Barefoot Running: How To Avoid Injury And Reap The Rewards

Last week, I wrote about my first venture into minimalist running, which is also often called “barefoot“, despite the use of shoes. The trend, which the Daily Mail and Huffington Post both identified as one of the hottest of 2011, was too tempting not to step up to–especially since scientists are starting to pay more attention, too. Before barefoot running caught on, the risk of injury was hugely hyped. But after reading up on some opposition, and armed with the loads of feedback from readers about how to avoid injury, I think I’ve cracked the code for an effective, injury-free barefoot run.

One of the main complaints about barefoot running has been the purported potential for injury, due to changes in the way that the foot strikes the ground at the end of each stride. Many kinetic scientists and doctors have expressed concerns that, because runners have been conditioned or programmed to move in bulky, cushioned shoes, the habits they’ve formed may be damaging when they’re exercised without proper padding. But so far, there haven’t been enough studies to show that runners can’t become accustomed to going truly barefoot, or at least minimalist–or even that making the switch necessitates the kinds of injuries that opponents are worried about.

And so, with this information in mind and equipped with a shiny new pair of vegan-friendly Pace Gloves, courtesy of Merrell, I’ve been putting these criticisms (as well as the many, many tips I received from readers–thanks, y’all!) to use. So far, these are the 4 things I’ve learned about how to get the best out of a barefoot run, whether your feet are truly nude, or you’ve got a pair of barefoot-like shoes:

1.) Stand like a ballerina. I don’t mean with your toes turned out–I mean with the crown of your head facing straight up. With regular shoes, we tend to rock backward, running pelvis-first. With barefoot shoes, you’re doing more of the work than the shoes, and you’ve got to lean into the run. It feels awkward at first, but give it a shot. Merrell has a pretty good image of how it looks, if you need an extra visual.

2.)…But don’t run like one. Which is to say, get off your toes. Runners know that running on your toes or the balls of your feet is a quick trip toward shin splints, which no one wants. Start slowly, and make sure that you’re allowing your entire foot–at mid-foot–to hit the ground and flatten. Instead of reaching your forefoot out in front, it should be underneath your hips. You’ll feel a bit like a duck. This is a good thing.

3.) Stretch. Your. Calves. A lot of folks mentioned the fact that, because most of us have grown up on shoes with padded heels, we tend to strike the ground there. With very springy shoes, this reduces reloading time, quickening our stride and basically making us faster. To get similar spring without the artificial sole, our calves pick up a lot of slack. Mine were on fire after my first run on my barefoot shoes. Definitely, definitely stretch your calves. Here’s a guide from the Mayo Clinic on how to do it effectively.

4.) Start small and slow. I was frustrated with my first few runs without my old Bowermans, because I felt slower (when I was outside), clumsier (I was the loudest runner on the treadmills at my gym), and more exhausted. My mile time was outside of my comfort zone, and I didn’t feel prepared for my usual distance. But after a week, I’m finally feeling on top of my runs again…and it’s awesome. But patience and a willingness to scale back seems to be the key. Remember: without 12 ounces of rubber underneath you, your body is doing a lot more of the work.

Barefoot may seem a little fad-ish, but for a lot of folks I’ve spoken with, it’s something that’s changed their runs forever, in a good way. Many have reported a reduction in back and knee pain, and others have noted that it has allowed them to lengthen their stride and reduce reloading time for a faster run–as long as they can keep injury at bay by running and stretching right.

I’ll keep running, if you all keep writing and letting me know what else I need to know.

Image: Thinkstock

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    • jayaresea

      have you been running in them all the time from day 1, or phasing them in? if the former, i worry how you’ll feel in about a month. did Merrell advise less mileage before replacing, “normal” mileage (300-500 miles), or did they say you could run more in these than other, “standard” shoes?

      i definitely fall on the “fad-ish” side. i believe people are replacing one $100 style of shoes with another $100 style of shoes…and possibly experiencing a temporary placebo effect w/their cool new shoes that get people talkin.

      heartfelt thanks though for not doing this experiment in vibrams :)

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Ha, I couldn’t bring myself to be seen in vibrams because I am vain.

        I’ve been phasing them in, mostly with lots of walking in them to get my feet used to them. Though I’ve been hesitant to go off and on, for fear that it will wreck my stride.

        I haven’t heard about replacing these thinner-soled shoes, but can definitely ask the designers at Merrell what their thoughts are.

        Thank YOU for reading!

    • Steven Sashen

      I switched to barefoot 2.5 years ago and haven’t looked back (except to see my injuries in the long ago past ;-)

      Great tips.

      BTW, a non-$100+ option is Invisible Shoes barefoot sandals (www.invisibleshoe.com). VERY barefoot feel, low price, 5,000 mile warranty. It’s all I’ve worn for over two years (including last winter in Colorado and, so far, this one too).

    • Jackie

      It may seem “fad-ish,” but non-minimalist running is really the fad, in the larger scheme of things. Non-padded running was the only type of running until the last 50 (and I think closer to 30 or 40) years.

      I for one love my Vibrams, and wish I had had this list before I originally started a few years ago. I was all about being up on my toes, and I thought I had seriously injured myself with the calf pain the first day after!