How to Adopt the Barefoot-Running Style
Change Your Running Style for Longer Distances and Improved Times with Zero Pain
I once had a conversation with a fellow sport-science professor in which he dismissed the bestseller Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall as a bastardization of sound coaching advice. He framed McDougall as an amateur and asserted that better books had come along since — ones written by real running coaches.
Well, to this I say that just because a writer doesn’t have a graduate degree in a particular area, doesn’t mean that he or she hasn’t done the research. Take Michael Pollan’s work as a prime example. Like McDougall, Pollan is a journalist by trade, not a dietitian, but due to his research skills coupled with exemplary writing ability, he’s been able to reach people who may have never taken a deep dive into nutrition theory otherwise. (In this same vein, I once heard a rector of a conservative-leaning parish assert that Joseph Campbell of The Hero with a Thousand Faces fame was also a mere “populist” — and he was, in the best possible way!)
All this to say that I happen to be a specialist who thinks McDougall nailed it. To me, his book is a fun-to-read instructional manual on corrective exercise. And as far as I’m concerned, the greater trend toward minimalist running shoes makes loads of sense physiologically. Functional training occurs at the intersection between strength, mobility, and endurance work. It involves not just the so-called health-related components of physical fitness, but also neuromotor components such as balance, agility, coordination, and proprioception. Running the correct way is a skill to be learned and perfected. You train the body to feel the correct stride and then repeat it successfully over increased distances.
And when done correctly, this manner of training also possesses psychological advantage. You can’t effectively make the changeover to minimalist running unless you are present and mindful in the process. This allows one to relax the brain and be in the moment, causing a reduction in stress hormones during, and in the hours following, a good run.
McDougall brought awareness of the barefoot-running method to the masses, and many of us are better off for it. But whether apt to read his book or not, here are a few things for you to consider about the barefoot or minimalist running style that should help you get on the path toward running farther than you ever imagined, pain-free.
Do the Drill
This video I made is a brief demonstration of the running drill/body prep known as the 100-Up. Normally, one would do 50 of “the minor” (first version), followed immediately by 50 of “the major” (adding the foot drop). In the video, I only demonstrate six of each. McDougall is most responsible for reintroducing this to a contemporary audience, but the drill has been around for a very long time. For a lengthier demonstration plus a history of how the exercise came into being, watch this New York Times Magazine video featuring the author himself. (To be clear, McDougall has championed this drill; however, it’s not actually in Born to Run.)
There is no better, more direct step (literally) that you could take to transition toward the barefoot style than the 100-Up. And when I say the “barefoot style,” I don’t mean that you necessarily run without shoes on. I always wear shoes. Like many people, I can’t imagine running across terrain that includes rocks, sticks, trash, and the occasional nail or broken glass without any coverings on my feet. No, you can still adopt the barefoot style without completely shedding your shoes. The drill, however, must be done shoeless (and sockless).
As you can see, this movement is much like running in place, but with a heightened level of awareness and attention to proper foot drop. Do this drill several times a week, as instructed.
Change your shoes
Also at the top of your list should be to begin making the transition toward a zero-drop, minimalist shoe. What does “zero drop” mean? This refers to the angle from heel to toe. In most shoes, your heel is elevated at least slightly. Zero-drop shoes keep your feet more as they would be on flat ground.
Remember that not all minimalist shoes are created equal. Some provide more cushion and/or arch support than others. I would recommend reaching out to a company like Merrell (pictured are two pairs of Merrells I am currently alternating), Topo, or Altra and start asking questions. Try different models. In the photo of my shoes, you can tell just by looking that the pair in the foreground on the left is the more minimal pair. These are very lightweight construction with zilch for arch support. The ones on the right would be more appropriate for a starter model.
Make your transition a gradual one: if you don’t work your way into it, wearing minimalist shoes every other day and with low mileage at first, you’re likely to get sore, or worse, injured. But patience pays off. Most people will find that shifting toward the barefoot-running style and appropriate shoes to match will ultimately make things easier, not harder, on the joints.
Put the Drill in Motion
The main purpose of the 100-Up is to get your body in proper alignment when out on the road or trail. When running, your joints should be stacked and your posture erect. Your body should be pitched forward slightly in a straight vertical line. And your feet should be hitting with a mid-foot strike, not hard heel strikes. Beware of over-striding! This is what can really get you, causing your knees to absorb all that nasty, additional impact.
If you feel the posterior leg muscles during and after a run, especially at first, then you are doing things correctly. The gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles are what push the femur (the upper leg bone) back, consequently propelling your body forward. This movement is called hip extension. As you are running, notice this feeling on the push-off side as you flex (lift) the opposite hip.
Also, notice the glute medius from time to time, which stabilizes the hip as you land and the vastus medialis, which helps to stabilize your knee. Make your landings reasonably soft and smooth. Keep things nice and easy, running as if you don’t have shoes on at all.
Again, not over-striding is the main thing. As stated in Born to Run, whenever there’s a choice between taking one step to two, always take two. Shifting to more of a midfoot strike, rather than a hard heel strike, takes practice, but minimalist footwear makes all the difference. Just think of it this way: If you were to skip the shoes altogether and practice true barefoot running, then over-striding wouldn’t even be possible. It would be too painful! Our modern footwear with all its extra padding and arch support has actually paved the way for bad form. Paradoxically, it has led us toward more injuries.
Having less padding and arch support will force your arches to build on their own. For you yogis, it’s the same thing as working on your Pada Bandha. In fact, Pada Bandha is a helpful exercise for any runner. Stand barefoot and erect with good posture. Imagine three distinct points under each foot: one under the heel, one on the front pad of the foot behind the big toe, and one behind the little toe. You are balancing your weight by standing on these points. Now, lift all ten toes off the ground. Hold them up there. Can you feel the arches of your feet contracting? Continue to hold them up for five to ten seconds and then let them back down. You should still feel the arches engaged. This is another great thing to do throughout the day whenever you don’t have shoes on.
Know how appealing it can seem to stick in those air pods, crank some motivating tunes, and zone out while running? Don’t do it. Instead, be aware of your body and its alignment. If you need to connect with technology, then glance periodically at your favorite fitness-tracker app, instead. Notice what focusing on each individual element of your running style — foot strike, hip/knee flexion on the lift side, hip extension on the push-off side — does to your average-mile and split times.
Feel your toes splay as you plantar flex at the ankle. During the barefoot style, the posterior muscles below the knee also get a big workout.
Focus on the breath. You should always be able to take one or two breaths in and out through the nose. If you can’t help but mouth breathe the entire time, then you are probably pushing too hard.
Be aware of nature. Studies show that unplugging and getting out in nature is good for the brain. We spend so much time reasoning and using language, staying in our prefrontal cortex, that we become overwhelmed by information. The brain needs active rest. It needs to shift into sensory mode. Connecting with your senses — feeling and smelling the breeze, listening to the birds, noticing the seasonal foliage — will leave you with an even more peaceful feeling after the run is over. And you’ll be leaving much more room to notice form while it’s still going on.
To summarize: 1) Change your shoes (gradually); 2) do the drill; and then 3) feel the difference as you put things in motion for longer, swifter distances.
After each run, be sure to stretch. Static stretching (stretch and hold) immediately following each workout will preserve and/or increase mobility, only helping things go more smoothly out on the trail. The emphasis again should be on the posterior musculature of the legs — from the calves all the way up to the glutes — but balance things out with some standing quad and hip flexor stretches, too.
And, of course, hydrate. Water is usually good for runs lasting well short of an hour, but for longer runs and warm-weather runs that leave you drenched with sweat, have some kind of recovery drink containing carbohydrates and electrolytes.
Be patient with this process, and it should pay off for you. Unless you’re part of the comparatively small portion of the population that needs extra shoe support for some anatomical reason, you’ll be better off allowing the muscles and tendons of the feet to do their job. And an added bonus as you train will be increased mindfulness and escape from the noise of busy, everyday life.