Barefoot Running: The 411 On Hitting The Pavement Without Shoes

By Alexis Wolfer

As the weather starts to warm and many of us will kick off our winter shoes and take our workouts outdoors. But, we had to wonder: should we really be doing both at the same time and working out barefooted?

Elite runners have, for some time, been training sans-shoes. The argument holds that running without shoes is how our bodies we’re initially designed to move and that tossing the fancy running shoes to the wind can actually make us more adept at going the distance. But just because our bodies we’re initially designed to grow full-on body hair to keep us warm doesn’t mean that laser hair removal can’t still be a girl’s best friend. We have sweaters for warmth. Long leg hair is no longer needed.

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So, are our running sneakers a necessary (and welcomed) invention designed for comfort (perhaps one that wasn’t available to our barefoot-running predecessors)? Or is hitting the road barefoot really a more adaptive way of getting your workout on? To find out more, we turned to Stacey Lei Krauss, president and founder of The willPower Method and a barefoot exercise trainer, to learn more.

It seems as if barefoot running is making a serious comeback (albeit from long, long ago), if you will. Why do you think that is?
There has been a recent growing awareness of barefoot running thanks to the Christopher MacDougall’s best selling novel (and soon to be movie – with Matthew McConaughey) which has made consumers more aware of the benefits of running without shoes. In addition, the launch of the Vibram FiveFinger Shoes has provided a way for us to benefit from running barefoot in a way many of us are more comfortable with.

So, what are the benefits of running barefooted?
Exercising barefoot (or while wearing a minimalist shoe like the Vibram FiveFingers) strengthens the feet and lower legs, improves range of motion, stimulates neural function (thereby improving balance and agility), evenly distributes your bodyweight for proper posture and spinal alignment, allows the body to move naturally and generally reduces the risk of injury.

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Is it only for elite runners, or can anyone do this?
Running barefoot is for anyone who is willing to take the time to reconnect with their feet (develop strength, endurance, flexibility and neuromuscular connection – in a part of our body that has been ignored) and the patience to take the time to slowly acclimate.

What do we need to know before getting started?
You need to know your own feet, understand the problems as well as the benefits of the running surface that you have chosen and work on a plan to both strengthen your feet and “relearn” how to run. You should also practice foot strengthening exercises for 2-3 weeks prior to running.

Are there ways to “ease” into it?
Be patient. Gradual acclimation will ensure safe progression. When initiating a foot fitness program, your feet may be weak, stiff and generally unfit. During your first month, train a maximum of 10% of your weekly distance. For a safe and efficient barefoot run, always allow time for a foot specific warm-up. And, since proper technique is essential, practice by jogging on an incline on a treadmill. Be sure to stretch your calves afterwards – they’ll be sore!

Are there any tips for protecting our feet until they toughen up? Are rough, callused feet part of the deal?

Run in a minimal shoe to start (like the Nike FREE, which is very flexible and lightly cushioned or the Vibram FiveFinger shoe, which is without cushioning and support) and prepare yourself with the above steps. Also, know that calluses are not bad – they are simply thick skin.

Other than perhaps less-than-sexy soles, what are the risks associated with barefoot running?
Stress Fractures, tears, strains can occur by over training or being overzealous. Barefoot training should be a progression (so this may mean running out your door, with your shoes in your hands, and only running for a mile… and then putting your shoes back on for the remainder of your run).

Not convinced? Here’s how to find the perfect running shoe for you!

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