Learn the Skill of Barefoot Running

Plus Follow-up From Barefoot Ken Bob’s Running Workshop

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Our culture has made a mess of running. You’d think a simple, pleasurable physical activity wouldn’t produce widespread problems, but we’ve butchered running to the point of near death with it having some of the highest injury statistics of all physical activities. Fortunately, there’s a revolution sweeping the running community that is changing people’s perspectives about running – and it all revolves around the idea of going barefoot. The coolest part is that anyone can start re-learning how to run immediately, and you won’t even need to buy expensive, high-tech shoes. Before we get to the tutorial, here’s some background information to whet your appetite.

A couple weeks ago, Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton (interview with him here) visited Cambridge, MA to teach a barefoot running workshop. It was raining for the 2 hour presentation and Q+A, but that didn’t stop dozens of runners from coming out to learn from one of the worlds best barefoot running experts. I’ve never seen so many people barefoot in my life (except at the beach)! So much was shared during that time, and I wanted to forward on some of the most valuable advice I gleaned from the experience.

  • Barefoot Ken Bob admits that he is not a running coach – just a runner who’s run 76 marathons barefoot. He assured us that we are our own best coach, and reminded us of something very important: a coach can see and hear what you’re doing, but they cannot feel what you’re feeling. Only you can truly know if something feels right or wrong – and that’s applicable to not just barefoot running, but any physical practice. One of the best ways to get “in tune” with your body is to begin a comprehensive movement practice like Intu-Flow Joint Mobility.
  • The best thing you can do to learn proper running technique is to run completely barefoot (no, Vibram FiveFingers don’t count as “barefoot”). Your body will send you the best possible feedback if you just lose the shoes and you’ll make the safest, healthiest, and most expedient progress if you learn to recognize and listen to those signals.
  • We tend to over-complicate things that are truly quite simple – like running, for instance. Barefoot running is really simple.
  • There are 4 major things you want to focus on while running: 1) crown to coccyx alignment (ie, tall posture, looking forward), 2) quick cadence (180+ footstrikes per minute), 3) forefoot foot strike followed by heel contact, and 4) Relax, relax, relax.
  • Too many people only focus on the change in foot strike when making the transition to barefoot running, which is a terrible mistake. When running completely barefoot, your entire running technique will need to change – not just how your feet engage the ground (see below).
  • Daniel Lieberman was also there. He’s the Harvard professor who has provided credibility to the barefoot running argument through a pivotal study that compared impact forces between barefoot and shod runners. See the study at his site: http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/ One thing that Dan stressed at was that your running technique is more important than your footwear choice, or lack thereof. However, going barefoot is the best way to relearn optimal running technique because of the direct feedback it provides about your movement. When it comes down to it, wear whatever you want. It’s your body and running is YOUR hobby. Do what feels best and allows you to have fun.
  • For me, going barefoot is the easiest way to ensure excellent running technique (am I sounding like a broken record yet?). When in the FiveFingers I notice a strong propensity towards harder foot strikes – even when consciously trying to land gently. It’s much easier and much more fun to run barefoot IMO.
  • All of the running technique courses (POSE Running, Chi Running, Natural Running, and Evolution Running, etc.) pretty much teach the same thing: optimal running technique. The differences between them are marginal and I wouldn’t bother worrying about which system is best.

It was a great workshop and I would encourage anyone to attend one if Ken Bob will be coming to your area.

And with that said, here is a superb video about Learning the Skill of Barefoot Running with Lee Saxby, who is considered by many to be one of the worlds greatest running coaches (Lee is a Level 4 Pose Running coach – Master Instructor level). Saxby teaches optimal running technique by having his clients… guess what…. go completely barefoot, of course!

Learn the Skill of Barefoot Running

Even though this was a promotional video for Terra Plana footwear, there’s still a lot of value in Lee’s instruction. For those who are interested in minimalist footwear or city running, check out this Reader Q+A: Going Barefoot in the City and the True Value of Shoes

CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
Fitness Professional and Barefoot Runner since 2009

26 Responses

  1. Last year, I did a little barefoot running. This year, once the weather warmed up, I have been going out about once a week (I do other types of training on other days). My main focus has been on just going easy and letting my legs and feet adjust (the calves and achilles get a completely different workover) and allowing my soles to toughen up. I am up to about 5 slow miles and will likely hold at that distance for a while to continue to let my body adjust.
    But…here’s what I have noticed. Barefoot I simply run more upright. I recall when running shod that I often had to focus on opening my shoulders and not slouching. I find that barefoot I do this naturally and effortlessly. I did have one short incident with some lower backache that I think might be attributable to barefoot running, but it was minor and only lasted a day or so. It wasn’t an injury, just they type of muscle soreness you feel from a new exercise.
    I monitor my body, take it slow, and give plenty of time for recovery in between runs. I’m not trying to impress anyone. Just trying to get stronger and enjoy the run.

    • That’s a great way to approach it, Dave. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  2. Hi John,

    good info as usual from Coach Siffer-father. :-)
    Thanks for Lee Saxby, I ordered the POSE Triathlon Book and the running DVD from Amazon.com weeks ago. I am still waiting…I hope it didn’t get lost on the long journey from U. S. Sigh….

    Fortunately there is a POSE Running Coach here in Berlin. And even a Personal Trainer who is a proficient CST athlete! Met him at Raimar’s Clubbell Seminar in hamburg. Hey I am lucky! My lonesome days watching Trainers on DVD are over.

    OK, I have one small disagreement with you. If you have healthy feet, no flat feet, splay feet and other deformations, you can run by feeling and maybe you don’t need a coach. If not runnning correctly and not changing the misalignment of the foot muscles, tendons, ligaments , you run with wrong neurological patterns and may ruin your feet, no matter what running style you use. As you know – you can’t trust your feelings if you already have SMA, wrong coordination etc because the wrong movement feels “natural” to you.

    So you need a good sports physiotherapist and special drills for changing the structure of your insufficient feet. In this case general good alignment (long spine etc) is not enough.
    But I think it is worth the hard work of strengthening certain muscles and alter neurological patterns – much better than crippling your feet further with running with orthothics in high tech running shoes.

    • Absolutely, Andrea. Ken Bob might disagree with you on needing a running coach, but I certainly don’t. But that wouldn’t stop me from recommending people get started working on their own – sensibly, of course… but that’s subjective :)

      Saxby recommends a 6 week transition period, but I think most people should use more caution and not put a time frame on their progress – just like Dave has.

  3. Hi John,

    Many moons ago, when I first started running, I used to run barefoot. Of course, I’m a good ol’ Southern Boy so that just came naturally to me. I was a teen at the time and I worked myself up to 6 miles a day, 5-6 days/wk with no injuries! Then, off to college I went and we were forced to wear shoes while running. Guess what? Within a semester, I had shin splints and lower back pain and quit running altogether for years.

    A couple of years ago I bought Coach Sonnon and Coach Wilson’s Power Running DVD and also the Chi Running book and DVD. I have been running pain-free ever since! I did have aches and pains at first, naturally. But as my technique improved, any nagging injuries disappeared. I have even started running barefoot again during the warm months. Luckily, here in the sunny South, there are more warm months than cooler ones. And, like you, I feel the VFFs are better than high tech shoes but they still aren’t the same as running barefoot.

    • Hi Keith,

      Thanks for sharing your story with us. Yours is one that needs to be heard by many since it really is quite unique.

      You bring up an interesting point about running injury-free. I don’t think it’s a matter of just running barefoot. Going barefoot is not a miracle cure-all – not for anyone. BUT it does provide the runner with invaluable information about their running technique. So, it’s a good start. If you combine that with some other things, it can contribute to pain-free and injury-free running – such as using a running-specific warmup and cooldown program like the RMAX Powered Running DVD.

  4. Hi John,

    Oh yes, I meant RMAX Powered Running DVD, not Power Running. I just wanted to bring up a few more points. When I started running barefoot back in the 70s (to give you an idea how old I am), I ran with a natural lean and I also did Yoga to compensate for imbalances. I really think that contributed to my being injury-free. Then, when I went to college, we were required to take one semester of PE. Everyone called the class run-oh-run. A little college humor there, the class was actually PE 101. However, the instructor “taught” us how to run. It was the classic 70s-90s marathon style of running with the back straight and the shoulders set over the hips. In other words, I was taught not to lean forward. This caused a heel strike and as I mentioned in the previous post, I had injuries by the end of the semester! When you run barefoot, you naturally lean forward and strike with the forefoot or mid-foot. This is how we were made to run.

    One last thing and I’ll shut up. I must admit that I have no intention of trying to recapture the 6 miles/day, 5-6 days/wk glory of my youth! LOL Now that I’m 50 (and closing in fast on 51), I’ll stick with leisurely runs a few times/wk! :-)

  5. I have completely flat feet. Does this mean I should avoid barefoot running without a coach?

    • Hi Eric,

      That is a very hard question to answer. I prefer to err on the safe side with all things health-related, so I would suggest that you DO work with a good coach. The coach is more important than the system you’re using to learn optimal running technique (Chi, POSE, Evolution, etc.). There are good coaches in each system and I recommend you search them out, and ask them about what they do with clients in your situation. Ask for proof that they can help you. If they’re good coaches, then they’ll have a laundry list of people just waiting to share their success story.

      In the mean time, I don’t see it as a problem if you were to start experimenting with walking barefoot. In fact, this is probably the best thing anyone could do, regardless of their arch height. You may even find that your arches start to strengthen and even raise slightly over time.

      Good luck!

  6. Hi Eric,

    I would say – yes. This doesn’t mean necessarily a running coach. A good Sports-Physiotherapist will do.

    The problem with “suboptimal movement patterns” like with flat feet, splay feet, pes valgus etc is not the bones and muscles itself (nothing wrong with them) but your nervous system. Your NS doesn’t “know” the correct pattern . By running (or even everyday walking) in bad alignment you are asking for trouble (muscle-, tendon-, joint- damage) long term. (Guess why I know….:-))

    Here’s a short, easy read about flat feet and running from POSE Running Coach Romanov
    http://www.posetech.com/training/archives/000448.html

    For a good biomechanics and rehab 101 check out the blog of Physiotherapist Steven Low (Gymnast, Parkour Athlete). This excellent post with lots of comments is a good ressource.

    “Shoes, Sitting, and Lower Body Dysfunctions”
    http://www.eatmoveimprove.com/2009/11/shoes-sitting-and-lower-body-dysfunctions/

    Good luck!

  7. Cesar Rodriguez

    Hi John:

    I am a strong believer of the barefoot running technique. but i have an issue….I have a bunion on my right big toe. I feel the pain when my foot is bare…i am realli fine with my left one but the bunion feels painful when running barefoot. What i should to to mitigate that pain? I don’t want surgery, I can run with wide shoes like the Asics Gel 2030…they carry a bunion window and provides comfort to my foot. I still try to land correctly on my forefoot…what bare my options and let me know your thoughts…Thanks!

    Regards,
    CR

  8. Cesar Rodriguez

    Sorry I menat the Asics Gel 3020…..

    • Hi Cesar,

      Sorry to hear that. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know what the best course of action is. I would try looking into non-invasive medical treatment for bunions first. Doctors may tell you surgery is the best option, but I would say surgery is a last resort, after all other options have been eliminated. I would personally only take the surgery, if it couldn’t possibly be healed any other way. But again, you and your doc know the situation better than I do, and my advice should be taken with a grain of salt.

      In the mean time, my advice is to try out different types of footwear (as minimal as you can handle without pain). Go to the shoe store and see what works best for you – run around in the store. If the pair of Asics is working just fine, then don’t change a thing – just try to pay extra careful attention to your running technique because you won’t be getting as much direct feedback from the soles of your feet.

      The technique is more important than footwear selection (or lack thereof), it’s just that going barefoot makes it a lot easier to use good technique.

      Good luck!

  9. Hi Cesar,

    John is right – surgery should always be the last option. With bunions -like with gallbladders- lots of unnecessary surgeries are performed. Many MDs complain about this but much more MDs are big fans of surgery. Well – If your only tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. ;-)

    The interesting question here is: why do you have this bunion? Bunions are there for a reason which is your foot muscles don’t work the way they should. You can correct in most cases with corrective exercises – it is simple but not easy – it takes quite a bit of training. Check your hip and knee movement patterns and check if you have a splayfoot.

    Look for a good sports physiotherapist or rehab sports doc. It is important to strengthen your muscles to have a good foot arch (no flat foot).A collapsing longitudinal arch is often the beginning of hallux valgus (bunion). You need the kongitudinal and transversal muscles as shock absorbers. If they are broken – bad!

    You get a lot of information Steven Low’s site:
    http://www.eatmoveimprove.com/2009/11/shoes-sitting-and-lower-body-dysfunctions/

  10. Great link, Andrea! I must have read 10 articles before I knew it!

  11. When walking would you also recommend going mid foot to heel? I have some pretty gnarly knee pains for an 18 year old,(which I contribute to four straight years of skateboarding and 5 years as a child playing soccer) but just within the past 2 years my knees have been mildly hurting with just about every step even walking. Just recently started intu-flow, so I’m assuming that will do wonders, but I’m curious about walking in the way you describe to run.

  12. Hi Nathan,

    I’m not sure about walking midfoot to heel, but I do know that the ChiRunning site also offers a book/DVD on ChiWalking. If you pick up the book, it probably wouldn’t set you back too much. You may want to look into a glucosamine/chondroiton supplement or something similar to help you with your knees. Intu-Flow is a great program, so good decision on purchasing that.

  13. Thanks man. I appreciate the reply. :P I’ve been drinking as much water as possible and plenty of essential fatty acids from salmon, nuts(walnuts and almonds and the like) and coconut oil(raw,organic) and these things have seems to help some. I also have purchased flowfit and a 15 pound clubbell. Hopefully I can whip my body into a state of functional fitness.

  14. But just to clarify, when running barefoot you should mid foot to heel strike correct? But when walking barefoot it isn’t advisable to strike in the same manner(mid foot to heel)?

  15. Ronnie Baptiste

    Hi John

    I am a 57 year old male. Have been a runner for many years – and really stretched out when running to have a heel strike way out in front of me. I run on the old railway trail in Bermuda – and as a result have ‘rolled my ankles many times. Not only that but I was suffering with tremendous knee pain. A friend lent me a book on barefoot running. I was very skeptical. I was surprised to see quotes from a Doctor in Bermuda praising barefoot running. I started walking barefoot last September. Since i run early mornings with a flashlight (and my dogs) I started running barefoot short distances. I have now built up to running almost every day barefoot for distances ranging from 1 to 3 miles on the crushed coral trail and the balance -usually 3 additional miles – in my very old running shoes. I have transitioned to rnning on the forefoot in my running shoes as well. I had the usual calf muscle soreness and 50 years of shoes caused the metatarsal bones to fuse and I had the pain ofthat lot breaking and separating. But that has all gone away now. The end result is that the knee pain is gone and I look forward to running barefoo now. One question – how long is it before the little rocks stop hurting?????

  16. Hi,

    Hi have a one year metatarsalgia a plantar fascitis…
    I have a lot of pain…how can i start my barefoot walk?!

  17. Nicholas Sholley

    Hi there Eric,

    I’m a Cadet in the Air Force ROTC Program here at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and I have a question revolving around VFF’s. Due to the nature of the military, all our gear and training equipment must be standardized, so it is possible for me to wear my VFF’s during training, and I was having no problems. However, after a whole semester I was told I could no longer run in them, and now suffer from nagging painful shin splints. I am an avid runner, I would say. (I can easily put 30+ miles a week down). I believe the transition between VFF’s and shoes so frequently is messing with my body. I have learned about striding, and many aspects of footstriking, however I cannot go completely barefoot due to the circumstances… Any advice you could give me would be much appreciated!

  18. I am just starting to run again after a 3 year absence. I have had trouble with shin splints in the past. This barefoot running thing sounds very interesting but I have a couple of questions maybe someone can answer. First of all, what about stepping on something? Have you ever stepped on a nail or something in the street? Also do they allow barefoot running in races? I don’t know if this would work for winter running. Thanks :)

  19. Ronnie B

    Hi Aleise,

    One of the key things for barefoot running is to keep an eye on what you are running on. You need to be focussing on about 8 to 10 feet in front of you and avoid somthing you know is going to hurt or injure. I have been barefoot running for about 10 months and have only had 1 pieceof small glass get into a foot – easily removed with a pair of tweezers. So after each barefoot run – check your feet to see if there is something there that should not be.

    See my earlier posts – I could not sit at a dinner table for more than 30 minutes without serious knee pain. I also had shin splints. All of that has disappeared since I have transitioned to barefoot running.

    Make sure you start slowly – I have been running for years – so thought barefoot running would be easy. WRONG! I ended up with incredibly sore calfs. I barefoot run about 3 miles and have a flat pair of running shoes to continue running after that.

    Follow all the tips – start by walking around the house and yard barefoot before trying to run. Run only short distances to begin with and increase slowly. A lady named Skye Mangram has some great videos about barefoot running and also the physiological effects it has on the feet. It is through her I learned about the metarsals fuzing together with cartlage after many years of not going barefoot. It hurt for a while as they returned to normal. Remember – take it slow, put your shoes on when your feet sting or hurt and take it slow!

  20. first time you dedicate to barefoot, there will be soreness. Imagine using a muscle group for the first time in extensive exercise. Sore. Ease in to it and build endurance. STRETCH.

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