The debate over the benefits of “barefoot running” is unlikely to die down anytime soon. However, many dedicated distance runners swear by the “barefoot” or minimalist shoe design that has become so popular over the last few years.
Barefoot running’s popularity is in large part due to the success of Chris McDougall’s Born to Run and a 2010 Harvard University study (that prompted several articles in prominent news sources) proving that barefoot running allows for a comfortable and safe mid-foot or forefoot strike.
When wearing traditional running shoes, the combination of cushioning, weight, and an elevated heel leads runners to strike the ground with their heel first, in turn causing the body to absorb two to three times the body’s weight. While evidence that barefoot or minimalist shoes reduce injuries or help runners gain speed is mostly anecdotal at this point, many runners, such as myself, prefer the lightweight and natural feel of a minimalist shoe.
Transitioning to Barefoot Running
If you think “barefoot shoe” and envision the original Vibran FiveFingers, don’t be alarmed: There are numerous other barefoot shoes out there that aren’t quite as… dramatic. If in the end, you decide to go the FiveFinger route, power to you. However, a good shoe brand to start with is the Merrell Barefoot series. Follow these guidelines to smoothly transition from the clunky running shoes pioneered in the 60s and 70s to the sleek, flexible design of the Merrell Barefoot.
Find Your Running Shoe
When you first take the leap into barefoot running, it’s best to start out with a transition shoe – in other words, a shoe that falls somewhere in between a totally “barefoot” shoe and a traditional running shoe. Merrell Barefoot makes the Run Bare Access or the Mix Master Move, both of which are ideal for runners new to the minimalist style.
The Mix Master Move is made for runners that will be covering a variety of terrain, from rocky trails to the streets. It features a 4 mm drop (i.e. 4 mm difference between height of heel and height of forefoot) which will require less of an adjustment on the runners part than a 0 mm drop.
The Mix Master Move also has 8 mm of cushioning, so you’ll start out with a softer stridethan you would with a true barefoot shoe, making distance runs a bit more comfortable. The shoes weighs in at about 8 oz, quite a few ounces lighter than a traditional shoe.
A better option for road runners might be the Merell Bare Access 3, particularly if you’ve already been running in lighter-weight shoes or shoes that don’t put much distance between your foot and the ground. With 0 mm drop and weighing in at just 6.5 oz, the Bare Access will allow your feet to land flat, but with more heel-to-toe cushioning (8 mm) than you’d find in shoes made for experienced barefoot runners.
Practice the Mechanics and Train Your Body
After you’ve determined which barefoot shoe is right for you, it’s time to start practicing the mechanics of barefoot running. That’s right – you have to do more than just switch shoes. While transitional shoes are designed so that athletes can run with a traditional heel strike and not get injured, if you ever want to fully transition, you’ll have to learn and practice the mechanics.
There are three main things you’ll be working toward: landing flat on your midfoot or forefoot first, keeping your body in natural alignment, and taking shorter, faster strides. As a barefoot runner once told me, you’ll want to imagine you’re running on ice and trying not to fall; in other words, rather than pushing off ground, you’ll want to pick your foot up, keep it parallel to the ground and land lightly.
You’ll observe right away that this type of running will work your calves, Achilles, and arch muscles more than “conventional” running. This means you’ll want to work out these muscles to slowly strengthen them. The good news is that once you’re used to barefoot running, you won’t feel strain on these muscle groups; instead your body will feel lighter as you move ghost-like through the streets. You’ll start to notice that when you’re running up behind groups of people, they won’t even hear you coming!
This video from Dr. Mark Cucuzzella of the Natural Running Center shows the proper technique for barefoot running:
Here are some exercises to start preparing your feet for the barefoot transition, provided by Dr. Marybeth Crane, a board certified foot and ankle surgeon and marathon runner:
Start Running Barefoot
Once you’ve got the hang of the technique and have started strengthening your calf and foot muscles, it’s time to start running. However, there are some things to remember:
In your first week of minimalist running, don’t run more than a mile or so. If the strain on any muscle becomes painful, simply stop or switch to your old running style for the remainder of your run.
At first, it may seem like you’ll never get acclimated to this new way of running. It takes some time, but you’ll build up the necessary muscle groups, and before long your body will adjust so that running with the proper technique feels more natural. After all, it is natural.
Switch shoes if you want to go for a long run.
You should not do long distance runs in your barefoot shoes if you’re new to this type of running.
Move up the Barefoot Ladder
Once you’re fully transitioned, you may chose to spring for shoes that more closely simulate actual barefoot running. For instance, the aptly named Merrell Road Glove fits just like a glove to your foot. With 0 mm drop, only 4 mm of cushioning, and a lightweight design, this shoes was conceived for natural running. A tad bit of additional padding and protection from the elements is all that separates your foot from the ground.