How to Transition to Barefoot Running


Barefoot running is how we used to run as cave-dwellers. Sure, our ancestors might have used some type of animal skin to protect their feet from sharp objects, much like we use our VivoBarefoot or VibramFivefinger shoes today, but in this article ‘The Body Engineer’ aka Alexandra Merisoiu describes the difference between minimalist and barefoot running, followed by how to transition to barefoot, running the risk of injury and what you need to be aware of when the soles of your feet finally hit that trail.

Barefoot and Minimalist – What’s the Difference?

The two terms are used in the same contexts, that’s because in all honesty, there isn’t much difference. However, barefoot is barefoot, meaning no shoes. Barefoot is skin against the earth, it’s “wearing nothing on the feet” – dictionary definition. We can’t really use the term “barefoot shoes”. I mean, it is barefoot or is it a shoe? Hmm.. Thus ‘minimalist’ is a more correct term to use when talking about the shoes without support, or very little support. Then we know what we are trying to communicate to other people, they know what we mean and everyone is up to speed from the word ‘go’.

The Transition

Why you need to go through the transition process if you want to run barefoot..

Question: what happens if you hold your forearm in a cast for one month?

Answer: muscles atrophy (muscles waste away), and weaken because they are not used. You don’t use it, you lose it, sounds cheesy but it’s pretty true. Wearing shoes (or ‘platforms’, as my coach used say) which support your muscles, ligaments and tendons, put your foot and core muscles into a dormant state. Much like what’s happening to the arm muscles inside that plaster-cast. Of course wearing shoes doesn’t have such a dramatic effect, but you’d be surprised how wearing them changes your body posture and how it functions. When you put your minimalist shoes on or run barefoot all those dormant muscles will wake up and start working. That’s a good thing, or it would be if they were strong enough to take on the mission… But they’ve been dormant for years and cannot support the body, the impact and the new movement. This is a perfect recipe for injuries, runners often kick off their regular shoes pop on their new minimalist shoes or go barefoot and think they’re good to do a 10k or a marathon. Many runners have complained about injuries after running with certain brands of minimalist shoes, I tell people all the time ‘It’s NOT the shoes!’ With barefoot, you need to learn to walk again. Everything changes, including the alignment of your body.

You want to transition in a way that will not shock your body, in a way that allows the muscles to develop the way they need to. I talk from experience. Transitioning I pulled a tendon behind one of my knees, couldn’t place the foot on the ground for a week, and had limited range of movement for 1 year. So I’m well-qualified to tell you what not to do and in turn how to transition in the most positive and successful way.

How to.. Step-by-Step

Let’s assume you are an experienced runner who runs marathons, wears shoes all the time while training outside and indoors, but you’ve heard about this barefoot malarkey and fancy giving it a go. You have 2 options:

1) Transitioning through minimalist shoes which offer gradually less support (i.e Inov8 shoes)

2) Go straight to shoes with no support or barefoot running

If you go with option 1, Inov8 have heel drop measurements to guide you. Once you are used to, let’s say a 9mm drop shoe, go down to 6mm, then 4 and so on, every 4 weeks or so. If you go with option 2 things get complicated and patience and awareness are needed.

Here is an example of how to approach the transition:

First 2-3 weeks – go barefoot indoors and in your garden, no shoes, no socks, daily for as long as you can. If you’re ate home or in someone else’s you go barefoot. Simple.

Next 2-3 weeks – walk barefoot to the corner store, to the neighbours, anywhere you need to go and can walk barefoot; slowly increasing the distance and amount of time you spend shoeless.

Next 2-3 weeks – run 5 min as part of your run or a separate run, maybe to the corner of your street a few times; 5 min only! Preferably on soft ground (always better on soft ground no matter how you run). Change shoes for the rest of your activity if you make this as part of a longer run.

Next 2-3 weeks – increase to 10 min, or longer distance or as you feel comfortable.

From here you add 5 min every couple of weeks. It took me 6 months to transition. I was also training barefoot in natural movement, outdoors for hours, so I was barefoot in the forests for long periods of time.  After 3 months I told my coach I was ready to take on a running only session, with sprints, with my Vibram Fivefingers. I insisted. That’s then I injured myself. Then it took another 3-4 months after the injury, to transition and be able to run barefoot.

The Barefoot 411

1) Your body – muscles, tendons, ligaments – has no idea what’s going on. It’s never done this beofre, it needs to re-learn what barefoot means. Your muscles will work extra hard. Give them time to develop – foot, ankle, knees, hips, glutes, core, posture everything will respond in a different way when the support – shoes – are out of the equation

2) Safety – be aware of what you step on, whether you go barefoot or have a thin sole, you can step in nails or broken glass.

3) Ankle injuries – until your ankle muscles get strong enough you must be careful where you place your feet. Ankle injuries are very common. With my clients we do a lot, a lot of ankle strengthening exercises through our Natural Human Movement training programme.

Finally I’ll leave you with one last thought: If everyone went barefoot, the world would be a much cleaner, safer, more calm and peaceful place, don’t you think?

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