets you to run from the core, tall and strong from the gut, which lets your feet and legs come along for the ride with less stress. I’ve had wonderful results with Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running book. Both of these books are low cost in paperback.

    Then go barefoot or as close as possible, as often as possible!

    Via this ongoing process, I’ve changed the way I eat, sit, stand, breath, walk, run, etc. Measurable results have been amazing so far and I love the way I feel now.

  5. Hi Steven, I hate to be that guy but the quote is “Do or do not, there is no try.” which would make yours “Run or run not, there is no transition.”

    Love the post, very good advice about transitioning. The hard part is just getting the technique down. As always, thanks for a great product!

  6. Hi,

    I fully agree with Steven. I started running barefoot (plus) on asphalt hilly roads just because I have no other choice. Was I injured? Yes, I had to give up running for 2 weeks because of my Achilles. Why? Because I ignored the pain. That was the lesson of patience for me. It’s incredible how you can improve the awareness of your body and understand the messages that it sends you. I’d say – do it slowly but DO IT!

  7. I started running barefoot in the Spring of 2010. As of today, I have run 1,324 miles barefoot. I started by cooling down, walking in the parking lot barefoot. The next week, I ran within a quarter mile of my house, then finished barefoot; the next week a half a mile; the next week 3/4 mile; the next week a mile; then I added a mile a week until I was completely running barefooted until the tempature dropped below 35. I have missed no days because of pain. I have run several 10Ks and a half marathon in March. My time was better on the last 10K than it was more than a decade ago in shoes. I am 67 years old and enjoying it. I have minimal shoes from Soft Star that I wear daily.

  8. Good thoughts as I just begin barefootish running!
    I would add that Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This might lead us to something like, “Barefoot run or run not. There is no _________.” Fill blank with least favorite transitional shoe.

  9. Steven,
    Nice to see that you espouse the concept that actually learning barefoot is the way to learn, even though you are selling a product that is not. But it does make for damn-near when just out doing errands or what-not. I am in my huaraches most the day when not at work. I walk my dog the 1.5 km round the block (inspection!) then take my run barefoot as I am still learning/correcting form.
    Listen to Ken Bob and other proponents, and now Steven folks…start necked (feet that is!). Oh and follow the starting-out advice. Your feet get so elated and tingling with pleasure…its almost impossible not to go further (lots) than you should have right out the gate. Trust me…been there, didn’t listen. Do now. lol

  10. So assuming that you don’t get injured can you just keep adding 100 yards(meters) a day? so in 10 days you could be running 1k? 30 days 3k? and marathoning in just over a year? could i keep doing my ordinary running alongside this or would i have to go right back to scratch with my running? i currently run 60-70 miles a week


  11. While your math is correct, Dom, it’s out of sync with reality ;-)

    In other words, you probably wouldn’t run every day. Some days you wouldn’t add distance (if you find that your form breaks down at 3k, for example, you would keep doing that distance until it doesn’t). Some days you may add more. Even if you could, hypothetically, run a marathon, not everybody wants to, or has the time to.

    I’m saying the above mostly for other people reading this than for you.

    For you, since you already do what most consider very high mileage, I have 3 thoughts:

    1) Yes, you can intersperse your new barefoot training with your existing training
    2) You’ll probably find that you only want to run barefoot 2-3 days per week, tops, until you feel that you’ve mastered the form changes that most runners discover are part of running barefoot.
    3) It’s possible, given your current mileage, that you would advance at a faster pace than 300 yards/week

    Oh, one last thought:


    Some people make the change to barefoot almost instantly. Others take quite a while until it feels natural. Either way, there’s no bonus points for speed, and no problem if it takes longer. In other words, running barefoot is as much about learning to trust yourself, to be your own coach, as it is about taking off your shoes. And one aspect of good coaching is to NOT stick to a rigid schedule, but to make adjustments according to the trainee’s (your) actual needs and progress.

  12. Thanks Steven for the advice. First off, I want to say I love my huraches and wear them everywhere I go, walking of course. My first time running I did exactly what you are saying not to do and I paid the price. I did 800m thinking, just 2 laps around the track, that’s not much. My first issue was the slapping. The only way I found to correct it was to land on the ball of my foot. So yes, I ended up doing 800m of calve raises, OUCH!!! Honestly, after I recovered, I gave up. I am now inspired to try again with the 200m and seeing if I can bring my heel down without the slap. I am currently running in the Skechers go-run shoe that is made for mid-foot strike with no heel support, love them.

    Thanks again,

  13. Hi Dana,

    Take a look at … And just because you LAND on the ball of the foot, doesn’t mean you STAY there. Let your heel relax to the ground. And, I’ll bet that even though you’re forefoot striking you’re overstriding a bit (the #1 cause of “slapping”).

    Experiment. Relax. Have FUN!

  14. Spot on!

    After a year of fussing and failing with a “migration” plan, I am successfully there within 3-months of using the approach you’ve outlined, Steven.

    Btw, Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Just sayin …

  15. +1 on working through the Egoscue book first.

    I had the opportunity to use the ramps on a 10 story parking garage to get used to going barefoot again. Great opportunity to reawaken foot ‘feel’.

    +1 on smooth concrete. Intervals of jogging and walking on smooth concrete sidewalks is a pleasure.

  16. If you want to learn to run barefoot, read this first:
    Post questions there if you have any.

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