Tips for Barefoot Running

Yes, I tried it.  I found joy, and I found pain.  Here’s what I’ve learned, in case you’re thinking of trying barefoot jogging.

I’m not a hard-core runner.  But, I have been running since I was 11 years old (inspired by the famous training sequence in Rocky, and a big local event from that era–Tacoma’s Sound-to-Narrows run).  The idea of going barefoot sounded silly, when I heard about it a couple years ago.  But, once I got past my disbelief, I wanted to try it.

(For the full story on going barefoot, see the story I produced for KPLU, or the one for The World.)

I read as much as I could find online, and I started conditioning my foot and calf muscles.  I tried going a couple hundred yards on grass at a park, but never felt comfortable (I was so focused on what I might step on).  So, I got a pair of the Five-Finger shoes.

The first time running in them was liberating.  It felt strange and beautiful.  Then, after about 4 blocks, my calves tightened into a knot.  I limped home gingerly.  No harm, but I realized how much more strength my calves would need.  Over the next few weeks, running twice a week, I worked up to ten minutes, then fifteen minutes.  I would go until I felt my calves getting tired.

In reality, I was still ramping up way too fast.  One day, at the end of the run, I noticed my foot was sore. I still don’t know what I did exactly, but any time I tried to walk or run on the ball of my foot, for weeks, the whole area around my ankle felt sharp pain.  I’m fine running in shoes, but barefoot is on hold.

As Dr. Brian Krabak (Sports Medicine, University of Washington) told me: “Most people hurt themselves because of training errors … being too aggressive.” (Note-This was for an interview; he’s not my doctor.)

Here’s what several experts say:  Start with no more than a half kilometer, three days a week.  That’s a very short distance.  One lap around a track, plus the length of a football field.  And, then, apply the “10% rule,” which means, add 10% per week.

Just to give you a sense of how gradually you’ll be building up, here’s a chart:

Week Distance
1 .5 km / .3 mile
2 .55 km / .3 mile
3 .61 km / .4 mile
4 .67 km / .4 mile
5 .73 km / .45 mile
6 .80 km / .5 mile
7 .88 km / .55 mile
8 .97 km / .6 mile
9 1.07 km / .67 mile

After 9 weeks, still just 2/3 of a mile!  At this rate, you’ll need about three months to reach one mile.  (Barefoot Ted McDonald takes a more individualized approach. He says some runners, with stronger feet, will be able to progress faster.)

Everyone seems to say good stretching and some massage for your feet and calves will be essential.  And, if your pain lasts several days, cut back or get help, says Dr. Karak.

The Harvard Skeletal Biology website has a lot more detailed advice.

I plan to try it again, but with more patience.

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About Admin

I was the Science & Health Reporter for 12 years, and the Environment Reporter for 5 years, at NPR member station KPLU, in Seattle, WA (now re-born as knkx). Today, I've left journalism but keep this blog as a place for writing about some of the topics that I tracked over the years.

5 thoughts on “Tips for Barefoot Running

  1. I think that this is a very healthy and nice post to read and share. Keep it up and have a nice posting and great readership…

  2. Thanks for posting this, Keith. I’ve loved running for ten years now and caught the “minimalist footwear” bug last year, too. I followed almost exactly the conditioning protocol you described. On Saturday I will run my 10th consecutive Sound to Narrows, but it will be my first in the Vibram Fivefingers.

    Keep at it!

  3. These are great tips! These tips will help me to become a better barefoot runner. I like to suggest invisibleshoe.com if you are looking for a pair of barefoot running sandals.

  4. Interesting. I don’t run often but I hoped on the treadmill today and ripped off 5 miles barefoot with only a small blister and absolutely no pain. Had I been in shoes I would not have made it as my flat feet regardless of what type of shoes I am seem to begin hurting after a couple miles. Maybe playing sand volleyball allows me to do that?

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