How It’s Done

The actual mechanics of learning to run barefoot are simple. Warm up with a barefoot walk of 5–10 minutes, then start a stopwatch and begin jogging. Your steps should be short and you should land lightly on your midfoot—not on your heel.

Opinions vary as to the best surface to start with. It might depend on how tough the soles of your feet are. If you have been walking around barefoot all summer before beginning your barefoot running, you would probably be comfortable running on a synthetic track or a smooth, hard surface such as a sidewalk.

On the other hand, if your feet are soft and tender from years of shoes and socks, you may be better off beginning your barefoot running on short grass, packed sand, or a dirt path.

Although there is no scientifically proven best way to begin your program, experts agree that it is important to run barefoot not more than every other day for at least the first month. On the days that you are not running, you should be performing a set of exercises to strengthen your core, legs, and feet. Calf, hamstring, and foot flexibility are also important.

Exercises to Prepare You

Some exercises to strengthen the intrinsic muscles of your feet and the muscles of your ankles and lower leg include:

  • Marble pick-up: While keeping your heel on the ground, rotate your foot inward and pick up a marble with your toes. Then move your foot outward and put down the marble. Repeat 20 to 30 times.

  • Tripod exercise: Sit in a chair with your knee bent and your foot flat on the floor, press your big toe downward, and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 to 20 times. Progress to performing the tripod exercise while standing, then while standing on one leg, and finally, by performing a lunge while pressing your big toe downward.

  • Tripod with body rotation: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Perform simultaneous tripod big-toe press-downs while rotating your body first to the left and then to the right. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

  • Single leg tripod with body rotation: Stand on one foot and perform a tripod big-toe push-down while rotating your body outward (you may need to hold onto something for balance). Perform 5 to 10 times on each leg.

  • Climbers: Place your hands high up on a wall. Lift one knee high while rising up onto the toes of the opposite foot. Lower down and repeat 10 times for each leg.

  • Eccentric Achilles loading: With your knees slightly bent, rise up onto the toes of both feet, lift one foot off the ground, and slowly lower the other heel to the ground. Perform 30 to 50 times on each leg.

  • Proprioception training: Balance on one leg while standing on a 30- to 40-degree decline slant board (with your toe aiming down and a slight load off your heel).

Two Sample Progressions

Just as no two feet are alike, there is no single program to transition to barefoot running that is suitable for everyone. Here are two safe, comfortable options. Decide for yourself which of these running progressions suits you, or customize a plan that fits your experience and physical abilities. Some sources suggest that it may take up to a year to fully adapt to barefoot running.

Running Progression from Matthew Walsh, PT

The first four weeks of this program follows a run/walk format. The adaptation time may be longer for some runners who have poor biomechanics or who have worn highly cushioned shoes for most of their life.

Before you begin:

  • Be able to walk (in shoes) at least 45 minutes every other day for two weeks

  • Be comfortable doing some light double-legged jump roping for 2 minutes on the non-walking days

Begin the program sensibly as follows:

  • Week One: Run barefoot for 1 minute followed by 4 minutes of barefoot walking. Repeat this run/walk ratio six or eight times every other day.

  • Week Two: Run barefoot for 2 minutes followed by 3 minutes of barefoot walking. Repeat this run/walk ratio six or eight times every other day.

  • Week Three: Run barefoot for 3 minutes followed by 2 minutes of barefoot walking. Repeat this run/walk ratio six or eight times every other day.

  • Week Four: Run barefoot for 4 minutes followed by 1 minute of barefoot walking. Repeat this run/walk ratio six or eight times every other day. From here on, you can run continuously from 25–30 minutes every other day. Increase your distance or running time at a rate of 10 percent per week.

Vibram USA's Recommendations

This conservative approach highly recommends that you begin with a two-week program of re-education and strengthening before you start running (either barefoot or in minimalist shoes):

  • Weeks One and Two: Perform the following exercises in three sets of 20 repetitions, three to five times per week:

    • Heel raises: Raise up and down on your toes

    • Dorsi-flexion/plantar-flexion: Slowly pump your feet up and down

    • Toe grip: Flex your toes and grip the floor with them

    • Toe spread/toe trap: Spread your toes apart, then press the big toe down to the floor (trap)

    • Exaggerated inversion and eversion: Slowly tip your feet so your soles face each other (inversion) then turn them so they face apart (eversion)

    • Grab a towel off the floor with your toes on one foot, then pass the towel to the toes of the other foot

    • Walk in your minimalist shoes for 1–2 hours a day

  • Weeks Three and Four:

    • Warm up with the preceding foot exercises. Gently stretch your calves and arches.

    • Run 10 percent of your normal running distance no more than once every other day; for example, if your usual run is 3 miles, you should begin with running ¼ mile barefoot.

  • Weeks Five through Twelve:

    • Warm up with the preceding foot exercises. Gently stretch your calves and arches.

    • Each week, increase your running distance by not more than 10 percent of the previous week's distance. Run every other day.

  • Weeks Thirteen and on:

    • Warm up with the preceding foot exercises. Gently stretch your calves and arches.

    • Gradually increase the distance and frequency of your running, but listen to your body. Be patient while building your mileage slowly, and back off if you develop foot, ankle, or calf pain.

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