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How To Run Barefoot

“How do I start barefoot running?”

“What’s the best book/course/coach for learning to run barefoot?”

“Can you show me what barefoot running form looks like?”

Xero Shoes Co-Founder and Co-CEO Steven Sashen gets these queries a lot and avoided responding for months… until now. Read below to get his thoughts.

Why the hesitation?

  1. Frankly, if all you did was take off your shoes, go for a run, stop when it hurts, and experiment to find ways of running that don’t hurt, you would learn more than I, or anyone else, could tell you.
  2. Those of us who’ve observed and coached barefoot runners are starting to notice the obvious: different runners have different forms. That is, when you look at the BEST runners, they may have a few things in common, but they’re not all doing the same thing. So, I don’t want to say something that isn’t going to be relevant for YOU.
  3. To be totally candid, I’m in an awkward political situation. As a guy who sells “barefoot-style” footwear, and who would like to have ALL the coaches referring their clients to me, I can’t single out one coach/book/technique over another (or one “under” another, either). I can tell you that if you listen to ALL of them, and then follow a bit of advice I’ll give, below, you’ll appreciate each coach for his/her unique contribution to your barefoot running form.
  4. Many runners aren’t aware of what their bodies are actually doing, so certain recommendations won’t be effective anyway. If I say to you, “Don’t land on your heels,” and show you a video of how you’re “supposed” to land on your foot, you may be 100% convinced that you’re doing what I suggested, and then a video might show that you are totally heel-striking. In other words, what I say will be less important than what you learn on your own.

Getting started with barefoot running

Realize that the best coach you have is YOU and your sensations and whatever you can learn from watching a video of yourself (especially slow motion video). In fact, you MUST become your own best coach, because no external coach will be there for every situation you’ll encounter as a runner. If you can’t listen to yourself, adjust what you’re doing, and know when to STOP… no other coach will be helpful anyway.

  • Start SLOWLY and build up. Check out my post about getting started with barefoot running. There’s no rush in making the transition to barefoot running. And there’s no way to predict how long it will take YOU.
  • Remember that this is a never-ending process that you can always improve.

Technical and Specific Tips for Barefoot Running

  • Choose Optimal Surfaces: Hard, smooth surfaces are the best for learning. They give you the most feedback.
  • Land Mid-Foot or Fore-Foot: Do NOT reach out with your foot to do this; that’s the opposite of what you want to do. You don’t need to stay on the balls of your feet and put extra strain on your calves and Achilles tendons. Once you land on the ball/midfoot, you can let your heel drop if it feels better to do that, and it will feel better/worse depending on whether you’re going uphill or downhill or on a flat road, and depending on what speed you’re running.
  • Foot Placement and Lift: Don’t PULL your foot toward you or PUSH it behind you… that’ll cause blisters and strain your hamstrings (pulling) and calves (pushing). Think, instead, about PLACING your foot on the ground and LIFTING it off. And lift by using your hip flexor. That is, think about lifting your foot off the ground by lifting up your knee, not by pushing off the ground.
  • Optimal Foot Positioning: Aim for having your feet land more “under your body” than you’re probably used to. Landing with your foot out in front of you too much is “overstriding,” it’s one of the habits that most of us need to work to overcome. You may need to exaggerate this to get the feel of it — put your feet “behind you” when you land. You won’t actually be able to do this, but if you try it will highlight what overstriding feels like… and the correct place to put your feet is probably somewhere in between.
  • Light Foot Placement: Un-Plop your feet. This is hard to describe, but many of us slam our feet into the ground or wait for the ground to hit our feet. We plop them onto the ground instead of meeting the ground lightly. There are a lot of “cues” coaches use to teach this: Pretend you’re running on hot coals, or running on thin ice, or trying to sneak up on a deer, or that your feet are wheels and you want them to touch where the wheel meets the ground, or that the ground is moving below you like a treadmill and you want to move your feet at the same speed as the treadmill.
  • Maintain Core Tightness: When you run, your body is a spring. If you collapse in your midsection, you’re weakening the spring and making it less efficient and, therefore, making it harder to run.
  • Increase Cadence: Most people think 180 steps per minute is some magic number. It’s not. Some successful runners do more, some do less. Moving your feet faster than you’re probably used to gives you less time to keep your feet on the ground… and that’ll help you learn to place/lift, “unplop” and not overstride.
  • Listen to Your Run: If you’re running loudly or making a lot of noise when your feet hit the ground, you’re doing one of the above incorrectly. This is true if you’re barefoot, in Xero Shoes, or any other footwear. You can run quietly (not silently), and quiet running is usually a sign of good form.
  • Experiment: When I run, I ask, “How can I make this lighter, easier, and more fun… and, sometimes, faster?” Then, I experiment and see what I can find.

Then, most importantly:

  • REST. Bodies get stronger when you let them rest. There are no bonus points for not taking a day off.
  • HAVE FUN! If it’s not fun, do something different. Try a different surface, a different speed, and a different reason for running (compete if you haven’t before, and do an obstacle course if you’re usually all about putting in mile after mile).

Oh, and did I mention, barefoot running can be, should be, and IS (once you get it) FUN… don’t forget that!

The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.