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How Barefoot Running Makes You a Better Runner

A Short Guide to Barefoot Running Shoes

Barefoot running has the potential to make you a better runner – that idea is around at least since the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall was published. Although many people write barefoot running off as a short-lived trend, there are a number of benefits you should know about. In this interview with the barefoot running expert Ralf Kusterer, who is also a passionate trail runner, you’ll find out how to make your training more effective and how to get started.

 

How can runners benefit from adding barefoot runs into their training schedule?

Running barefoot is the most natural way of running. In barefoot running shoes, your body will automatically adapt its natural running form. In the long run, this can prevent injuries. If you’re just starting out, it is essential to increase your barefoot running mileage very slowly because going too fast and too far in the beginning might have contrary effects. However, if you give your body enough time to adapt to your new training tool, it will make you more injury-resistant.

 

On the other hand, you also shouldn’t get rid of your running shoes. While conventional running shoes provide arch support and come with cushioning, they also cover up muscular weaknesses. Barefoot running shoes, however, can help us work on these weaknesses. While you can certainly run without any barefoot shoes and get the same results, they protect your feet from cuts and infections.

What’s the greatest difference between conventional and barefoot running shoes?

Barefoot running shoes are zero-drop shoes because there is no height difference between heel and forefoot. The extreme flexibility of the sole allows your feet to move naturally, which means that your foot muscles and Achilles tendons have to do the work that normally the shoe would do for you. Another difference is that in barefoot shoes, you can feel the ground you’re running on. These sensory stimuli are lost when you’re wearing conventional shoes.

Which barefoot running shoes are best for me?

When deciding which barefoot shoe to buy, you should first consider if you want a shoe with separate spaces for each toe like the Vibram FiveFingers or a minimalist shoe with a single toe box. The Vibram FiveFingers fully incorporate the concept of barefoot running as every toe gets to move actively and adapts to the ground. For people who don’t like the extra fabric in between the toes, minimalist shoes like the New Balance Minimus Trail 10v1 are a good alternative.

What about foot deformities like hallux valgus or splayfoot?

Barefoot shoes, especially those with separate toe boxes, are the perfect training and therapy device to treat hallux valgus or splayfoot. Each toe is in its natural position and is forced to move actively, which means that the extensors and flexors of the toes are strengthened. In a normal shoe, the toes stay passive and a high heel drop increases the pressure on the forefoot.

Are there any health risks with barefoot running?

Increasing your barefoot running mileage or pace too quickly leads to too much stress in your feet and lower legs. That’s why it is important to build up mileage very slowly, so that the body has enough time to adapt. Ambitious runners are often more at risk of running too fast and too far in barefoot shoes. While their well-trained cardiovascular system isn’t impacted by the change of running shoes, this is different when it comes to tendons, ligaments, and joints. These do not only have to buffer the pounding now that there’s no artificial cushioning, but also need more time to adapt to new stresses and strains.

How should runners increase their barefoot running mileage?

No matter if you’re a beginner or an experienced runner – when you’re running barefoot, you should focus on your form and start at a slow pace. Here’s my short guide to barefoot running:

 

  • Level 1: Start with wearing your barefoot shoes in everyday life for about an hour a day, alternating between walking, sitting, and standing. Your feet have to get used to the absence of the cushioning and support of normal shoes.
  • Level 2: After three or four days, you can start going for short walks. Those should not be longer than an hour.
  • Level 3: Once your muscles don’t get sore anymore, you can extend your walks to up to two hours.
  • Level 4: Only when you don’t feel any soreness after longer walks, you can start running in barefoot shoes. Run and walk in intervals of two minutes. While the intervals should have the same length in the beginning, you can extend the running intervals until you can run at an easy pace for an hour.
  • Level 5: When you’re able to run consecutively, start increasing the pace.

 

As soon as you notice your running from change from a midfoot strike to a heel strike, take this as a sign that your body is not yet strong enough to sustain barefoot running for a longer period of time. In this case, you should switch back to walking or shorten your run. Always keep an eye on your running form and use it as a way to determine the length of your intervals.

What else should I know about barefoot running?

Although barefoot running can have tremendous benefits, it’s not the answer to everything. Barefoot shoes are training devices that help you work on specific problems, while conventional running shoes protect and support. Our body is a creature of habit. If the body receives the same stimuli again and again, it will adapt but it won’t evolve and improve. By switching your running shoes, your body is exposed to different stimuli which makes your training more effective.

 

There are four parameters to consider when choosing the right trainers for your run: distance, pace, terrain, and level of muscle fatigue.

  1. Distance: The longer you run, the more cushioning you need.
  2. Pace: The faster you run, the lower the heel drop should be because the ground contact time is shorter.
  3. Terrain: When running on trails, choose a shoe with profiled soles.
  4. Muscle fatigue: If you feel recovered, barefoot shoes are a good choice. The day after hard workouts, rather choose well-cushioned shoes to avoid overstressing your feet.

Are there any additional exercises I should do?

Especially when you are increasing your barefoot running mileage, you should do follow-up exercises. Those include stretching, strengthening, and massaging with a foam roller.

 

For stretching, position yourself on a stair standing on your forefoot. Then lower your heel to stretch your calves. Slightly push your knees forward to stretch your Achilles tendon.

 

The strengthening exercise for your calf muscles starts in the same position as the stretching exercise above. Slowly lower your heels and then push upwards. Repeat this about ten times and add one more repeat each time you’re doing the exercise.

 

Foam rollers are a great tool to loosen up your calf muscles. Use a mini roller to massage the bottom of your foot, starting at your heel and going up to your toes. Additionally, you should treat your calf muscles with a large roller to get rid of the tension.

What’s the bottom line?

Barefoot running shoes are a great training tool that you should use to diversify your running, make your training more effective, and to prevent injuries in the long-term.

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About The Author

I did my debut triathlon on a pink kid’s bike with training wheels at 6 years old. That’s where my love for the sport was born, but it would take another decade until I figured out that I wanted to combine my passions for sports and writing. 

 

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