The Definitive Guide For Transitioning To Barefoot Running

Transition to Barefoot Running with this Complete Program Designed to Strengthen Your Legs, Increase Your Speed, Avoid Injury, and Help You Have More Fun on Your Runs

barefoot runnersIt’s not uncommon for someone to learn about barefoot running, decide to try it out for themselves, and then wind up hurt, injured, and frustrated in a few weeks or months simply because they didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into. I’ve heard many of the stories and wanted to create something to address that.

So, below, you’ll find my comprehensive guide for transitioning from shod running to barefoot running. This is not a scientific approach, but merely one that is based primarily on my own finite experience and on the many anecdotes I’ve collected since going barefoot in 2008. It is merely one data point based on the vast collection of data points I’ve accumulated over the years. Also, it should be noted that this is not a comprehensive barefoot training guide, just a blueprint for making the transition. There are several other elements involved in successfully going barefoot (like learning how to run barefoot with optimal technique, for example) and it’s up to you to fill in the gaps.

If you’ve decided that you want to run barefoot – that is, completely barefoot – and are looking for a way to do it safely without injury or incident, then check out the program below.

It will serve you well!

365 Days To Barefoot Running Mastery

I know what you’re thinking…

“A whole year?”

Yep. That’s right.

“But I thought you’d give me a 6 week program and that I’d totally rock this thing.”

Sure, I could do that, but I wouldn’t feel good about it – knowing I’d be setting you up for failure and all. I wish there was a more expedient solution to your absolutely-must-have-this-fixed-now problem, but for the vast majority of people – there isn’t. Transitioning to barefoot running takes time – usually a long time. And the truth is that the longer you’ve been walking/running/hiking/etc. – in ANY type of footwear – the longer it’s going to take to transition. By all estimates, a year may actually be rushing the process for some people. I know it was for me. You can read my whole story of how I made the transition to barefoot running here (mistakes and everything): How Going Barefoot Made Me Stronger.

Now, I wasn’t exactly an expert on these things when I went through the process myself, but I took what I knew about fitness training and applied it to going barefoot and managed to not get injured in the process – something that not a lot of people can say. I’ve fallen into the trap of training too hard, too long, too often – and I paid the price for that irresponsibility in spades. So, I decided not to repeat the mistakes of my past and this time, do it right.

Based on some discussions I’ve had with some NH natives and many others online, most people are going about barefoot running all wrong and paying the price with pain, injury, and even disability. Needless to say, I don’t want that to happen to you.

So, if you came up to me on the street and asked me how I’d recommend you do it, this is about what I’d tell you…

Make Yourself a Promise

First, I would decide ahead of time to commit an entire year to making the transition. The way I saw it, I had spent my entire life wearing some form of footwear the vast majority of the time. Needless to say, that comes with some specific conditioning effects (aka consequences) when it comes to foot health, strength, and mobility among other things.

Note: if you’d like some of these things spelled out, here’s my unofficial, non-scientific list of conditioning effects that come from excessive (and common) footwear use: weak muscles in the feet, weak bones in the feet, weak ligaments and connective tissues in the feet, flat or lowered arches, narrower feet and squished toes (aka deformity), bent toes, poor sensation, poor balance, weak and thin soles, among other things. Not to mention being a total pansy!

Obviously, these issues weren’t going to reverse themselves overnight, and certainly not even in a few weeks or months. If I spent my entire life creating the problem, it was going to take awhile to adapt from it – let alone fix it. And this makes sense, too. To make any permanent change in your health and fitness, it takes a long time. The quick-fix solutions just never work.

Getting Started on the Right Foot

Now, let me show you exactly how you’re going to pull this whole thing off and make it look easy.

Before we get into the actual program, there are a few things you absolutely must understand. Failing to implement these strategies will almost certainly ensure failure. Skip ahead at your own risk.

The three keys to success from using this system include:

1) Strict implementation of incremental progression – You must progress through this program gradually. If you rush the process, you are much more likely to fail. So, take your time and progress gradually in every single aspect. This means that you will gradually increase the difficulty from week to week and month to month. You can do this several ways, and here are a few good ones: walking/trotting/running further distances, for longer duration, or over tougher terrain, but doing so gradually.

If you try to do too much, too soon, you rapidly increase the risk of problems and eventual failure. So, use the guidelines in the program below to figure out a progression model that works for you. Think baby steps.

Note: I encourage you to customize the actual program to your needs, but I cannot stress enough that you must adhere to these basic principles in order to succeed.

2) Constantly using the feedback loop – No program is perfect for everyone since every person has a different set of circumstances, skill, and conditioning. The way you make this program personalized for your needs and goals is to listen to your body (especially your feet!) and paying attention to the feedback you’re getting from training. For example, if you’re feeling pain, then something is definitely wrong. I know this is obvious, but I can’t tell you how many people I know that have ignored pain and gotten themselves injured. Decide ahead of time that you won’t let that happen to you.

Don’t ignore the feedback that your body gives you, and pay attention to it not just on a moment to moment basis, but also on a week to week basis. If you feel like you’re doing too much, not recovering fast enough, or if you’re getting blisters or are in pain, then heed those physiological warnings and back off a bit. When in doubt, decrease the challenge – go easier, slower, softer, etc.

If you do not pay attention to the feedback loop, then you will likely never find the sweet spot where you can adapt and get better without doing harm and damage in the process. Adaptation is a tricky balancing act, and the feedback loop is the scale to determine when you should add or remove a component to ensure constant progress. Be open to adjusting the program to suit your needs.

3) Smart application of the intuitive training protocol – This could turn into a lengthy discussion. So, for the purpose of keeping things simple, you should strive to walk/trot/run with excellent technique, while keeping your level of discomfort low, and then (and only then) increase the effort and intensity of the activity. In other words, do NOT increase the challenge if you cannot maintain good technique and do so without pain. For example, if you cannot walk over gravel without flailing your arms and cursing, then you have no business trying to walk further or faster on that terrain until you can. Use common sense – ‘nuf said.

Note: if you don’t know how to walk or run efficiently (ie with optimal technique), then you should address that now. Start here: Learn the Skill of Barefoot Running.

The Difference Between Pain and Discomfort

I’ll be the first to admit that despite my 4+ years walking and running barefoot – despite the conditioning I’ve developed and the strong, thick-soled feet I’ve built – walking and running on gravel is still uncomfortable. In talking with other experienced barefoot runners, it’s a universal issue that I’ll probably have to deal with the rest of my life. It’s just the way it is. Oh well.

But there’s a big difference between pain and discomfort, and it’s important to be able to differentiate the two when you’re training. Pain is an indication that injury or damage has been done, and it always comes after the fact (ie after the injury has already happened). Pain is a warning that something is wrong and that you need to stop doing whatever it is that you did to cause the pain. Pain indicates a definite problem that needs to be resolved before moving on.

Discomfort is also a warning, but it is one in which no damage has been done, nor is being done. Discomfort is meant to serve as a self-regulation tool to keep you in check from doing too much, too soon – to the point of pain or injury. And when going barefoot outdoors in all but the most forgiving environments, a little discomfort just comes with the territory.

So, my guiding philosophy in training is that a little discomfort is ok, but pain is to be avoided. If you need a way to measure it, simply apply a perceived rating of discomfort. You should not allow your discomfort/pain rating to go above a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt, 1 being no discomfort at all). In other words, the threshold of going from a 3 to 4 is where discomfort turns to pain. So, keep your discomfort level at 3 or below. Obviously, this is subjective, which is why it’s important to use the feedback loop and listen to your body as discussed above.

The bottom line is that you must learn to differentiate between discomfort and pain if you want to be successful in your barefoot running endeavor. If you don’t get this right, you can forget about running barefoot successfully.

The 12-Step Barefoot Running Program

Below, you’ll find a complete barefoot running transition program. But before we even get to that, let’s talk about pre-program preparation.

After I got my head on straight and accepted that I needed to use a long term approach to build up to barefoot running, I started by walking barefoot indoors – right in my own home. I’d recommend you do the same, along with some other preliminary preparation of walking in minimalist footwear. Although, at this stage, I’d recommend against running in minimalist footwear (you’ll see why later).

Note: this program assumes you already have a regular walking or running habit established (daily or near-daily is ideal). If you do not already walk or run regularly, then use this program to get started: The “1 Minute A Day” Walking Program.

Preliminary Preparation Phase: 1-3+ weeks

This is the pre-walking phase and may not be necessary for everyone depending on your lifestyle and training habits. When in doubt, start here.

Barefoot walking indoors – Regardless of your past experience, you should begin this long journey by walking barefoot indoors – just around your home to start. This is especially important if you rarely go barefoot because it will “wake up” the feet and let them know that some changes are in the works (and starts the reconditioning/strengthening process). I’d spend a bare minimum of one week walking indoors before going outside, but longer will be better if you have the patience. Two to three weeks of indoor barefoot walking should be more than enough preparation for starting the first phase of barefoot walking. The goal of this phase is not to push your limits, but to initiate the foot strengthening process. Don’t go and walk 5 miles on a treadmill on your first day. Don’t even walk one mile barefoot on the first day. Take your time. Do it right the first time and don’t rush the process. Respect your body.

Walking in minimalist footwear – If you’ve been walking or running regularly for awhile, then try getting a set of minimalist footwear to walk in (note: no running yet!). Don’t stress too much about finding the perfect type of minimalist shoes – just get something that isn’t very restrictive that you’ll actually wear regularly (Vibram Fivefingers aren’t for everybody!). I’d suggest finding something that has a flat, thin, flexible sole, and plenty of width in the toebox. Things to avoid would be thick soles, elevated heels (even slightly), and narrow width that makes the shoe tight around the sides. You can learn a lot more about minimalist footwear, and find the right shoe/sandal/etc. here: Toe Salad: All Things Minimalist Footwear. If that site seems a bit too overwhelming, you can check out this interview with the founder to get started: The Minimalist Footwear Primer.

I may sound like I’m being overly-cautious with my suggestions, but having gone through the experience myself, this is the advice I would have wanted someone else to give me – the truth. OK, time to really get started.

1st Phase: Barefoot Walking (Months 1-4)

The goal of this phase is to develop proficiency in barefoot walking over a variety of terrain to set a foundation for barefoot running. Understandably, not everyone will have easy access to every form of terrain listed. Adhere to it the best you can, and use this entire program as more of a guideline than an absolute. The key is to leverage the success principles outlined above to establish an individualized program rather than conform to a set, arbitrary schedule. I will repeat the importance of incremental progression, particularly when it comes to trying out more challenging terrain.

Instructions: The goal of each month is to gradually work your way up to walking barefoot for 30 minutes on a specific type of terrain – with each new month bringing a more challenging surface to walk on.

Increase the duration of your walks by one minute each day until you get to a 30 minute barefoot walk. For example:

Day 1 = 1 minute barefoot walk on specified terrain
Day 2 = 2 minute barefoot walk on specified terrain
Day 3 = 3 minute barefoot walk on specified terrain

Day 28 = 28 minute barefoot walk on specified terrain
Day 29 = 29 minute barefoot walk on specified terrain
Day 30 = 30 minute barefoot walk on specified terrain

Training daily is preferred, but a few times a week should be sufficient. Any less than that, and you may have trouble adapting. Also, training on level terrain is fine, but including uphill and downhill walking at your discretion is encouraged, particularly in the latter half of each month.

Month 1) Barefoot walking on smooth, hard surface (concrete, asphalt, etc.)
Month 2) Barefoot walking on bumpy, hard surface (groomed trail, packed dirt, etc.)
Month 3) Barefoot walking on varied surfaces (smooth, hard, bumpy, rough, soft, etc.)
Month 4) Barefoot walking on jagged, rough surface (gravel, rocky earth, etc.)

Note: if you already have a regular walking habit, then simply start day one of the program by going barefoot for the last minute of your normal walk. Just take your shoes off for the last minute or so. Then on day two, go barefoot for the last two minutes of your normal walk, and so on and so forth.

How to Transition From Month to Month

After you’ve completed a full month of training on a specific type of terrain, and have worked your way up to a 30 minute barefoot walk (or trot/run in the following months), start the next month by integrating the next, more challenging surface into your normal walks by one minute at a time. For example, on day 30 of month 1, you will walk barefoot on a smooth, hard surface (such as asphalt) for 30 minutes. On day 1 of month two, you will walk for at least 29 minutes on a smooth, hard surface (such as asphalt) and also for 1 minute on a bumpy, hard surface such as a groomed trail. On day 2 of month two, you will walk for at least 28 minutes on a smooth, hard surface and for 2 minutes on a bumpy hard surface, and so on and so forth.

This way, you will maintain the conditioning you’ve developed thus far, while still gradually building up your conditioning via the new terrain challenges. Note also, that you may simply add additional minutes to your walks beyond the 30 minute mark (e.g. walk for 31 minutes on day 31). The 30 minute mark is merely a general standard that serves as a reference point. That said, I do recommend working up to a daily 30 minute walk if you can make the time for it. Here’s why: The #1 Doctor-Recommended Thing You Can Do For Your Health That No Drug Company Executive Wants to Admit.

2nd Phase: Barefoot Trotting (Months 5-8)

You are now four months in and should have a solid base of strength in your feet, ankles, and legs from all the barefoot walking you’ve been doing. You should also have a good grasp of the various tactile sensations you’ll be experiencing. The goal of phase two is to develop proficiency in barefoot trotting over a variety of terrain to set a foundation for barefoot running.

barefoot runner

You’re probably chomping at the bit to start doing some running, and I don’t blame you! However, I would caution you to hold back and respect the process. Do it right the first time and see this through. Hold out for the running and sprinting in phase three, knowing that you will be well prepared for high intensity barefoot running by then.

Instructions: I’d suggest maintaining a regular barefoot walking schedule and slowly incorporating the trotting by about 1 additional minute per day, just like before. Slowly build up to trotting for a half hour in each category by increasing the duration of your trots by one minute each day (ie day 1 = 1 minute barefoot trot, day 2 = 2 minute barefoot trot, day 30 = 30 minute barefoot trot). Training daily is preferred, but a few times a week should be sufficient. Any less than that, and you may have trouble adapting. Again, training on level terrain is fine, but including uphill and downhill trotting at your discretion is encouraged, particularly in the latter half of each month.

Month 5) Barefoot trotting on smooth, hard surface (concrete, asphalt, etc.)
Month 6) Barefoot trotting on bumpy, hard surface (groomed trail, packed dirt, etc.)
Month 7) Barefoot trotting on varied surfaces (smooth, hard, bumpy, rough, soft, etc.)
Month 8) Barefoot trotting on jagged, rough surface (gravel, rocky earth, etc.)

Note: progress from month to month using the same method from the first phase.

3rd Phase: Barefoot Running (Months 9-12)

Woohoo! You made it to phase 3! The goal of this phase is to develop proficiency in barefoot running and sprinting over a variety of terrain. If you’ve followed the program as prescribed, then you are now well prepared to take your barefoot running up a serious notch. And trust me, you’ll be glad you spent ample time preparing instead of rushing the process and skipping ahead. It’s all downhill from here (sorta).

Instructions: Slowly build up to barefoot running for a half hour in each category by increasing the duration of your runs by one minute each day (ie day 1 = 1 minute barefoot run, day 2 = 2 minute barefoot run, day 30 = 30 minute barefoot run). Assuming you can manage your intensity level properly, then training daily is preferred, but a few times a week should be sufficient. Also, feel free to take those hills by storm!

Month 9) Barefoot running/sprinting on smooth, hard surface (concrete, asphalt, etc.)
Month 10) Barefoot running/sprinting on bumpy, hard surface (groomed trail, packed dirt, etc.)
Month 11) Barefoot running/sprinting on varied surfaces (smooth, hard, bumpy, rough, soft, etc.)
Month 12) Barefoot running/sprinting on jagged, rough surface (gravel, rocky earth, etc.)

Note: progress from month to month using the same method from the first and second phases.

Extremely Important Note

This is a generic, cookie-cutter, one-size fits all approach for transitioning to barefoot running. It is not customized to your individual needs, goals, or circumstances whatsoever. It is meant to serve as a guideline to use and adapt to your own unique situation. Feel free to follow the program as-is. However, also feel free to modify it based on your needs. Try to see the general underlying strategies and follow the system as best you can, but don’t restrict yourself to the exact programming. Use your intuition and do what works best for you.

I think a year is a sufficient length of time for most people to make a full transition to barefoot running, but it may not be ideal for your situation. Some people may need more time and others less. Regardless, I would strongly caution against trying to make the transition in less than six months. And when in doubt, take longer than you think you will need.

Why I don’t recommend training on soft surfaces like grass and sand

You will notice that I barely include any soft surfaces in my recommended training program. They are included in the third month of each phase as part of the “varied surfaces” category, but they should not make up the bulk of your training in that month. In fact, I do not recommend walking on grass, sand, or other similar surfaces until you’ve gotten a firm foundation in walking/trotting/running on more challenging surfaces. The reason being that it’s too easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re doing it right because there is no immediate pain from a mistake. You want the feedback from a hard surface to tell you whether or not you’re walking/trotting/running correctly. That feedback will be dulled on a softer surface. What may feel fine on grass or sand could cause blisters, bone spurs, shin splints, or knee problems among other things on less forgiving terrain.

Why I don’t recommend using minimalist footwear to prepare for barefoot running

Putting any type of covering on your feet dulls your senses – even so-called “barefoot shoes.” This can and will secretly undermine your progress unless you have a nervous system that can send lightning bolts through shoe soles and detect the ground as if you were completely barefoot. (Note: if you do, please contact me because I’d like to offer you a free interview!)

The bottom line is that going barefoot is a very different experience from going minimalist. And if you want to know the honest truth, I’d recommend working up to barefoot running before trying out any minimalist footwear options for running. That said, I understand why some of you will choose to do both, and some training conditions certainly require it. Not all of us are lucky enough to live in such a perfect environment as Southern New Hampshire. I mean, it’s practically a utopia here!

John running at Clough State Park, NH

Final Words

I think that by adhering to smart training practices, practically anyone can make a safe and effective transition to barefoot running with enough time and patience. It is my hope that by providing this free program, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge you need to succeed in making this habit a part of your lifestyle, and avoid pain and injury in the process. I’ve been a (completely) barefoot runner since 2009 and it’s just so much better this way. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

Before you sign off, I’d also highly recommend looking into Barefoot Ken Bob’s excellent book about barefoot running at the link below. This is a must-read for those who want to do this right:

Click Here to Check Out Barefoot Running Step by Step

Please let me know if you have any questions and enjoy the journey. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Recommended Reading:

How to Run Every Single Day for One Year

Persistence Hunting and Endurance Running: 5 Tips to Run Effortlessly

The Little-Known Philosophy of Gentle Running

How to Run Better For “The Perfect Run”

Learn the Skill of Barefoot Running

Interview with Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton

If you found this article helpful, please share it with your friends and tweeps:

CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach
Barefoot Runner Since 2009

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P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/katzenheim/

5 Responses

  1. I get how this will help the internal structural development of the feet and legs – bones, ligaments and tendons. What I have struggled with in the past is the soles of my feet. At one point I was up to running 5 miles per day on asphalt. Then winter came (NH just like you) and I found that the cold was just too much. So my feet stewed in my boots for 5 months and when they came out again they were soft as a baby’s behind. I was back to a tenderfoot.

    Will this program allow for toughening of the feet through the winter months? What’s your experience barefooting in winter?

    • Dave,

      Barefoot running is tricky with our New England winters. You just have to work around the conditions the best you can – give and take. For me, that means running when it’s warmest and preferably driest during the day/week, and when necessary, using some type of minimalist footwear.

      Personally, I rarely run barefoot unless it’s at or above freezing point. If I’m going for a long distance run when it’s very cold, it also needs to be dry. If it’s very cold and the ground is wet, it sucks the heat right out of me, and my feet go numb (not good!). If it’s wet from rain/snow, then my runs will either need to be much shorter duration, or I’ll need some type of footwear to retain heat for the entire run.

      I think there’s something to be said for training in less than ideal conditions, too, but it needs to be done carefully to prevent injury. There have been a few times that I’ve gone out for a short barefoot run when it’s below freezing point and wet, but these have been more for mental toughness purposes than for physical conditioning. I like testing my limits, within reason, from time to time.

      The good news is that the soles adapt to the transition faster than anything else. I think it usually takes months or even years for the bones, ligaments, and tendons to fully adapt to barefoot running – on any surface. But in a matter of 2-3 weeks, most people will have adequately strengthened the soles for barefoot running on most surfaces (note: that doesn’t mean it’ll be comfortable on all surfaces). But as I stressed in the article above, progressing incrementally is extremely important. And honestly, each Spring, I go through a bit of a break-in period as well – mostly because I’ll be training on rough surfaces for the first time in months (usually just asphalt for me in winter).

      There’s a bit more info about barefoot running in the winter here:

      Barefoot Running in the Snow
      http://physicalliving.com/barefoot-running-in-the-snow/

  2. Hi,

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! Thank you! Everyone else just says to go slow during the transition but I wanted more specifics. Very helpful. I’ve tried a few barefoot runs and have been so sore (calves) and feel like Im struggling.
    I have a few q.s for you if you dont mind:
    1- I’m not sure I want to go completely barefoot all of the time. Have you heard of xero shoes? Are those a good option for being as close to barefoot as possible? We live in a gross dirty area so I want shoes as an option. Theyre sorta like huaraches.
    2- I have worked up to 6 miles and wanted to train for a 15k next. Do I have to stop running shod and just do my barefoot training? Or can I combine them somehow? I only run 3 days per week. How would I combine these? Would I just keep my normal form when shod running? Or should I try to change that?
    3- when switching to minimalist shoes for walking, do we need to start slow w that as well? I walk a dog twice a week and thought that would be perfect to use some minimalists for but we go 2.5 mi. Is that too far to start? Or is it ok with walking to start w more?

    Thanks so so much!!

    • Hi Kehau,

      I like Xero Shoes – wear mine semi-regularly in the warmer months. I did a complete writeup of the pros and cons here: http://physicalliving.com/review-of-the-xero-shoes-huarache-style-minimalist-sandals-aka-invisible-shoes/

      You can combine barefoot running with shod running, but I’ll speak from experience and guess that it’ll be difficult. With me, it was either all or nothing. It’s much harder for me to run properly with footwear on. So, I had to lose the shoes as much as possible. Your mileage may vary. Some experienced barefooters will tell you that you can do both, and others will highly recommend going barefoot 100% of the time (e.g. Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton). But ultimately, it’s up to you. Just take it slow and play it by ear. Your feet will know best.

      You’ll probably be able to progress faster with the walking, especially if you’ve been barefoot running for awhile. But I would take it easy your first couple of walks just to be sure.

  3. Thanks so much!

    One random question: I had a friend who said running barefoot is dangerous bc of potential for contracting infectious diseases. I’m not too worried about this and I don’t run with cuts on my feet or anything, but what’s the general consensus on this in the barefoot community? What if you live in a gross area? Obviously find something like xeros or another brand to wear, but I’m just curious what people with more experience say. I grew up barefoot a lot and never thought about it but we lived in Hawaii where it was safe and clean :) now were in a dirtier, nastier place. I keep my eyes out for needles or anything weird but just thought I would inquire.

    Thoughts?

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