Five Steps to Barefoot Running

In the last blog, we discussed the barefoot running phenomenon. In recent years, some prominent researchers have been challenging the premise that humans should run in cushioned shoes which reinforce an initial heel strike. Researchers who support the “Barefoot Running” Movement are now stating that humans are actually most suited to land on their forefeet and not their heels. And in recent research, they have found decreased reaction forces in runners who land on their forefeet when compared to their sneaker wearing peers.

So if this all sounds interesting, and those minimalist sneakers with the toes look stylish to you, how does one make the switch? Can you just throw out your cushioned sneakers one day and put on a pair of shoes with toes the next and run 10 miles on the first try?

Most experts in the field of minimalist shoes recommend that individuals follow a fairly specific training regimen in order to become ready to make the transition from full support to minimal support (low foam minimal sneakers). Here are a few recommendations if you are ready to make the plunge:

1.      Start Walking around the House Barefoot – Yeah, it sounds pretty simple right? Well it is. Keep it simple. If you want to eventually run with less foot support, you should start walking around the house with less foot support. Start to get your intrinsic foot muscles firing. Research has found that people who wear sneakers have a significant amount of atrophy in the muscles found within their feet. This will be a good way to start to wake these muscles up gently. Begin with at least 30 min a day of barefoot walking in your home and then you can slowly work up while you are doing your typical running program.

2.      Strengthen your calves and feet – Becoming a forefoot runner requires a lot of strength and control in your calves and feet. It takes time to develop this kind of strength, so start by doing strengthening exercises daily to avoid Achilles tendonitis as you make your transition. Begin with double leg calf raises and then single leg calf raises while barefoot. Then work on your foot muscles by doing “arch domes” for your foot muscles. Arch domes are performed barefoot by pressing your toes into the floor without curling them while raising your arch. Do 1-3 sets of 30 reps daily so that you can work up your endurance.

3.      Purchase a good pair of minimalist sneakers – Head to a shoe store that you trust and ask to be put into a pair of minimalist shoes. Make sure that you jog around a little bit in them. And make sure that you run on your forefeet.

4.      Walk before you jog – Don’t quit running your old way cold turkey. The first day that you put on your minimalist shoes, walk your entire jogging route. The next day, alternate between 9 minutes of walking with 1 min of jogging on your forefoot. On the third day, give your calves a rest. You will feel it. Do this pattern a few days in a row. Then start taking one minute from the walking portion and adding it to the jogging portion. This will likely take 2-3 weeks.

5.      Shorten your Stride – When transitioning from a heel striker to a forefoot striker you will find that taking shorter strides will help you to land on the front of your foot. This will also help to decrease the impact of the ground traveling up your leg. Shoot to increase the number of strides that you take a minute. One way to do this is to count how many strides you take in 10 seconds. Then, while maintaining the same pace, try to gradually increase this number by two.

These steps should get you started in the right direction for Barefoot Running. You can always ask a personal trainer if you have any more specific questions. Slowly increase your mileage and alternate between your old and new sneakers and new. Don’t increase more than 10% any one week. And enjoy your new way of running!

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Diana grew up in a small suburb north of Boston. She received her clinical doctorate degree in Physical Therapy at Boston University in 2006. Diana started practicing as a physical therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital. While at MGH, she developed a specialty in the evaluation and treatment of complex lumbopelvic dysfunction. Diana is currently practicing at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston where she is the Orthopedic Clinical Supervisor of the Spine program. She is presently a Boston resident and her interests outside physical therapy include cooking, walking on the Esplanade, and international travel.

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