The Four Stages of Barefoot Running
By Rick Morris
Remember when you first learned to run? You probably started out with some short easy sessions and gradually built up in both speed and distance. You started out as a beginning runner and advanced through several stages. There are a lot of different stages you may have progressed through including a beginning runner, recreational runner or competitive runner. Any skill or physical challenge has similar stages, including barefoot running.
Training for barefoot running requires a bit of patients and has its own unique stages or phases that you will need to pass through in sequence. Each barefoot running stage will prepare you to safely and effectively begin the subsequent stage. Sure, you could jump straight from stage one to stage four. For that matter you could skip them all are leap right into stage four, but your feet and lower leg muscles would almost certainly consider turning you into the authorities for abuse.
Here are our four stages of barefoot running.
Tenderfoot is a very appropriate term for the first stage of barefoot running for two reasons. Tenderfoot is slang for a beginner. You may be an experienced runner but in this first phase of barefoot running you are a beginner. The second and by far the more up close and personal reason is the fact that your feet are very tender if you have never run barefoot before. In this stage you will begin to toughen both the tender soles of your feet and your underdeveloped lower leg muscles. In the tenderfoot stage you may not be doing a lot of barefoot running. Even a running a short distance can cause soreness and irritation to the soles of your feet. Your lower leg muscles are forced to deal with new stresses as they try to stabilize your unshod feet. Start by simply walking around the inside and outside of your home in your bare feet before moving on to very short barefoot running workouts of a 400 meters or less on soft surfaces. Take it slow and let your feet and muscles gradually strengthen and adapt before moving on.
Have your feet and legs toughened up a bit? Then you’re probably ready to move on to stage two – the cushiony cruiser. In this phase your feet and lower legs have begun to adapt to the new stress and you’re ready for longer and faster barefoot training. In this stage you are ready to run longer distances on soft surfaces such as sand, artificial turf and smooth natural grass surfaces. The soles of your feet are tough enough to withstand extended and more intense workouts on these cushiony surfaces. In addition to running longer distances, start to add in some barefoot strides or barefoot sprinting. Not only will it feel great but it will further strengthen your feet and the stabilizing muscles in your lower legs. You should also notice that you are falling into a more natural, compact and efficient running stride.
Are you feeling nice and strong on the softer surfaces? Now it’s time to pound the pavement. It would be nice if all of your running was on soft surfaces but if you’re going to become a barefoot runner you will need to condition your body to run barefoot on harder pavement and packed dirt surfaces. In this phase your feet and lower leg muscles become even stronger and tougher from running on very hard surfaces. Work into this phase very slowly. Don’t go out and run a barefoot marathon on concrete. Start with just a couple of miles on pavement and gradually build up in both distance and pace. Start to run barefoot in both cool and hot weather. You will need to toughen your feet to withstand some hot asphalt from time to time. I wouldn’t suggest running in the snow just yet. The risk of frostbite isn’t worth it.
Now that you toughened your feet enough to withstand pavement pounding your ready for the next phase – the barefoot warrior. You’ve already toughened your feet and muscles to the point that you can run barefoot on almost any relatively smooth surface and in nearly any conditions. Now it’s time to start doing some barefoot running on rougher surfaces or the smooth and gentle trails. I want to emphasize smooth and gentle trails. You can usually find these types of trails and surfaces in city parks and other similar areas. For your safety, do not even attempt to run barefoot on mountain trails or steep, rocky and technical trails. You could slip, fall or do major damage to your feet.
Just as with the other phases you should gradually build up your tolerance to uneven, rougher surfaces. Those small sharp rocks can still cause some damage. Begin with just 400 to 800 meters of running on trails. Gradually build up to longer barefoot running sessions. Keep in mind that even in the barefoot warrior stage you will need to watch out for sharp rocks, thorns or anyother trail or road debris that could cause injury. Barefoot running requires much more focus and concentration than shod running because you are missing that layer of protection the shoes provide you.
Congratulations, you’ve increased your injury resistance and improved your running efficiency and stride. You can race any distance in your bare feet. You are a true barefoot warrior. Enjoy your new barefoot running life. Just remember to use common sense. There are certain times and certain conditions in which running barefoot just isn’t a smart move. Stay smart and have fun.