Going Barefoot Without Pain: It’s All About Form

I recently bought “barefoot” running shoes.  My new Saucony Hattoris have no arch support, very little cushioning, zero degree decline from heel to toe and virtually zero weight.  These “barefoot,” or “minimalist,” shoes force you to strike the ground with the fore- or mid-foot rather than with the heel, thereby eliminating a lot of the shock to your body that comes with running in traditional running shoes.  This eases up the pressure on your legs, shins, lower back and feet that often leads to the various repetitive stress injuries that plague regular runners.

But minimalist shoes allegedly cause their own problems.  Calf tightness is a common one with people making the transition from traditional to minimalist shoes.  And this leads to many reports on the Internet of people settling into minimalist running only after a year or more of breaking into the new running style.  If you spend only a few minutes Googling minimalist running you’ll hear these recommendations to start slowly–very slowly.

Saucony Hattori

Do These Come with Calf Pain?

Some say to run no more than a quarter mile to a mile every other day, to start, in your minimalist shoes, then increase your distance by no more than 10% each week after that.  Some are even more conservative: they say to first spend weeks walking around completely barefoot, and getting a feel for moving around without shoes.  Then running a few paces, or up to 5 minutes at a time.

These slow-start prescriptions are tough.  Even the more aggressive approaches, which allow 10% greater distance each week you use your minimalist shoes, would require several months before running long distances with your new shoes.  Because I plan to wear my minimalist shoes in a half marathon in October and a marathon in November, and to complete most (if not all) of my training for those events in my minimalist shoes, I’ve been frantically researching alternative approaches.

And I may have found one.  Today, less than a week after I received my shoes, I ran a full six miles in them.  Without calf pain.  Tonight, I’m a little sore; but nowhere near as sore as on day one, before I’d researched some additional methods.

It’s not yet clear that I’m good to go at least 6 miles, every day, in my Hattoris.  But it is clear that I’m doing way more than a quarter mile every other day, and with virtually no side effects in my calves.  How?

It’s not necessarily easy to describe, but here is the main conscious thing I’m doing that seems to be making the difference: Move yourself along by kicking your knees forward, rather than by pushing off on the toes of your planted foot.

This prevents you from using your calves to propel you along with your toes, thereby relieving a great deal of the pressure on them that could otherwise lead to stiffening and soreness.  It also causes your knee to lead your foot, allowing your foot to fall directly under your body, instead of in front of it, and letting you drop from the ball of your foot, which strikes first, immediately (but gently) onto your heel, rather than staying up for some time on the ball of your foot, which again would strain your calves.  So your calves do a lot less work than they otherwise would.

Now, while this seems to work well to prevent undue calf stiffness or soreness, it may not be an efficient form for running itself.  I’m out of shape right now, this being only the second week of my current training session, and it’s tough to know whether this new form is slowing me down, speeding me up or having no impact on my physical conditioning.  Time will tell.  I’ll keep you posted as my training progresses.

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5 Responses to Going Barefoot Without Pain: It’s All About Form

  1. I’ve just gotten started with barefoot running this year myself. So far I’m only doing it on my treadmill, though, because, well, my neighborhood really isn’t suited. I have a couple of pairs of zero-drop shoes that I wear around for work and such, though, and I think they really helped me get used to the feel.
    Have you read ChiRunning? I think that has helped the most with running form (probably even if I weren’t doing it barefoot or in zero drop shoes).
    Nice blog!

    • Doug says:

      Great–happy to hear you’re joining the barefoot team too. I love it and feel so much better doing it.

      I have not read ChiRunning (or, as far as I’m aware, heard of it) but it’s now on my list of resources to check out. From a quick Google search, it looks like there’s a website and a blog (and videos). Are you recommending, the book, the blog, both? Curious what you’ve found to be the most helpful. Thanks!

      • I have the book – I didn’t even know there was a blog! I got the book at the library and it’s not new or anything, so it doesn’t mention it at all. I am recommending because I think that following some of his ideas made my running so much more…effortless. I was able to really relax into my workouts in a new way after reading it!

  2. Pingback: Transition Painlessly and Immediately Into Barefoot Running | Organaholic! Organic Food Blog

  3. Pingback: My First Foray Into Barefoot Running | Organaholic! Organic Food Blog

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