When your Friends ask, “How can you possibly run barefoot?”
Tell them Where to Go!
Walking and Running, Barefoot or Shod
The principles on this page pertain to walking as well as running; to shod as well as barefoot, especially the principles of learning and making walking and running less work (more efficient), less stressful (more gentle), and more fun (more graceful).
Faster, Further and Frequently
You will be able to run further, faster, and more frequently, sooner, if you start at the beginning. -Ken Bobism
I’m not saying that we all must run barefoot all of the time. Not every run, or every part of a run needs to be about learning and changing and growing. But when we want to learn how to run more gently, we can learn much faster with our bare soles on stimulating terrain. Just as it’s easier to learn how to throw darts when we can see where are darts end up after we let them go, it’s easier to learn to run, when our soles can directly feel the forces traveling through them into our body.
All of the forces that cause the repetitive stress type injuries most common among distance runners, pass through the sole of our foot (or shoes). Therefore, it makes sense that our soles are abundantly endowed with nerves to let us know when we’re putting too much stress on our body (or soles). If it’s comfortable to run barefoot on a variety of terrains (and you should be practicing on a variety of terrains, not just comfortable terrains), then there isn’t much stress or strain being put on our soles, and therefore, not much stress or strain passing through the soles into the body to cause damage over the long term.
Barefoot Running technique doesn’t necessarily begin with the foot, but everything we do with the rest of our body is reflected by how the foot interacts with the ground. And our bare sole lets us know IMMEDIATELY, and EMPHATICALLY, with EACH and EVERY STEP if we should be changing the way we are moving our body. And ultimately, that is why barefoot running (not minimalist footwear running) has helped improve the running technique, and reduce the injury rate of so many people who would not be running had they not discovered barefoot running.
Likewise, Barefoot Running doesn’t necessarily begin with running. In fact far too many people start running barefoot with little or no consideration as to why it works. You can run barefoot for miles and miles on grass, smooth asphalt, sand, etc., and learn little or nothing about how to run more safely. The whole reason barefoot running helps, is feedback. And what better place to get feedback than on rough surfaces? So instead of avoiding “uncomfortable” surfaces from the start, try instead using these “stimulating” surfaces to help you learn earlier how to stand, walk, and eventually run more gently, gracefully, and efficiently.
And if you can’t run for a few steps comfortably on rough surfaces, then you aren’t ready to run barefoot, or in minimalist footwear for any significant distance. If you want to wear minimalist footwear to run further than your bare feet and technique are ready for, then you should really not be surprised when/if you get injured.
It the way you move hurts your soles (that’s excess stress passing through your soles, due to the way you’re standing, walking, or running), it’s likely going to injure you in other parts of your body eventually (this is precisely the reason our soles are so sensitive, they are our first warning to change the way we are moving). Run comfortably, or change the way you run so that it is comfortable (especially on rough terrain), or don’t run at all. But realize that most pains while you’re running barefoot are warning messages to change the way you are running.
Gravel and rough terrain should NOT be avoided when you’re trying to learn how to run gently while barefoot. Standing, or walking and running a few minutes on uncomfortable terrain will teach you more about running gently than months of running on comfortable terrain, or in any kind of footwear.
The only reasons people get repetitive stress type injuries while running, is because they repeatedly put excess stresses on their bodies and/or feet. If they were barefoot on stimulating (rough asphalt or gravel), they would have known immediately and emphatically that they should have changed the way they were standing, walking, or running!
If you’ve already suffered a stress fracture, or tendinitis etc., you have another avenue of feedback to let you know when you’re putting too much stress on your injury. If your injury hurts while you’re moving the way you’re moving, then you’re still putting the same kind of stress on your foot that injured it in the first place. CHANGE, figure out how to move in a way that does not hurt your body, and especially the injured area, if you cannot, then rest and recover first.
Relax, relax, relax. Tension causes pain. Pain is a message that we may be leading ourselves toward injury. Avoid pain and you will learn to run more gently, more relaxed. Relax, relax, RELAX!
The goal of running is, at it’s simplest, to move our body forward.
We tend to move in the direction we are facing. So our face AND our feet should be facing forward.
A vertical building is less likely to topple over than one that is leaning. Keep the torso, head, and neck vertical and balanced on top of one another. This reduces tension and strain in trying to support a “leaning tower”.
I was going to add something about leaning a bit when accelerating wildly, like if you were sprinting… but watch Usian Bolt sprinting a mere 100 meters, he’s accelerating most of the time he is running, yet his torso has little if any detectable “lean”… For distance running, there is no need to accelerate constantly, unless we stop with each and every step (over-striding, and heel-striking). But that would be a silly waste of forward momentum!
Twist, Don’t Shout
We want to move our body forward. To do this most efficiently, our supporting foot should be landing underneath our center of balance, along a single line that is traveling in the same direction we want to run.
Hips twist to help the legs swing toward our center-line
Shoulders and hips twist in opposite directions to counterbalance each other
Unlike putting each foot down along two different but parallel lines, this twisting does not shift our weight from side to side, because the rotation is balanced and along a vertical axis, so that our center of balance continues moving forward, even as our body is twisting around the center.
While I do keep my feet following a single line, I’m not focused on keeping my feet on that single line. Instead I focus on a point in the distance in the direction I want to run. I aim, and I run! My feet follow me. Rather than trying to rotate the hips, relax, and let your hips rotate.
Bend Knees, Hips, and Ankles
Your knees are your springs. By bending the knees, relaxing and letting your hips and ankles and knees flex naturally as your body weight loads on your feet, you are loading your natural springs. As your body moves in front of your supporting foot, the springs naturally begin to release and propel us forward. So while their is a forward push, it isn’t a conscious effort on our part to push forward.
There are 3 opportunities to put excess stress of the foot while running or walking.
While barefoot on stimulating terrain, it is obvious when we are doing any or all of these. Shoes – even minimalist footwear – mute these messages.
The first, of course, is on landing, trying to point our “toes” toward the ground for a fore-foot landing.
The second, is mid-stride. Trying to stay up on the forefoot for the entire stride
The third is on lift off, or oftentimes mistaken as “push-off”.
To correct these mistakes:
- Do NOT push your feet, or point them toward the ground. In fact, I have found it helps to prevent blisters on the toes to actually curve the toes up GENTLY when the foot is landing. DO allow the toes to touch, but they should NOT be the first part of the foot touching.
- Lift your feet quickly, so your body doesn’t need to bob up and down excessively. Steps should be short (in time, not necessarily distance).
- Lift your feet early, so that your knees are bending as you land.
- Lift your entire foot, not only the heel. Instead of simply pulling your heel off the ground – leaving your toes and forefoot to bear the brunt of your weight – make a slight relaxed “effort” to lift your forefoot and toes,
The more frequently your feet support your body, the more smoothly your body travels across the landscape. The easiest way to increase cadence is to run easily. That is, if you push your feet harder into the ground, you’re launching your body higher, which means you’ll need to wait longer between steps for your body to come back down again. That gives your gravity more time to accelerate you harder into the ground on landing. Do NOT push your feet into the ground (don’t worry, gravity will bring your foot down anyway, no need to help it). If you’re following all of the other advice on this page, your springs will be working naturally to push your body forward and up (just enough to make up for the fall between steps), so no need to try to push your feet into the ground.
In fact, in Ken Bob’s Play-Fun-Shops, we have found that simply by focusing on moving the vertical body forward (with knees bent), faster cadence will happen very easily, in the range of 190-210 or even higher.
The more of your sole that supports your body, the less the strain is on the foot. It’s the old bed-of-nails principle; a 200 pound person being supported by one small sharp pebble has 200 pounds resting on that one point. The same person using their entire sole to support them across a hundred small pebbles only has 2 pounds of pressure on each point. Relax, let your soles spread out, and comply (conform) with the terrain as much as practical.
Lift your entire foot. Many people who over stress their feet, do so on the trailing edge of the stride. That is, as they lift their foot off the ground, they lift the heel mostly, and the fore-foot and toes are left pushing-off, putting excess strain on the foot (and calves). Make a slight relaxed effort to lift the fore-foot (the heel will come up too)… the foot won’t actually lift off all at once, or parallel to the ground, but just putting the effort into lifting the fore-foot will take a lot of strain off the foot.
Quite often when I talk about lifting the feet and bending the knees, people want to cut out a few words and end up with “lift the knees”… which, as you can see from the following simulation leads to moving backwards (start at about 0:16):
Another common mistake is to push off with the trailing foot, instead of simply lifting. This is often done so that you can launch your body high into the air, allowing you to bring your leg forward without much need to bend the knee. This is a LOT MORE WORK, and unnecessary (the foot us lighter and less work to lift than the body). Trying to launch the body up defeats the purpose of having springy muscles in our legs, which only work if we allow our knees to bend, and load those springs. Trying to launch the body up causes greater impact on landing, because we’re falling from higher up, and have more time to accelerate. It makes our stride long (in time, not longer in length – it just feels longer, because we’re moving slower). It requires more work to push, because we have defeated the purpose of those springy muscles and tendons in our legs.
Lead with your center, not the feet, not the shoulders, not the head!
While standing in place, you can begin to run in place by lifting your feet (not launching your body up), just the feet, by bending the knees (NOT lifting the knees).
Now, simply relax your calves, let your hips fall in front of your feet (torso vertical above the hips) so that you feel like you’re going to fall forward … which is exactly what you want to do. It’s so much easier to simply fall forward than to try to push your body with your feet.
What I mean by “lead with the hips” is this isn’t a “lean”, there is no reason for the head, to be in front of your shoulders, or your shoulders in front of your abdomen, or your abdomen to be in front of your hips. These should all be stacked vertically on top of each other (preferably keeping the head on top, not on the bottom!)
Basically, we take the entire hips, torso, shoulders, head, while in good posture (vertical, but not tensely rigid), and move in front of our feet. No need to think too hard about this. Move the body forward, in the direction you want to go, and the feet will follow!
If it hurts the soles of your feet, then you’re putting excess strain on other areas of your body too. Our sensitive soles are our first line of defense against running, literally, “senselessly”, or ignorantly.
Go back to the beginning, even if you aren’t in pain while running, go back occasionally to fine-tune, and improve your technique.
Ultimately, running is about moving forward. So if nothing else, focus on moving your body (not your feet) forward. But do move your feet forward, just don’t make that your primary focus. If you move your body forward, your feet should follow.