Tue. May 26th, 2020

How to transition to barefoot running successfully

6 min read

Making the transition to barefoot running is difficult to do successfully. Done poorly it can easily lead to injury that stalls your running. Done correctly it can be very rewarding and gives you a very real possibility of running injury free for the long term.

Whilst difficult, it is a risk worth taking as the benefits are very rewarding. There are steps you can take to give yourself the best possible chance to transition successfully. There is much more to a successful transition then just running in barefoot shoes. 

Here we’ve outlined the major steps and precautions you should take to give yourself the best chance at transitioning successfully and without injury.

Transition slowly

When you make the decision to transition to barefoot style running be very cognisant that the process is a marathon and not a sprint. It will take months or years rather than days or weeks. Most of us are inclined to think it can happen quicker but the facts are it will take time and you have to be prepared for this. Just how much time is different for each of us.

There will be times when you feel like you aren’t making progress. Be aware that you are making progress, it just takes time. The basic premise behind transitioning is to slowly increase the amount of running completed in barefoot style shoes.

This does not mean you need to drastically reduce the mileage you are currently running. You can slowly increase the barefoot mileage and decrease the traditional shoe mileage. Start with as little as 10 min at the end of each run and do this until you feel comfortable to increase. Increase until you can run for 20-30 min barefoot without any discomfort and then schedule entire runs in barefoot shoes. Then start to increase how many of your runs are barefoot, it could be one run a week and then increase.

You can measure your progress by how tight your calves and Achilles tendons feel. And also whether you have pain in your feet. If you are transitioning to completely barefoot running you’ll also need to factor in your skin transitioning to running on foreign surfaces.

Measure and document how you increase, write in a diary the amount of barefoot running each time and as you increase. Let your barefoot running develop by itself and try not to force it, this will lead to injury. This is why a patient transition is the transition worth having.

Measure your cadence

You often read or hear about 180 steps per minute being the optimum cadence for barefoot running. This is not necessarily the case for every runner, therefore 180 should not be looked at as a panacea but a goal to work towards.

While 180 may be the optimum cadence it may be difficult for many runners to drastically increase cadence. At first we should measure our current cadence we are running. This can be done on your next run by simply counting the steps on one foot for one minute. Multiply by two for your current cadence.

For example. If your current cadence is 150 steps per minute. An increase of 20% to get to 180 is difficult to achieve. This equates to 1 x extra step every 2 seconds. It is a large jump and can often leave you breathless after just a short period running.

Form a cadence strategy for yourself. Increase your cadence slowly and strategically over a 4-6 week period. If your current cadence is 150 increase by 5% or 8 steps per/minute. This is very achievable and leave you confident in yourself. Use a metronome app on your phone to measure your cadence increase. Alternate between 2-3 minutes with and without the sound of the metronome. The goal is for your body to adapt to the new cadence.

Over time you can increase further and get closer to 180, however there is no rush to be able to run at a 180 cadence. Like the transition itself cadence should develop and take time.

Foot striking

Barefoot running is often looked at as a forefoot or midfoot striking as opposed to heel striking. This is a half-truth in barefoot running. Certainly eliminating a heel strike is an often a product of transitioning to flatter shoes with minimal cushioning however it is often just the start of the conversation.

If you choose a footwear that is flatter, has minimal cushioning and start to run with a faster cadence there is a likelihood that your foot strike will change and this will be a good thing over time. However if you focus on your foot strike you can over complicate your running and favour a forefoot landing that becomes forced and unnatural. This is the opposite of how you are trying to run as we are aiming to run in a more natural way.

The focus should be on where your foot lands rather than the part of your foot you land on. If you increase your cadence and focus on a foot landing under your centre of gravity you will promote a natural running gait and over time develop a forefoot strike that feels natural.

Foot strike should therefore become a by-product of your running, not a focus of your running. 

Monitor your body

Making the transition to barefoot running will put more strain on your calf muscles and Achilles tendons. These are the trigger points that need to be monitored as they are the most likely areas to get injured if you push yourself too far.

It is important to monitor your body when you transition and understand how an increase in barefoot mileage affects you. Everyone will react differently to the change in muscle adaption that barefoot running places on the body. It is important to monitor these effects and adjust accordingly if necessary. Increase the mileage you are running in barefoot footwear only gradually and pause between increases to let you absorb the new load of training. Let the body adjust to the increase before increasing further.

It is an important to recognise when you increase whether you experience any abnormal pains. While a small amount of soreness in the calf and Achilles tendon areas but any abnormal pain, acute pain or other pain associated with barefoot running should be monitored closely. If this occurs rein yourself and reduce the amount of barefoot running immediately. 

Keeping a close eye on your body through the transition is a vital step. It is allows you to safely manage the new load on your body and have a greater understanding of your running. 

Live a barefoot lifestyle

If you run is the only part of your day that you spend in flat, flexible and minimal cushioning shoes then you will take a significant time to transition successfully to barefoot running.  If you want to give yourself a greater chance at a successful barefoot transition you should prioritise being in minimal footwear or barefoot much more often.

Think of the shoes you wear to work and socially. Are they flat and flexible, have minimal cushioning and enough space for your toes to naturally. If your shoes don’t have these attributes they are part of the problem and not the solution.

Re-evaluate the shoes you wear in your everyday life. If they have the same attributes as your barefoot running footwear they are helping strengthen your feet and ankles. If not they are part of the problem.

The other tactic to employ is spend as much time barefoot as possible. When you don’t have to wear shoes don’t. When you have to prioritise a flat, flexible, minimally cushioned shoe. This is your ticket to a faster, easier transition.

If this leaves you somewhat overwhelmed by the prospect of a successful barefoot running transition remember. What is coming is better than what is gone. Let the belief you have in the benefits aim you in the direction you need to go. In every worthwhile pursuit in life there will be challenges to overcome, using a proven strategy like this will give you best chance possible of being successful.

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